Eleanor Aitken

Founder of the Palestinian charity Unipal
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The Independent Online

From an early age, Eleanor Aitken knew that she wanted to help "poor and unhappy people". As a student she organised collections of small change to make up the £100 guarantee required by the Government to give a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany asylum in Britain. In 1945 she and her husband Michael went as Quaker relief workers to Le Havre, devastated by British bombing. And in the 1950s and 1960s she devoted herself to East-West understanding, Greek political prisoners and Soviet dissidents. She also spent a week in Holloway Prison after taking part in a peaceful anti-nuclear protest.

Eleanor Cornelia Reilly, teacher, editor and campaigner: born Kodaikanal, India 17 August 1917; Honorary Secretary, Unipal 1973-95; married 1944 Michael Aitken (died 1985; one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 10 April 2005.

From an early age, Eleanor Aitken knew that she wanted to help "poor and unhappy people". As a student she organised collections of small change to make up the £100 guarantee required by the Government to give a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany asylum in Britain. In 1945 she and her husband Michael went as Quaker relief workers to Le Havre, devastated by British bombing. And in the 1950s and 1960s she devoted herself to East-West understanding, Greek political prisoners and Soviet dissidents. She also spent a week in Holloway Prison after taking part in a peaceful anti-nuclear protest.

But it was to the plight of the Palestinians that she gave the greater part of her campaigning life, becoming widely known in the UK and in Palestine. She felt that Britain's history in Palestine gave the British a moral duty to understand the Palestinians' need for justice, and to help bring it about.

In 1973, she founded the charity Unipal (Universities' Trust for Educational Exchange with Palestinians). By the time she retired from her role as Honorary Secretary some 20 years later, the organisation had sent more than 600 British volunteers, mostly students, to work in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the Occupied Territories, and brought scores of Palestinian teachers to Britain to live with families and study English. For many years this was organised from a back room at home, a cause of some surprise to visiting Palestinian teachers who expected an office of United Nations proportions.

She was born Eleanor Reilly in Kodaikanal, India, in 1917. When she was two years old she was left in England, and for the next six years was routinely beaten and humiliated by the woman looking after her. Later in life Eleanor wrote that that experience had much to do with her "fellow- feeling for those unjustly treated - a feeling which grew with the years to be a passion".

Her first degree was a BA in French at University College London (in 1966 she took a BA in Russian at Cambridge). She trained as a teacher and saw language teaching as a contribution towards international understanding, and so to fulfilment of the commandment "Love thy neighbour as thyself". In the early 1940s she joined the Society of Friends (Quakers), attracted by their testimony against war. It was there that she met her future husband, Michael Aitken.

She taught Russian part-time for many years and, believing that language should be taught through literature and culture, edited two books of Russian poetry and a Tolstoy short story.

In 1972, she undertook a tour of Palestinian refugee camps. "Gradually," she wrote in her autobiography, Ariadne's Thread: through the labyrinth to Palestine and Israel (1999),

the Palestinian tragedy began to unfold in a living way before my eyes: I saw that thousands upon thousands of people had been forced to flee their country, and had not been allowed by their country's new foreign rulers to return to their homes.

She could not understand how Jews, who themselves had been persecuted, could persecute others.

Aitken became one of the most passionate, courageous and informed advocates of the Palestinian cause in Britain. The response among Palestinians was always warm and deeply appreciative. Her work lives on through the former volunteers who now run Unipal.

Janet Ganguli

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