Zerbanoo Gifford was for many years a Liberal councillor for Harrow. She stood for Parliament three times and, as an Asian, faced personal threats and abuse from the National Front and the BNP. She has worked voluntarily for charities such as Shelter, the RSPCA and Anti-Slavery International. Abroad she helped to set up a home for street children in Mumbai.
Zerbanoo’s latest commitment is to the Asha Centre which she founded and co-directs.
All ASHA Centre profits go toward funding its personal development projects with young people from around the world.
The Centre is a historic building, formerly known as Gunn Mill House, in the Forest of Dean.
I visited it a few years ago and remember walking into the forest to bring back drinking water from the ancient St Anthony’s Well.
ASHA’s resident theatre company, works with a variety of groups from Britain and abroad, including young people from South Africa, India and from the inner-cities of Britain. They find that nothing unites people more than the experience of rehearsing and performing a play.
The ASHA Centre regularly hosts Arab and Jewish teenagers from Israel. Together, performances are staged; these have included “Arabian Nights” and “Grimm’s Tales.” The rehearsal process is challenging. Not only do they meet and overcome cultural prejudices, the young people also have to master English as a common language. Both in Britain and back in their own communities audiences have been deeply moved by their performance. It has been described as one of the most meaningful contributions to peace in their respective regions for decades.
ASHA operates a two year apprenticeship scheme in bio-dynamic gardening and throughout the year welcomes volunteers from all over the world who are taught bio-dynamic agriculture by the Centre’s experienced team, growing food which has not been sprayed with chemicals, packaged and transported across continents.
An Energy Centre has newly installed biomass boilers and solar panels. Zerbanoo writes, “The logs of the forest keep us warm, while the sun heats our water and the reserve oil tank lies redundant.”
Since meeting exiled Chagos islanders when Zerbanoo and her husband Richard were on holiday in Mauritius, some years ago, Richard has given his services as a solicitor in the long struggle to enable those who wish to do so to return to Diego Garcia.
One Wikileak revelation was that in May 2009, Colin Roberts, the Foreign Office director of overseas territories, “asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents”. A US state department official commented: “Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT.”
The islanders’ quest to go back will be decided by a ruling, expected shortly, from the European court of human rights.