EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW - With Lord Colin Low of Dalston
Amid all of the political wrangling and turmoil in the Middle East, it’s nice to sometimes come across a more uplifting, human interest story and one such story is the recent visit of Lord Colin Low of Dalston to Gaza. At first glimpse there is nothing particularly moving about a parliamentarian visiting a war-savaged region. It happens all the time and Lord Low was one of many on this particular visit; one of 60, in fact, including MPs and MEPs, making up the largest delegation of European politicians ever to go to Gaza. However, when you realise that Lord Low has been blind from birth, his visit takes on a whole new dimension. Undertaking a journey to Gaza is fraught enough with obstacles and hardship for even the most able-bodied of people, so for a blind person to volunteer to make the journey is an incredibly brave and commendable act.
MEMO sat down with Lord Low in the House of Lords earlier this week and asked what motivated him to make such an arduous journey. He told us that, in addition to the fact-finding aspect that all the delegates were pursuing, they all wanted “to express solidarity with and support for the residents in Gaza.” However, Lord Low also found himself in a unique position whereby he was able to offer one very special message. In a speech he gave at a very early stage of the visit he announced that he would like to deliver “a message from the disabled people of Europe and the world.” He told them that he wanted to express “a message of solidarity and support and… to say to the people who had been injured in the hostilities that there was life after disability and the people of the world are with them.” He said, “This I think, caught their imaginations”. He was very happy that his message was well received. “It was very clear to me that the fact that I, as a totally blind person, had made the journey to Gaza struck a chord with our hosts and they accorded me great courtesy and showed me a great deal of consideration during the visit.”
His sentiment of support was certainly appreciated by all Gazans but it had a special resonance for the disabled people of Gaza, many of whom fit into two unfortunate categories. There are those who have been injured and disabled as a direct result of Israeli military actions, such as the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009; and those who are disabled, for whatever reason, and whose disability is compounded by the illegal siege Israel imposes on Gaza thus restricting their access to treatment, medication, surgery and in many cases life saving treatment.
One encounter that was particularly moving was Lord Low’s meeting with two boys who had been blinded in the horrific Israeli attack just over a year ago. “I was very struck by the spirit of these boys,” he said, “that they seemed undaunted.” He used his own experience to comfort them and he assured 11 year old Louai Subh, “that he would find he could do things with his hands that other people do with their eyes.” He was very pleased that the boys were being educated in a school for the blind and were learning Braille but in that respect they are among the lucky ones as such facilities are rare indeed in Gaza.
Lord Low is now endeavouring to help people like Louai by getting them the resources that they so desperately need. During his visit he met with the member of the Legislative Council who holds the disability portfolio and they discussed the needs of the disabled. Lord Low told MEMO, “She is anxious to set up an organisation for blind people and I’m taking steps to put them in touch with the World Blind Union and also the International Council for the Education of People with Visual Impairment to see if we can get an educational programme going in Gaza.” His priority now is “to try and mobilise some resources that would actually help the disabled people of Gaza who have great needs.”
Lord Low is also currently arranging meetings to see the British Foreign Secretary as well as Baroness Cathy Ashton, the EU Foreign Minister. He made it very clear what needs to be impressed upon them: “The blockade that is currently being imposed is a breach of the human rights of the people of Gaza… the European Union and the British Government need to do more than just utter warm words, fine words, on the subject. They need to use, at a minimum, the leverage of trade sanctions because Israel relies on trade from the UK and Europe. It’s very important. So they need to use what bargaining power they have and that certainly is something we will be impressing on both the Foreign Secretary and Cathy Ashton.”
The visit clearly had a profound effect on Lord Low and when I asked about the scale of destruction in Gaza he told us what the delegates saw: “Factories and farmland that had been destroyed. A community of about three or four hundred houses we went to see had just been razed to the ground. It was just a bomb site and we saw inhabitants, residents living in conditions of the most abject squalor. Three or four generations just in a tent with no washing facilities, just a rudimentary fire in a tray on the ground for cooking, I mean, unimaginable conditions.”
Incredibly, Lord Low said that his visual impairment was in no way an obstacle to him reaching out to the people of Gaza. On the contrary, very movingly, when I asked what impact this visit had on his life at a personal level he replied, “I think what it has done is that it made me aware that my disability was actually a powerful instrument for establishing human contact with people in other cultures, perhaps with those who had similar problems… it became clear to me that it actually was a bridge and it was a way of reaching out to people.”
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