We have lost one of our greatest fighters for racial justice and human rights and, because she was so self-effacing, you may not even have heard of her.
Apocryphal stories about Mary abound. There was the time when would-be immigrants from the Indian subcontinent in the late 1960s and early 1970s arrived at Heathrow with just two words of English; ‘Mummy Dines to airport information’ would echo over the tannoy. There was the time Mary found herself on the same plane as Enoch Powell. She marched down the aisle to challenge and abuse him as he sat helplessly pinned in by his seatbelt. The time she impersonated a Home Office official and phoned an overseas embassy to have deportees returned to the UK immediately because of a supposed oversight. And they were. The time when families with young babies, because of the Dublin Treaty, were being constantly returned and re-returned on the cross-Channel ferry to France. She took a baby’s soiled nappies and left them on the doorstep of the Home Secretary’s house. The time she and her daughter decided in protest at British racism to renounce British citizenship and take Pakistani citizenship instead. The stories are endless and in fact Mary did most of the telling of them – not because of any ego (she had none) but because of her keen sense of fun. After the telling of each one of her direct action-style pranks, she would throw back her head and give a loud, raucous, throaty laugh.
Mary was nothing if not direct, practical. She did not have time for long ideological debates (though she was always on the Left and served as a Labour councillor in Haringey until she left the party in disgust after it passed the shameful immigration act to keep out Kenyan Asians in 1968). She wanted to get things done, laws changed, people assisted, rights established. And her devotion to achieving these was unrivalled.
Employed by the London Council for Social Service during the 1960s, she became a member of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD). As it began to break up, she with Vishnu Sharma (of the Indian Workers’ Association) and Oxford don Michael Dummett decided in the late 1960s that there was a need for an organisation to provide welfare support and immigration advice to newly arriving communities from the ‘New Commonwealth’ who were being totally neglected by social and welfare services and discriminated against at every turn. They established the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, an affiliation of a host of groups including the Pakistani Welfare Associations, the Indian Workers Associations and the West Indian Standing Conference. JCWI, where Mary and Vishnu were to work, sent someone to Heathrow to help those refused entry, and was first based at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets, later on in Pentonville Road in Kings Cross, and is still currently hard at work in Old Street. There were precisely two solicitors and one barrister in the whole country then who had any knowledge of immigration law. All the rest of the cases were dealt with by JCWI – its hard pressed staff working all hours and all days from downtrodden dingy offices. It was Mary and her colleagues who not only handled thousands of cases but campaigned on issues in the courts and the media – persuading lawyers in the process that there was indeed a need to understand immigration law and even training them in representation and appeals. Mary was there behind the scenes in every crisis, whether it was in the resettlement of thousand of Asians expelled from Uganda by Amin in 1972 or the defence of Italian worker Franco Caprino, one of the first to be threatened with deportation under the ‘not conducive to the public good’ sub-clause of the 1971immigratiom act.
From1976 to 1979 she was general secretary of War on Want where her concerns about injustice broadened from individual plights to group rights. Apart from the courageous stand she took in defending the organisation against the Right and the Charity Commissioners when staff and board members were under attack for making a donation to the Grunwick strike fund, she is remembered for the way she took War on Want in a new political direction – to address the structures that perpetuated poverty and oppression worldwide and support campaigns for global justice. It was at War on Want that Mary became involved in supporting the liberation movement of the people of Eritrea, a passion of hers for the rest of her life. In 1976, using her connections with larger charities like Oxfam, she helped set up the Eritrean Relief Association and in the 1980s helped found and house the Eritrean Community in the UK – both still flourishing today.
Mary’s support for peoples seeking self-determination extended when, with the support of David Astor, she set up Rights and Justice after leaving War on Want. Then she took on a whole host of causes close to her heart including those of the oppressed Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Kurds. Mary helped to set up the Kurdish Workers’ Association in 1986 and later an All Party Parliamentary Kurdistan Group. Asylum Aid was established in 1990 as a casework organisation to complement the work of Rights and Justice.
What an amazing legacy of organisations and campaigns for one person to leave us! But this was an exceptional woman. She hated those in power who abused their position, she was often irked by others in her fields of work, such as lawyers or NGOs, whom she felt did not pull their full weight for their clients. But for lame dogs (or literally cats) she had all the time and all the gentleness in the world. The last three pieces of music played at Mary’s funeral on 29 June summed her up: she was indeed a mixture of the Pastoral, The Red Flag and We Shall Overcome.