One Family's Mission of Hope - June 2009, Eastern Daily Press

"Charismatic Norfolk cleric John Aves found his calling in a Palestinian refugee camp. Now, five years after his death, his family are ensuring his legacy of hope endures as a memorial to his faith."

Rachel Buller, Eastern Daily Press, Sunday 20 June 2009.

His final words were ones of hope, that the courage and dignity he witnessed daily in Palestine were reasons enough to believe that a peaceful solution might some day be found in the embattled region that had captured his heart. Now, more than five years after his death, the family of the Rev Canon Dr John Aves are determined to do everything they can to keep that hope alive.

Despite the enormity of their loss and its cruel suddenness, John's wife Anne and their two sons Ben and Edmund have embraced his optimism and belief that education can help bring tolerance and non-violent solutions to the complex and harsh realities of life as a refugee in Palestine. Rather than be haunted by memories, they have returned to the place where he died to create a new education programme for a generation of Palestinian children who have never known life beyond the cramped confines of the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem where John was based.

Following his sudden death from a heart attack aged 52, just 10 days before he was due to return to Norfolk, it was clear that John had not only touched people's lives during his short time overseas but also in the county. Paying tribute, one parishioner said John was like a firework, such was his energy and spark. Speaking to his wife Anne in her office at City college where she works as a project manager in Learning and Skills Council-funded programmes and projects, you sense that vitality is living on. "That description is perfect." she says. "Life with John was never ever dull."

Bursting with plans and carrying her husband's precious visions of hope close to her heart, she recalls the moment, late on a Sunday night, when they were told the terrible news. "He had talked about the camp so vividly, I knew as soon as I heard he had died we needed to go. Ben, Edmund and I flew out on the Tuesday morning." The three of them have since been to the camp several times, on each occasion finding a greater affinity with the place and its people. For some, the thought of returning to a place full of the last moments of a loved one, could prove too much. "No," she says, shaking her head firmly, "I think we went the other way because the people were just so compassionate to us at the camp. They face death all the time, yet they face it in such a way, we were inspired. It was obvious John had made a real difference and I just knew we couldn't give up on them and walk away." She concedes it was all a bit of a blur as the enormity of their loss sunk in along with all the practicalities which must be tackled death, especially when it occurs in a place that seems completely alien.

"On the second day we were there somehow Yasser Arafat got to hear about John's death," says Anne. "I suppose word gets around. We were told he would like to meet us to award John a posthumous medal for his services to peace. Looking back, it was really bizarre. We had a private audience with him." The Dheisheh refugee camp has a population of around 11,000, all living cramped together in an area of less than a square mile. Tensions can run high here and conditions are difficult and unpredictable, but John found it an inspiring place. "John was quite political but I don't think anything can prepare you for what you find when you get there," says Anne. "Israel is like a western country with perfect roads and pristine white buildings. Then you go through a checkpoint into what is essentially a third world country."

The couple met when she was still at schooling Suffolk. John was involved with Christian Aid and would travel around schools to see if they wanted to set up find-raising projects. "I was 17 when we met, goodness that was almost 40 years ago," she says. "The shock when he died was enormous but if I hadn't had a faith it would have been much harder because I feel John is with me." After working as a curate in the East End of London, followed by a role as a prison chaplain at Brixton, they moved to Norwich where he stayed fro 25 years, working in different communities in the city and surrounding area. "Why did he do a sabbatical?" Anne smiles wryly. "I think he felt he needed invigorating." In 1999, John took over as Diocesan Director of Continuing Ministerial Education, (CME) and his determination to stretch himself intellectually saw him take on a PhD. "He had never worked overseas and when he moved to the CME he began to think he would like to see how Christianity worked in other countries and find out about other faiths. "His PhD was on the Scottish theologian and philosopher John Macmurray.

One sadness that my sons and I have is that I feel John was living out what he had read for his PhD through his experience at the refugee camp. It was like the 'doing bit' of his studies. And John was a doer." With a hint of sadness she says she never got the chance to ask him whether that was the case. "But when I first visited the camp I felt that even more," she adds. When John decided to take the sabbatical he was asked to sit on an Israeli Committee against house demolitions but, laughs Anne, the last thing he wanted to do was sit around a table. "John said he hadn't gone to do committee work, he wanted to be with the indigenous population."

So through the YMCA he found his calling - teaching English at the Dheisheh camp based in a centre run by an organisation called IBDAA. "IBDAA is in Arabic and means ‘to make something out of nothing'. That really suited John." The IBDAA organisation is a grassroots initiative within the camp and helps more than 1,500 children and women every year, providing a safe environment for them to develop skills and express themselves through cultural, educational and social activities not readily available within the refugee camps or occupied Palestine. John was greatly impressed during his time at the centre and it remains the focal point for Anne and the boys' work.

"One thing my sons particularly enjoyed about him teaching was that the kids on the camp didn't want to know about John's interests, they wanted to know about our sons' interests, about football and music. So John would phone home and ask the boys about this and that. It was a really nice bond. He had many, many conversations with them while he was away which was so great." Ben was 20 when his dad died, Edmund just 18, and an appearance in the pulpit by Ben at Attleborough church to talk about their ideas for remembering John provoked some raw emotions, not just for the family but the congregation who had known him so well. "Ben looks so much like John and had all his mannerisms while talking. It was tough to see, but it is all part of the healing process," she says.

Now the focus is very much on bringing his legacy to life, and she admits it has been a steep learning curve. "It took me two years to work out what to do in John's memory. We knew from the start it shouldn't be a statue or anything static, it had to be a 'living' memorial. And I wanted to work with IBDAA. We decided on education and funding young people to come to the UK because that is really how you give hope and because it would be do-able. It is still evolving now," she laughs.

Bahaa Milhem is the first student funded by the programme and he is currently staying with Anne, with whom he clearly shares a special bond. He apologises immediately for his English. Of course there is no need. Despite only being here since February, he speaks it with great assurance and a maturity that belies his 19 years. "At school in the camp we study English but we only study for exams not for talking," he says modestly.

This is the first time Bahaa has lived outside of the Dheisheh camp. He is a third generation refugee. His grandfather was taken to the camp in 1948, his father was born there, as were he and his siblings. "In some ways the refugee camp is our home. But I dream about that day of returning home all the time. I have a picture in my head of what it will be like. There are buses in the streets taking us all, lots of noise and cheering. "My grandfather thought it was just for a few days or weeks, so he took just a few belongings to the camp, closed the door of his house behind him and assumed he would be back when the war ended. But that was 60 years ago. He never went home. He died and we are still waiting."

He is about to return home for the summer holidays before coming back to Norwich City College to continue his studies in September and acknowledges that having experienced a previously unknown freedom it will be difficult to readjust. "I am so excited about seeing my family and friends, I miss them so much. But here I feel free. There are no checkpoints or soldiers or people telling me I am not allowed to go to certain places. "Coming from Heathrow, I couldn't believe you could drive from London to Norwich without going through one checkpoint."

At the heart of Anne and her sons' work is the desire to empower people through education and just a few moments in Bahaa's company underlines the importance of their work. "The English, we say, are the media makers and it means a lot to get this chance. It is a dream. As a refugee we feel the only way to improve our lives is through education. In the camp there are limited choices, we have to give ourselves hope through learning. "I dream to study media, because we can use it to talk about life and our issues and to tell the world that we are a peaceful people, to try and make things better.

"That is the future."

Currently, they have raised enough money to fund Bahaa for another year and they are hoping they will be able to help further students as well as enabling Bahaa to study further. As John himself wrote before his death about the IBDAA centre, there is every reason for believing that education brings hope: "This centre is run by some of the many Palestinians who, whilst acknowledging that a few of their neighbours choose the way of suicide bombing, are placing their hopes in educating their children, in dance groups, in self-confidence and language skills and computer technology to carry on the long-term political struggle with dignity and grace."

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