Richard Martin, founder of the charity Children of Peace, Interview
PUBLISHED: 20:35 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:14 20 February 2013
Richard Martin, founder of the charity Children of Peace, talks to Hilary Engel.
A quiet street next to Hereford Cathedral is a most unlikely place to find the headquarters of a charity that is trying to bring peace to the Middle East. And Richard Martin may seem at first an unlikely man to have founded it. How did this all come about?
One day in 2004, Richard, who had no particular connection with the region, saw a television programme presented by Daniel Barenboim, in which a boy was playing the violin amongst the rubble from a bomb attack in Ramallah. Days later a suicide bomber attacked Max's Bar in Tel Aviv, which was owned by two friends, an Israeli and a Palestinian. The bomber came in and sat for a while next to a group of young mothers and their babies before setting off his bomb.
"Like everyone else in the West," says Richard, "I used to see this kind of thing and think, there's nothing I can do. This war has been going on for 60 years now and it affects the whole world. But when people demonise one side or the other they are exacerbating it by proxy."
At about the same time Richard met two men, Awad, a Palestinian and Aaron, an Israeli, who had both lost sons in the conflict, and yet had set up a support group for bereaved families on both sides. One of them said, "Mr Martin, no one is doing anything for the children."
Richard replied, "But what about Christian Aid, and Save the Children? And he said, they will only help one side or the other."
It was then that Richard had a "lightbulb moment". What was needed, he realised, was an organisation that would be non-partisan, multi-faith, that would attempt to bring the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis together. This was how Children of Peace was born.
Richard grew up in a liberal family in Islington. His father, "a great humanitarian", who died when he was 24, was an inspiration to him. He remembers him saying: "If one man can change the world, think what 100 can do."
Richard studied psychology at the LSE but then went into film production. He wrote an influential report on the need to develop a course for teaching production skills for film and television, which was subsequently introduced at the National Film School.
Richard's wife, Janine, held senior positions in advertising, and then set up her own consultancy. They have two children, Dominic and Romilly, and lived in Sussex while they were growing up. "We were very comfortably off," says Richard. "But I felt I wanted to put something back. Very few people at the end of their lives regret that they didn't spend enough time at work."
After the children had left home they came to Hereford, which Janine knew already. They found a beautiful old house right in the centre. "On our first day we were walking round the Cathedral and a neighbour spoke to us and invited us for a drink. We've been made very welcome."
Richard and Janine, who is also an artist, work together now running a design and marketing company, producing promotional material - leaflets, DVDs and websites - mainly for local companies. That is the day job.
Children of Peace was launched in November 2006 at the Saatchi Atrium in London, with over 100 guests from all over the world. "We'd spent about a year setting up the charity. We knew we had to raise money first, and define our policies, and write our constitution. We said right from the start that we would only aid groups who would comply with our non-partisan approach. We had to be politically neutral: that was the only way we would be taken seriously, and win respect."
Richard and Janine used their "useful address books" to great effect, and they have been able to assemble a glittering array of celebrity Friends for the charity, including Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson and Sir Derek Jacobi. Its patron is Madonna, and its royal patron is Her Highness the Begum Aga Khan
"No one anticipated at first how quickly it would grow. But the fact that it captured people's imagination shows that it was needed."
Children of Peace is an aid agency which assists projects in the arts, in health, education and sports, for Israeli and Palestinian children aged from seven to 17. It already has over 50 affiliated groups.
"We discovered that there were 50,000 charities at work in the region - non-governmental organisations. 27,000 in Israel and 25,000 in the occupied territories. And very few had anything to do with each other."
"We support an Israeli group called Physicians for Human Rights, for example, which runs cross-border clinics in the West Bank. In many cases, for the Palestinian patients, this may be the first time that they have ever met a Jew."
"Palestinian children have the highest levels of diabetes: they often have terrible health problems. Their parents are so desperate they are pushing them over the border to fend for themselves. We think there are about 1000 Palestinian children wandering begging in the streets of Israel. So now we work with the National Council for the Child to help the displaced children."
This year Children of Peace is helping to set up a Friendship Programme which will teach languages. "Almost no Israelis speak Arabic, and almost no Palestinians speak Hebrew. It's so important that the children learn to communicate. All of our projects now will teach languages alongside their other activities."
The charity sponsors an Arab-Israeli children's football league; and at a recent match in southern Israel a Hamas rocket landed on the field. "The children all ran up to each other and hugged, checking that everyone was alright. Afterwards they all swapped email addresses so they could keep in touch."
"There are about 2000 rockets a month landing in Israel. It's hard to imagine living in that situation." Last year Children of Peace compiled a report for the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, financed by Lottery money, on the effects of the conflict on the region's children. One of its findings showed how the children's health is affected by the high levels of stress that they have all suffered throughout their lives.
Richard now makes regular trips to the Middle East and has made many friends there. One of them, Bassam Aramin, he describes as "my Palestinian brother". In his youth Bassam used to be a militant, but was imprisoned for seven years in an Israeli jail, and during that time he grew close to his guards, who educated him. When he was released he started a peace movement, and has now been a peace campaigner for many years. "He's the Palestinian equivalent of Mandela," says Richard.
One day last January in Jerusalem, Bassam's 10-year-old daughter Abir bunked off school in her lunch break and went to buy some sweets. She was hit by a bomb and died in hospital a few hours later.
Bassam is heartbroken, but he has no wish to seek revenge, as it would "dishonour Abir's memory". Instead he and Richard have established the Children of Peace Abir Aramin Girls' Scholarship Programme for both Israeli and Palestinian girls. Bassam says: "That to me is the very best response to my tragedy."
Children of Peace is working with Western politicians and diplomats as well as giving practical help in the region. They have formed a Peace Culture Committee of British MPs to advise the peace negotiatiors who are at work in Jerusalem. "The aim is to develop peace education programmes, and to provide a structure for a Ministry of Peace in the future," says Richard.
The charity has received assurances of support from President Sarkozy, and from Tony Blair in his current role as a Middle East envoy.
What can people do to support the charity? "Hereford people are amazingly generous," says Richard. "We discovered there are over a thousand charities here, in a population of only 160,000. And they've done a lot already. They collected four tons of gifts for the Hereford Times Christmas appeal, sent to refugee camps in Gaza."
Several Herefordians have become involved with the charity: Virginia Taylor is a trustee, and Alexandra James, Marcelle Lloyd-Hayes and Jesse Norman are among the Friends.
"We always need more money," says Richard. "We're so grateful for any fund-raising. We're also working on establishing links between schools here and Palestinian and Israeli schools. And we are always asking for volunteers to go and work on our programmes.
"Palestinian and Israeli parents are just like us: we all want the best for our children. But the children there have no choices. All they want is to be normal.
"There's such a lot of fantastic work going on there, but the world is blind to it. The two sides actually have a great deal in common, but they've become the world's political football. We need to celebrate people's similarities. I do believe the problems can be resolved, but the Israelis and the Palestinians have to do it themselves. The children are the next generation. The children will do it."
To make a donation to Children of Peace, call 0870 300 1064.
A Children of Peace Strawberry Cream Tea is being held on June 29 by Jenny Layton at her farm, Grafton Villas, Grafton, Herefordshire.
Cost: 3.50 per cream tea or 7 per couple
For details go to www.graftonvilla.co.uk.