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.
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. The 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.”
In 2013 as part of ASHA’s overall peace programme, a training course addressed the topics of peace-building and non-violent action in the role of local and regional youth NGOs engaged in peace-building work. Participating countries were UK, Latvia, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Czech Republic, Spain, Bulgaria.
2014 was a year of grounding and preparation for a whole new phase of work. One of the major transitions was the official ending of the E.U.’S educational programme ‘Youth in Action’, which has been running at the Centre for the last six years, and the beginning of the European Union’s new seven-year programme, ‘Erasmus Plus’.
It was confirmed that ASHA would take the lead for a two-year project on Peace Education with four European gainers in Germany, Turkey, Latvia and the Netherlands. This will consolidate their efforts to create an ASHA ‘Peace-building’ model for young people to use in their communities across the world.*
The Chagos Islands
This unprecedented chapter in legal history has kept Zerbanoo’s husband Richard out of retirement since 2006 when the FCO began their nefarious series of appeals and suppressed evidence of their methods. See a 2011 summary of the Giffords’ earlier involvement on a sister site. Officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, but also claimed by nearby Mauritius, the Chagos Islands were home to the Chagossians for more than a century and a half until the United Kingdom evicted them in the early 1970s and allowed the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. Since 1971, the atoll has been inhabited only by military and civilian contracted personnel. For August 2014 news see:
(Below America’s Deep Space Surveillance Facility, one of the military uses for which the islanders were evicted from their home).
On Monday 22 June 2015 the Supreme Court heard two appeals by former residents of the Chagos Islands who were forcibly removed from their homeland more than 40 years ago. The appeals were watched here by many on ‘live streaming’. In the Guardian, “Prominent lawyer Richard Gifford, who has worked with Chagossians for almost two decades, argues that “Iraq changed everything,” tracking the reluctance to support Chagossian return to the Diego Garcia US military base’s role in to the controversial 2003 US-UK led invasion of Iraq”. The UK Chagos Support Association added: “That the case has returned to the Supreme Court is also a testament to the relentless efforts of Richard Gifford over many years to discover the true facts and reveal what appear to be attempts to conceal information”. The full case can now be watched online here. The main case concerned the application to set aside the House of Lords decision which upheld the abolition of the Right of Abode in the Chagos islands. The Supreme Court website has a summary here.
Documents finally disclosed in May 2012 show that the FCO’s scientific adviser was unqualified to comment on the key areas of the report concerning present and future storms and wave-overtopping and flooding of the islands. As a result he endorsed a report whose science was fundamentally flawed and whose final conclusion, on which the Government’s case in the House of Lords was based, was also wrong.
It had originally been alleged that the islands were at risk from rising sea-levels which would eventually make them uninhabitable. However the islands are protected by one of the healthiest coral reef systems in the cleanest waters in the world. As a result, the ecosystems of the Chagos have so far proven resilient to climate change and environmental disruptions. It was concluded that these low-lying coral islands should continue to be able to support human habitation, as they have done for much of the last 200 years.