Life is Beautiful: Ethel Shepherd and I

Two years ago I met Ethel at a Chilean reunion party. It was an emotional event. I was re-connecting with other Chileans from Cambridge that I hadn’t seen since childhood.

We’d been rounded up by Scapegoat Productions (Camila, Lautaro & Kip) who were working on their documentary ‘hora chilena’, a film narrating the story of the Chilean refugee community in Cambridge.

Ethel was sat on a bench outside the Cambridge University Social club. Camila pointed her out to me as I’d been asking who had known Santiago when we’d first arrived in the UK. I shimmied over to Ethel and introduced myself as the granddaughter of Santiago Bell. Her eyes welled up with tears ‘I saw Santiago when he arrived’. She went on ‘He was so badly mistreated, he arrived a broken man’…

Shocked by what she’d said, I made my apologies and headed towards the bar. I simply couldn’t bear to hear any more. After a couple of berry ciders , l composed myself, went back and thanked her for everything she had done for my family. This was to be the beginning of my friendship with this extraordinary woman.

Born in 1934 in the East End of London to a Jewish family who’d escaped the persecution of Jews in Odessa, Ethel was a member of the British communist party for many years until finally becoming  disillusioned with party politics and quitting in 1968. In the 1970’s Etel and her husband were living in Cambridge when they learned about the terrible situation in Chile.

Ethel, along with a group of sympathisers and exiled Chileans began working in tandem carrying out important human rights work both in Cambridge and Chile. This was the birth of the Cambridge Chile Human Rights Comittee.

Since that fateful meeting, I have relished many long walks to her bungalow, contemplating what I will learn. Visits to Ethel’s house are often emotionally and intellectually challenging. Last Monday I spent the morning with her, sifting through letters she’d sent and received from Chile during the 1970’s and 80’s: Mothers documenting their son’s arrests, women searching for their husbands, families asking for asylum. Some they managed to save, others not. Ethel’s memories and experiences are an invaluable source of oral history that shed light on our early years as refugees in the UK. It is for this reason that the work Ethel and the Chile Human Rights Committee carried out, must be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

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