A strong British Woman

The Star Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh

A couple of days ago, one of my favourite authors, Jacqueline Winspear, wrote an interesting post on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=jacqueline winspear&epa=SEARCH_BOX

As a young woman, Ms Winspear was a flight attendant and her in post she mentioned an amazing and very interesting story that occurred on one of her overnight trans-Atlantic flights.

It is widely thought that the airline industry is rife with tales of gratuitous sex and stupidity. When I joined, in 1969 it was still believed to be glamourous and exotic. Which was also wrong, and sad, but in a different way. Here is another story.

In fact, one need not look far to find a vast number of human interest stories coming out of the airline industry. In 1985 I was fortunate enough to become involved, in a minor way, in one.

Mr Katz would call Pat Kerr, OBE a Strong Woman.

She was a British Airways flight attendant.

One of the routes Pat flew in the 1980’s occasioned her to have long lay-overs in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It was not a place you really needed to spend much time visiting. There was nothing happening.

Except for a brief winter period when it is cool, the weather is beastly hot and humid with devastating cyclones and floods.

Upon arrival in Dhaka, most British Airways crew would check promptly in to their hotel and remain there, by the pool, for the duration.

Ms Kerr decided there must be some more useful way to spend her time, so she went out for a walk.

She found a Canadian-run orphanage that clearly needed every bit of help available, and the children needed love.

As you can see, Pat had an abundance.

Next thing, Pat was bidding to fly regularly to Dhaka.

Pat got many fellow crew members involved in helping out with the orphanage. She took unpaid leave to remain there.

As the children had less than nothing, there was plenty volunteers could do. From supplying clothing and food to pens and paper and toys. Soon British Airways was sending supplies out by the container full.

Sometimes a layover crew would rent a truck, fill it with children and take them down to the river to splash about which they thought was wonderful.

Mostly, though, the children wanted someone to care about them. They seemed to adore being held.

In about 1985, suddenly the owner of the property where the orphanage stood wanted his land back and a search had to be made for new premises.

It was at this time that British Airways became a sponsor and they launched a system-wide appeal to raise funds.

Latifa, in this picture, became known throughout the airline.

Her face certainly melted my heart.

One Flight Engineer, Gordon Bowden rode his motor bike from England to Bangladesh as a sponsored ride to raise funds.

This was when my own colleagues pitched in:

The BA News erroneously called my friend Tim the Assistant Manager. In fact he was employed by South African Airways, but we did the handling for SAA and we always felt that he was one of us. He is, after all British.

It was Tim’s idea to ask everyone for the equivalent of an hour’s pay which was a great way to make everyone feel their donation was equally fair and important.

The food fair was organized mostly by my friend Joanie and the First Class Lounge attendants.

The bring-and-buy sale was something I came up with after I brought a few items to work one day, to see if I could sell them to raise funds. Everyone wanted to know if I had more “stuff” for sale! So I opened it up for all the airport staff to participate. It was hard work and it taught me an awful lot about fund raising, but the end result was what counted.

Tim and I raised $19,000 in the end and we decided to visit the orphanage.

Neither Tim nor I know one end of a child from the other so we were astounded to be greeted by a gang of small bald children running toward us calling “Mummy”, “Daddy” and jumping into our arms. You couldn’t not love them.

We spent a day with the kids. Something I shall never forget.

The Bangladeshi people were so warm and friendly. This little “rickshaw wallah” took us around for hours, then camped by our hotel door, just to be available.

He was pleased to have the work but we felt guilty at making him work so hard. He was lovely.

A suitable place called Sreepur was found, 30 miles from Dhaka. The orphanage that had originally been run by an organization called Families for Children, was now The Sreepur Village.

Pat Kerr persuaded British Airways to become further involved, in the actual creation and building of The Sreepur Village. The extra expertise and support made a huge difference in the type of community that was created. It was an upgrade from mud huts to permanent brick structures. All these years later, the buildings are reportedly in great condition.

When The Sreepur Village was opened in 1989, Pat Kerr left British Airways to become Overseas Director of the charity.

Sreepur became a village for several hundred people. For many it was the first time they had lived in a safe and supportive community. Today it houses some 600 destitute women and children. It is run as a not-for-profit charity from the UK.

“Mummy” Pat , still lives at Sreepur.

She was awarded an OBE.

I feel very privileged to have met this amazing woman.

Much has been said about British Airways, but I feel I should mention that they have actually done many charitable deeds. They just never talked about it.

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