Saturday, December 31, 2005

Palestinians Attack Kidnap of Briton Devoted to their Cause

Published on Friday, December 30, 2005 by the Times / UK
24-year-old aid worker loved her job helping human rights organisation in Gaza
by Michael McCarthy

The many friends waiting for word of Kate Burton described her last night as a woman who refuses to be intimidated.

Over the Christmas holidays they had sent worried e-mails to the 24-year-old aid worker as newspaper headlines reported escalating violence in Gaza.

With her usual good humour Ms Burton replied that she was not important enough to be a target for the gunmen, adding that she was too busy showing her mother and father the sights in the Holy Land to get into any mischief.

Her father, Hugh, gave up his own high-powered job in Brussels to follow his daughter into voluntary work, recruiting Western businessmen to help to set up companies in the developing world.

Most of Ms Burton’s messages to old university friends in Britain spoke enthusiastically about her work in Gaza helping Palestinian families, and her plans there for next year.

One girlfriend said last night: “She was someone who truly loved what she was doing. It was more than a job for Kate. Ever since I’ve known her, she wanted to help people. That might make her sound like some sort of goody-goody, but Kate was anything but. She was quick-witted, adored people who made her laugh and was fabulous company.”

Having lived in Gaza for the past three years and being an Arabic speaker, she would have been acutely aware of the heightened tensions and the Foreign Office warning that Britons should leave. But she told friends that she often felt that Western organisations were too eager to evacuate to a more comfortable billet, leaving behind those they were supposed to be helping.

“She was that rare breed who cared for others more than herself,” the friend added.

Whenever she picked somewhere to visit, she mastered the langauge before she arrived. She is also expert in sign language; her brother is deaf.

Her skills in Spanish complemented her aptitude in French and Flemish which she learnt during her school years in Brussels where her father was a leading figure in the European Union. From 1987 to 1999 she attended the prestigious European School (Woluwe) in Brussels.

In 1999 she visited Chile on a gap year, teaching in schools. One fellow Briton remembers “the children really responded to Kate. She was a true communicator, and a hell of a good girl. If any of us found ourselves in this terrible situation then Kate would cope the best. She is level-headed, patient and nothing throws her.”

She then went to the London School of Economics to study maths and economics, but is best remembered as a social activist. Mike Burn, a fellow student then, said: “She was always pretty politically active, going to stuff, helping people.”

Ms Burton used to encourage friends to join her in London marches on the environment, human rights and her passionate concern for the plight of the Palestinians. In her shared London flat she would spend hours arguing and cajoling companions about what needed to be done in the Middle East.

But friends knew Ms Burton would never be content to talk about righting the world’s wrongs when she could do something to effect change.

In Gaza she first worked for the Institute for Development Studies, a non-profit academic institution which supports educational development for Palestinians. The institute counts the UN and Strathclyde University among its partners. Ms Burton left that job when the UN pulled out non-essential staff because of the threat of kidnap. She was determined to stay so she offered her services to the al-Mezan human rights group, where she was a fundraiser.

Her parents enthusiastically supported her work and, when he retired from his career in the EU, Hugh Burton joined the British Executive Service Overseas, becoming one of 3,500 volunteers to help Third-World companies on assignments lasting from one week to four months. He is general secretary of the Confederation of European Senior Expert Services, a not-for-profit organisation which calls on the skills of 25,000 volunteers helping small businesses in the developing world.

During a distinguished career in Brussels he held positions at various EEC and Commission directorates, including energy and nuclear, external relations and trade and development.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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