World Jewish Relief 'speaks loudly' to Paul's Jewish values


FROM milking cows and handling heavy machinery to coming under gunfire in Bosnia, Paul Anticoni has made it his life's work to help people.

And the affable Londoner has reached the pinnacle of remedying those whose lives are disadvantaged as chief executive of World Jewish Relief.

The charity is the main Jewish overseas aid organisation in the United Kingdom.

But Paul, who has been in the hot seat for a decade, was not so familiar with World Jewish Relief when he was touted for the post.

"At the time, it was quite a small, niche agency which focused on a part of the world I did not know much about in the former Soviet Union," the 51-year-old told me.

"I had not seen many Jews, apart from the IDF, in some of the areas of the world in which I had worked.

"I felt by joining WJR, it was an opportunity to bring my expertise to a world I was not really familiar with."

In Paul's time with WJR, he has seen it integrate with World Jewish Aid and helped establish its three main type of projects.

They are: meeting immediate needs of vulnerable communities; securing sustainable livelihoods for those in poverty; and responding to international disasters.

Paul said: "As well as looking after our own, we have used our expertise to reach beyond that. That speaks loudly to my Jewish values.

"In the former Soviet Union, for example, we are ensuring that the younger Jews there earn a living, as well as helping the older members of the Jewish communities.

"In my decade at WJR, we have also repaired thousands of houses and helped to raise life expectancy.

"We still have a long way to go, but I would like to think we will be able to eradicate poverty from these communities in the former Soviet Union in my lifetime.

"I know that the generosity and commitment from our small community here in the UK is absolutely remarkable.

"I hate asking people for money - even after all these years. When a crisis hits, anywhere in the world, our community digs deep."

It is all a long way from Paul's childhood in north-west London - and even further from his ancestral roots.

Paul's paternal family are Turkish Jews from Istanbul, who settled in London's East End in the early 20th century.

His mother's side, the Benardouts, came from Salonika, in modern-day Greece.

Both families, Paul believes, originated in Spain before moving to the Ottoman Empire following the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.

"My life was centred around the Holland Park Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community but nothing felt particularly different about my childhood - apart from the food," Paul laughed.

"Post-barmitzvah, I became less engaged with the Jewish community. Because I was not really academic, I preferred the outdoors life. I struggled at school and was always more interested in sport than science."

His passion for the outdoors led him to work on a Sussex farm, owned by a distant uncle, during the Easter holidays.

"I know it was an unusual pursuit for a Jewish teenager, but it gave me a focus and made me grow up quickly," Paul recalled.

"I left school with not enough qualifications and went to spend a year on a farm in Wiltshire. It taught me a lot about life.

"My dad is a lawyer and he thought I would 'snap out of it'. My parents knew that I was a little bit different, but they were supportive."

From milking cows three times a day, beginning at four in the morning, to handling machinery, his farm manager convinced him that he should study agriculture, which he did at the University of Newcastle.

"The course was a mixture of business and science," Paul explained. "It was about the science of maximising productivity from livestock or arable crops, understanding the business side of it and the economics side, too."

He spent a summer working as a research farmer in the Negev, focusing on tropical crop production.

"They used an irrigation technique that had been used thousands of years before," Paul said.

"It got me interested in the fact that you could grow crops in the toughest parts of the world."

Uncertain of what to do on graduating, Paul saw an advert for agriculturalists in Tanzania.

He landed the position with the Irish charity Concern Worldwide, but ended up working in neighbouring Sudan, a country with a majority Muslim population.

Paul recalled: "Sudan was just coming out of the 1984-1985 famine. Where I was based was incredibly rural.

"I was probably the only foreign person around, apart from a Finnish guy 10 miles away.

"Being Jewish was never a problem - I think they respected the fact that I had faith."

A year after arriving, his work was diverted to aiding African tribes which had been displaced.

"My work shifted overnight from planting trees to helping people," he continued.

To educate himself further, Paul went to Oxford to gain a Masters in forestry and land management.

With Concern Worldwide, he became its deputy country representative in Ethiopia. It was in 1991 and Ethiopia was facing a civil war after the fall of its communist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.

"We got caught up with the displacement and conflict," Paul said. "We were helping individuals in Addis Ababa and you just had to be sensible.

"Because many of the people we were helping were severely malnourished, we had to make tough choices, such as when there was not enough food to feed everyone."

He had met South Wales-raised wife Jan while working for Marie Stopes International, which helps abused women around the world, in Bihac, a city in north-west Bosnia, during the war of the early 1990s.

Jan was working for the organisation in London and they married in 1998. The couple have two children, Evie, 16, and 14-year-old Lily.

Paul recalled: "I spent a year in the Muslim enclave in Bihac. I was crossing the frontline and coming under fire.

"We could not move for weeks in some places and I was an observer and witness to things that people did not want me to observe and witness."

In 1994, Paul moved to the British Red Cross Society, where he was appointed East Africa Desk Officer.

His 12 years there included seven years as head of international aid.

Paul's first assignment was in Rwanda, the country which had gone through a horrendous civil war and experienced genocide, too.

"The country was just calming down, so we were focusing on the needs of these survivors," he said.

"One of our roles was rehabilitating the water supplies, which was horrible because there had been lots of bodies chucked down wells. I tried to get my head around the terrible hatred between ethnic groups.

"It was incomprehensible to me, made even more so that we were also helping to provide support to those who had fled the conflict who were potentially perpetrators."

If there was an emergency, from Hurricane Mitch in America and the Caribbean to famine in Africa and earthquakes in Iran, Indonesia and the Maldives, the Red Cross, and inevitably Paul, would be there.

Yet he began to regret the amount of time he was working away.

And the catalyst for deciding to leave the Red Cross came in 2005 in Pakistan.

Paul said: "I was in the Kashmir province responding to an earthquake. I spoke to Jan on the phone and told her I was taking a helicopter up to Mustafabad and that I would call her in a week or two.

"At the same time, another helicopter crashed, killing everyone."

His mother and Jan did not discover Paul's fate for 24 hours.

"We were having a loft converted and the day I got home, I looked a real mess, with a big beard," Paul said.

"I opened the front door and my two-year-old daughter, Evie, was being carried downstairs by one of the builders. She got a bit of a fright when she saw me and held on to him. That made me realise it was time to come home."

Jan is not Jewish and Paul and his family belong to Finchley Liberal Synagogue.

Initially, Jan not being of the faith was a concern for Paul's parents, Ros and George.

He admitted: "It was a problem for them, both traditionally and culturally.

"But my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother had fallen in love with Jan and they helped my parents through it."

Having vast experience in the charity and humanitarian sector, Paul believed that charity "absolutely works".

He explained: "There are cynics, but when charity works, it works brilliantly. You have to be obsessed with work because it means spending a lot of time away from your family.

"You also have to be calm in a crisis and have a love of humanity."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph