My mother, Barbara Brandenburger, who has died aged 91, had only one response when she heard of someone in need – “What can we do to help?”
A campaigning journalist and co-founder of the UK’s leading charity for Bosnian Muslims, she began championing the dispossessed while still at school, holding the hand of a Gypsy girl who had been shunned by the other children in the playground.
Born in London, Barbara was the only child of Bessie and David Cowan, both shopkeepers descended from Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. Her father never recovered mentally from serving in the trenches of the first world war. During the blitz, her parents moved to Buckinghamshire and Barbara went to Aylesbury grammar school, then St Godric’s Secretarial College in London.
At 19, she met Peter Brandenburger, 10 years her senior, who had been in the second world war. They married in 1954 and had two children, Simon and me. My father came from a background of great privilege, yet theirs was a true marriage of shared values.
Barbara began at the BBC as a secretary – her boss spent most of her time devising knitting patterns, so she covertly took over her role of writing continuity scripts and then edited Ariel, the in-house magazine.
In 1963, she wrote a book, Working in Television, for Bodley Head, which was a definitive text for decades. Her freelance journalism flourished, and she wrote regularly for the Observer, interviewing John Fowles, Noel Coward and Richard Attenborough, and writing on child development.
My mother determined we should invite those who needed help to share our family home in Northwood, north London. And so nine-year-old Rabia, from Whitechapel, came to stay in the holidays and returned for years. At 17, my schoolfriend, Sara, lost both her parents. She came to live with us and my parents regarded her as their daughter. My mother cared for her own parents until they died and then she and my father moved to Parsons Green, Fulham, in south-west London.
In 1992, war in the Balkans erupted. My mother watched the news and saw Bosnian Muslims being murdered. With her great friend Claude Murray, she launched a multifaith charity, the Bosnian Support Fund. In three weeks, 1,000 bags of warm clothes and a lorry were heading across Europe for Bosnian refugees, before the harsh winter.
Then, they flew to Ljubljana to find a refugee camp to support. Accompanied by an interpreter, 17-year-old Faja, they found Harastnik camp with 200 people and focused aid there for 10 years – supplies, dentistry, therapists and, eventually, resettlement.
Back home, they could not forget their teenage interpreter in Ljubljana, his family now under siege in Sbrebenica. He had represented Yugoslavia in the International Physics Olympiad. My mother sat next to a physics teacher at a wedding, and, a few weeks later, Faja received an all fees-paid scholarship to Oxford.
By the time the charity came to a natural end in 2001, my father was frail, then Barbara was diagnosed with cancer. Her clean bill of health sadly coincided with my father’s death in 2009.
Her home in Fulham remained an open house, an unofficial citizens’ advice bureau for friends, neighbours, local shop workers and market stallholders. My mother had an infinite gift for compassion.
Barbara is survived by Simon and me, Sara, Rabia, and her grandson, Henry, and step-grandchildren, Charlotte and Mili.