Helen Lieberman gets top French award

  • Helen Lieberman - French award 2017
Helen Lieberman was “overwhelmed” when she was informed of her latest and possibly most prestigious award as Officier de la Légion d’Honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honour) “in recognition of her lifelong commitment to the eradication of poverty, injustice and human misery”. The honour is the highest that France can bestow on a foreign citizen.
by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | May 04, 2017

However, her lifelong work in helping people with very little to help themselves, was never done for acclaim or celebrity, it was, she says, “part of who I am as a Jewish woman - it is an expression of my Judaism. Rather than prayer, I’d like to live it,” she explains her life’s work. 

Today her social services organisation, Ikamva Labantu, that operates in Cape Town’s townships, is involved in over 1 000 projects.

At the recent award ceremony in Cape Town, French Ambassador Christophe Farnaud announced that the French embassy was also giving a R115 000 grant to Ikamva Labantu.

“I work quietly,” the soft-spoken Lieberman tells Jewish Report. “I don’t really look for newspapers or celebrity - I just want to get the work done on the ground.”

Lieberman stresses that thousands of individuals helped her build the organisation. So, with characteristic humility, she asked the ambassador and the President of France if she could dedicate the award to “my mamas”.

 “I’ve had the privilege of working alongside them and enjoying watching how lives change and how people are able to change their own lives. There is no ownership of anything by Ikamva,” she says of the group’s emphasis on empowerment.

“The community is in control and we work for the community. We are there trying to help people help themselves, so it’s a shift from people being our beneficiaries. Those who work for Ikamva are the beneficiaries,” says Lieberman, who is very much a proponent of the power of the collective.

She acknowledges that the award has opened doors for her in France and she hopes to go there to meet with potential supporters.

Lieberman’s lifelong commitment to uplifting the underprivileged began in 1963 when as a young speech therapist at Groote Schuur Hospital, she decided to follow up a patient in the black township of Langa. What she witnessed there shocked her to the core and set her on her future path. 

In those early apartheid days, her mere presence in the township attracted the attention of the police who arrested her on several occasions. She was even told by Jewish leaders that she was bringing discredit to the community by engaging in her then-illegal activities.

But this did not deter her. She believed that Jewish people needed to play their part in uplifting others where they could, because of their past.

“We’d just come out of Holocaust - although you can’t compare it. We’d been marginalised, victimised.

“I was so set on living a different life in South Africa,” she remembers. “I could not have lived here and watched what was going on, watched the human suffering, watched the deprivation and not given my little bit,” she says in something of an understatement, adding that “over a million children have passed through my hands!”

Lieberman has lost none of the passion and sense of purpose that has driven her efforts over the past 54 years and is still actively involved on the ground. “I wake up in the morning and I want to be there,” she says simply.

“There’s always a purpose, there’s always somebody who’s got an idea, somebody who I need as much as they need me.

“It’s an exciting, fulfilling and inspiring world when the world you allow to be around you is one that embraces the lives of others and not uses the lives of others to embellish your credentials.

“It’s an amazing privilege to have been able to immerse myself in the real South Africa.”  


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