Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow’s first experience of delivering aid was to drive a Land Rover bursting with food, clothing and medicine from the Highlands of Scotland down to Bosnia. At the time he was a salmon farmer : he had taken simply a week’s holiday to do it. When he got back, his family shed was bulging with aid that had poured in from mates and friends of friends. He give up his job, sold his place, and learned to drive articulated lorries. Now, about twenty years on, his charity Mary’s Meals feeds half a million kids every day.
But that is not the start of the story. At least, not how Magnus tells it. The real beginning was ten years earlier , when he was 14, and he went on a pilgrimage to a small village called Medjugorje.
I meet Magnus for tea near London Victoria. He is tall and in a suit ; his hair is greying a bit at the sides. He asserts he finds it hard to describe the effect that first trip had on him. “It was something in my heart an experience of Our Lord God’s grace,” he asserts. Later on he describes it as “something God appears to do for many folks there : [he] gives them an awareness of his devotion to them”.
It is a madcap journey : ten of his friends and family, all teenagers, turned up at Medjugorje without anywhere to remain. They’d read an article about six children having visions of the Virgin Mary and thought if it was probably true they should visit. They flew in to Dubrovnik and drove there in two hire cars (harder than it sounds, since their map failed to have Medjugorje on it).
After evening Mass a friar, Fr Slavko Barbaric, came over to them and introduced them to his sister, who they ended up staying with for the week and who had youngsters their age. It was, Magnus says, an “amazing mix of the supernatural and the very mundane” one minute they’d be speaking to Bosnian youngsters about Italian football and the following “we’d all be talking about the incontrovertible fact that one of them was going out with one of the visionaries”.
At the time the six purported visionaries were young kids, too. They invited Magnus’s group into the room where they were having apparitions of the Virgin Mary every evening. Magnus knows two of them still.
What struck him, though, wasn’t the idealists themselves they were “very nice, very ordinary people” but the religion of the townspeople and the way in which they answered to what the six children were announcing.
“By the time I came home,” he asserts, “I had the assumption that Our Lady actually was appearing in Medjugorje and that she was appearing with a message for the entire world .”
He is saying that he wanted to try, “in whatever way I could, to reply to her invite to put God back at the centre”.
About ten years later Magnus was in a boozer with his brother Fergus. They were talking about a reports item they’d seen about refugees near Medjugorje during the Bosnian war. And that is when they thought about driving aid there themselves.
Magnus has a tendency to play down his role in all this. Once the donations came pouring in, he is saying, “it was tougher to stop than it had been to start”. Giving up his house and job was no huge sacrifice, he insists. He had been a salmon farmer for six years and was “looking to do something else anyway”.
After twenty minutes or so of talking Magnus, though really mild-mannered, talks at a phenomenal pace we do not forget to decant the tea. Over the following ten years, he explains, his charity Scottish International Relief brought aid to Bosnia, built care homes in Romania and worked in Liberia and some place else.
His stories pour out and are a few of the most moving I have ever heard. He talks about 11-year-old Romanian orphans so neglected they couldn’t walk properly. The youngsters, all HIV positive, had been abandoned in surgeries and nobody had lifted them out of their cots long enough for them to learn. The doctors , he asserts, “couldn’t see any worth in those youngsters at all and they were dying, numbers of them, every week”.
Magnus recalls an exchange with one doctor who said : “I do not know why you’re building these [care] houses for these kids.” Pointing to one girl, Juliana, he revealed : “She’ll be dead before you even finish building them.” Now, Magnus says, “Juliana’s a young woman, and 1 or 2 summers gone I went back for the marriages of three of those girls. It has been a miracle to me because we thought we were building a hospital where they might have a serious death so really it’s been a wonderful thing that every one of them are still alive.”
Magnus has lots of these stories, and is used to telling them, I suspect. He gives talks in colleges and to fund-raising groups. He is saying at one time : “I’m sure there’s only a little of all this stuff you would like, because there’s a large amount of it.” as reported tagza.com.