A Purley resident's 80th birthday celebrations were given special significance on Sunday, when one of her heroines, the well-known human rights campaigner Baroness Cox, paid

a surprise visit.

Baroness Cox of Queensbury is deputy speaker of the House

of Lords, but is best known for her humanitarian work in securing medicine and supplies for war-torn regions, and campaigning for justice for victims of the Armenian genocide.

On Sunday, she made one Armenian exile's dream come true by dropping in to join her birthday celebrations.

Mary Fernando of Highfield Road, Purley, was born Mary Hagopian in 1923 in a town called Diarbekir in Armenia.

Aged three, Mary and her sister Malika fled with their father to escape the persecution and ethnic cleansing that saw over a million Armenians driven to their deaths between 1915 and 1916.

Diarbekir on the southern fringes of Armenia largely escaped the Turkish ruling Committee of Union in Progress' First World War campaign to link Turkey with Baku, an oil-rich city on the Caspian Sea.

But Turkish persecution of Armenians continued in the 1920s and Mary's father (her mother died in childbirth) took his family to Palestine via Iraq. Leading historian and author of "Armenia: Survival of a Nation" Christopher Walker said: "The situation was extremely unsettled at that time and she was lucky to escape."

On arrival in Palestine in 1926 the sisters were placed in a Jerusalem convent, where their father would pay fortnightly visits but his sudden death meant one day he never arrived. Mary went on to teach in the convent, before she met and married soldier Anselm Fernando. She is now an 80-year-old mother of six children, and grandmother to 13, but she has never forgotten her Armenian roots.

She has read Baroness Cox's biography "A Voice for the

Voiceless", which details the humanitarian work she undertook before and after Armenia's conflict with Azerbaijan in the early 90s.

Like many exiles, Mary is grateful that someone has fought for recognition of the atrocities that occurred in her homeland.

Mary told the Croydon Guardian: "Although I was very young when I was taken from my homeland, I have always been deeply affected about the history of the massacres.

"To have finally met such a wonderful and kind person as Baroness Cox highlighting the plight of the Armenian people meant everything to me. Meeting her was the best present that I could have had."

Baroness Cox told the Croydon Guardian: "It was a huge privilege to meet Mary. I had a letter from her son Frank, saying that his mother was celebrating her 80th birthday and that she had always wanted to meet me, which I find extremely humbling.

"It was worth going that extra mile to visit her and pay my respects to the people of Armenia."

Mary's son Frank said: "My mother truly feels that her life is now complete having met this wonderful lady."