We­haveamoral­duty to help asy­lum-seek­ers

We, who know about sur­vival, must make the case for refugees pub­licly

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT&ANALYSIS - HE­LEN BAM­BER

ISUP­POSE one could say that my pro­fes­sional life be­gan at the age of 20 when I en­tered the for­mer Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camp of Ber­gen Belsen a few months af­ter its lib­er­a­tion. I was the youngest mem­ber of the Jewish Re­lief Unit, a unit that was formed dur­ing the war and had been train­ing its re­cruits to work for the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Holo­caust sur­vivors as soon as the war had ended. I do not need to re­count the hor­ror of Belsen even af­ter Camp 1 was burnt to cin­ders and the bod­ies buried. There were times when felt over­whelmed by the suf­fer­ing of the sur­vivors and help­less in re­spond­ing to their an­guish.

My ex­pe­ri­ences in Belsen af­ter the war are at times still very much present in my mind to­day. It is through th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences that I de­cided to fol­low a ca­reer ded­i­cated to lis­ten­ing to the voices and si­lences of sur­vivors — in essence, putting me­mory into ac­tion.

I re­mem­ber dis­tinctly the mo­ment when I over­came my sense of to­tal help­less­ness. I was sit­ting on the ground with a wo­man, im­pos­si­ble to say whether she was young or old, and we were hold­ing onto each other rock­ing back­wards and for­ward. She was dig­ging her fin­gers into my arms and rasp­ing out her story like a kind of vomit. I sud­denly re­alised what I had to do. I said, “I can’t change the past or bring back the dead, but I can hold and tell the world your story.”

I re­alised then that I could never be a by­s­tander; the only power I had was to be a wit­ness. It was my first les­son in over­com­ing help­less­ness in the face of mas­sive psy­chic grief. I learnt that I could lis­ten with­out re­coil as we rocked; above all, I could bear wit­ness to the past and to the con­tin­ued suf­fer­ing of the liv­ing. I did not re­alise un­til much later how im­por­tant it is for a sur­vivor to know that their story will be held and told by oth­ers.

The sur­vivors in Belsen had prac­ti­cal needs in­clud­ing phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal care. They had, with our help, found their voice and they de­manded a so­lu­tion to their plight. At­ti­tudes changed as they be­came a prob­lem to the au­thor­i­ties, a nui­sance and, even­tu­ally, a scape­goat.

“They must have done some­thing ter­ri­ble to have de­served this,” said one army of­fi­cer to me.

I be­gan to un­der­stand that where there is no easy so­lu­tion, those in charge turn against the vic­tim. The vic­tim is made re­spon­si­ble for his plight and is crit­i­cised for de­mand­ing a so­lu­tion.

Af­ter Belsen, I be­gan to un­der­stand how short the life of com­pas­sion is. When Belsen was lib­er­ated there was a sense of out­rage, of com­pas­sion, a need to re­pair what could be re­paired. But the Iron Cur­tain was con­sum­ing East­ern Europe, and peo­ple could not re­turn to their coun­tries of ori­gin.

When some young peo­ple tried to re­turn to find if any of their fam­ily had sur­vived, they were set upon and driven back into Ger­many. Some were killed. Amer­ica and Eng­land did not open their doors to the sur­vivors, and many re­mained in Belsen and in other for­mer camps un­til the early 1950s.

We see the same re­sponse to asy­lum-seek­ers in our so­ci­ety to­day.

For Jews, the Holo­caust casts a shadow in ev­ery liv­ing-room. How we deal with the legacy and take our place in the world is com­plex.

For some, it is enough to be alive, to live de­cently and to in­vest in fam­ily and friends. They do not wish to bur­den their chil­dren with a cat­a­logue of atroc­ity and mur­der.

In­deed, how we tell our chil­dren has pre­oc­cu­pied most of us at some time.

From oth­ers, there is a si­lence about the suf­fer­ing of those who have been the present-day vic­tims of per­se­cu­tion, eth­nic cleans­ing, and ex­treme acts of hu­man cru­elty, peo­ple who in fact are walk­ing our streets fear­ful and aware that they are “the other”: present-day refugees.

The si­lence, as I un­der­stand it, is not so much an ar­ro­gant dis­re­gard as a fear that to put one’s head above the para­pet will draw at­ten­tion to our own oth­er­ness, and thereby ex­pose us to the in­tol­er­ance meted out to present-day refugees.

There are those of us who deny their oth­er­ness, who pull up the draw­bridge and deny any com­mon­al­ity with other vic­tims, other suf­fer­ers.

I was deeply sad­dened to hear a Jewish for­mer Home Sec­re­tary ex­ploit­ing the lan­guage of “crack­ing down on asy­lum-seek­ers”, rather as though his role of Home Sec­re­tary was greater than the lessons of the Holo­caust. Were our grand­par­ents to seek asy­lum to­day on the grounds of the per­se­cu­tion they were suf­fer­ing, very few would be al­lowed to re­main.

So for me, the Holo­caust car­ries with it a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. We are not just the vic­tims, we are sur­vivors. As sur­vivors, we have a par­tic­u­lar knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing. We un­der­stand the ca­pac­ity in oth­ers to deny the enor­mity and sig­nif­i­cance of what took place, to see the vic­tims as some­how be­ing re­spon­si­ble for their own catas­tro­phe, and to turn against the vic­tim for cre­at­ing a prob­lem that re­quires some sac­ri­fice if a so­lu­tion is to be found. Deep down in our very bones, we know what it is to be the “other”, to go to school and be iden­ti­fied as dif­fer­ent, to walk in the street and to be afraid. We un­der­stand suf­fer­ing. Peo­ple re­spond dif­fer­ently, and I have heard it said: “You think we Jews have made it, but we still have en­e­mies, don’t rock the boat, keep your head down, it could be us again.” Be­lieve me, I un­der­stand this ar­gu­ment.

But there is a counter-ar­gu­ment. Un­less we ac­cept a per­sonal mis­sion to do what we can, in what­ever sphere of in­flu­ence we have, to build a more hu­mane and com­pas­sion­ate so­ci­ety, to make us more ac­cept­ing of those who seek refuge, more will­ing to make a stand on be­half of those who have suf­fered atroc­ity and loss, more tol­er­ant of dif­fer­ence, of oth­er­ness, then we in­crease the chances of it be­com­ing us again.

There is no easy an­swer. None of our choices is with­out dan­ger. We can­not know the out­come. So we must be driven by other con­sid­er­a­tions, such as moral­ity and Jewish ethics. And morally, the obli­ga­tion we all have be­gins with the wo­man in the camp, to hold and tell her story.

What does this mean for us to­day? The leg­is­la­tion gov­ern­ing the fate of those seek­ing asy­lum is puni­tive. There is no right to work as long as one is an asy­lum-seeker. Le­gal sup­port is cut to the min­i­mum by the re­duc­tion in fund­ing for le­gal aid, many im­mi­gra­tion lawyers are un­able to con­tinue, and many asy­lum-seek­ers are with­out le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Health­care, ben­e­fits and all means of sup­port are with­drawn once a per­son is la­belled a failed asy­lum-seeker. In such cir­cum­stances, peo­ple pre­fer to live on the streets with noth­ing rather than re­turn to the coun­try that per­se­cuted and tor­tured them.

A ma­jor prob­lem for present-day asy­lum-seek­ers is the obli­ga­tion im­posed on them to give their com­plete story when first in­ter­viewed. Some­times the most sen­si­tive, and for them the most ter­ri­ble, of their ex­pe­ri­ences emerge only slowly in the pres­ence of a ther­a­pist or a doc­tor ex­pe­ri­enced in work­ing in the field of trauma. Such late dis­clo­sure is looked on un­sym­pa­thet­i­cally and of­ten serves to un­der­mine their case. Yet, we know how dif­fi­cult it has been for Holo­caust sur­vivors to speak of their dread­ful ex­pe­ri­ences and their mas­sive losses. It will be no sur­prise to us that the sur­vivors of Bos­nia, Rwanda and Dar­fur have dif­fi­culty in speak­ing of how they saw their chil­dren mu­ti­lated and de­stroyed.

The Jewish com­mu­nity has al­ways been gen­er­ous in giv­ing pro­vi­sion and clothes to de­prived and help­less asy­lum-seek­ers and their fam­i­lies. I have only to ask J-Core, for ex­am­ple, and the items flow in. I know that a num­ber of syn­a­gogues col­lect and give. My col­leagues and I are for­ever grate­ful for the hand-knit­ted blan­kets and other items that ar­rive at a drop of a hat.

All too of­ten we of­fer our help in si­lence while there are in­sti­tu­tions such as J-Core and the JCC, to name but two, which pub­licly make the case for asy­lum-seek­ers and refugees.

But by speak­ing out, we can of­fer more than prac­ti­cal sup­port. The ev­i­dence is there for all who wish to truly know. We can make the case, with those from other sec­tions of the wider com­mu­nity, who are seek­ing a more hu­mane and com­pas­sion­ate re­sponse to the sur­vivors of mod­ern-day cat­a­strophic events. But our voice, the Jewish voice, will carry a spe­cial mean­ing be­cause we have un­der­stood through­out our his­tory what it means to be per­se­cuted and re­viled.

There is a prac­ti­cal op­por­tu­nity here to use our ex­per­tise — per­sonal as well as pro­fes­sional — to be wit­nesses for the defence and to help the de­ci­sion­mak­ers un­der­stand the psy­chol­ogy of a sur­vivor. This means us­ing the power we have as a com­mu­nity to act as ad­vo­cates to politi­cians, the me­dia and the pub­lic.

For me, the obli­ga­tion does not end with asy­lum­seek­ers and refugees. One les­son I have learnt is the im­por­tance of stand­ing with all those who are vic­tims of ex­treme acts of hu­man cru­elty, as oth­er­wise we risk de­scent into di­vi­sion and, ul­ti­mately, in­sti­tu­tion­alised dis­crim­i­na­tion.

For this rea­son, the He­len Bam­ber Foun­da­tion has cho­sen to work with sur­vivors of geno­cide, tor­ture, rape, eth­nic cleans­ing and hu­man traf­fick­ing for sex­ual and other forms of ex­ploita­tion, in­clud­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

To­gether with my col­leagues, we have built a prac­tice that draws upon the skills of a wide range of ex­perts in field of trauma and re­cov­ery. The mul­tidis­ci­plinary team com­prises ther­a­pists, med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers, case­work­ers, in­ter­preters and mem­bers of the le­gal pro­fes­sion. We are united by our com­mit­ment to up­hold­ing the prin­ci­ples of hu­man rights and to treat­ing the peo­ple who seek our help with dig­nity and re­spect.

We ac­cept that it is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide a voice for those who are voice­less so that their story can be told. By lis­ten­ing to the voices of sur­vivors, we ac­knowl­edge what they have been through and sup­port their re­cov­ery in a place where they can feel safe. We stand side by side with them and we ask the Jewish com­mu­nity to stand with us.

In do­ing so, will we turn our­selves into tar­gets? I don’t know how much I can con­trol or shape my vic­tim­hood, so I am will­ing to take the chance. I will con­tinue to hold and tell the story. In the words of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, “it is how we treat the per­son to whom we owe noth­ing that will de­ter­mine how we will be judged”. This is the true sign of our com­pas­sion, de­cency and ma­tu­rity as a com­mu­nity and as a so­ci­ety. He­len Bam­ber is Di­rec­tor of the He­len Bam­ber Foun­da­tion. She will be speak­ing at a meet­ing of the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­tre for Lon­don and J-Core, on the sub­ject of Putting Me­mory into Ac­tion, on Tues­day May 13. For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion and to book tick­ets, go to www.jc­clon­don.org.uk

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