I saw gen­uine refugees pass this gate. Months ear­lier, Paris gun­men had been among them

But the Chief Rabbi found hope, too, when he vis­ited a refugee camp in Greece

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - ROSA DO­HERTY

The mas­ter­mind be­hind the Paris at­tacks used this makeshift Greek check­point to move through Europe, pos­ing as a refugee. Last week, Rosa Do­herty vis­ited the same check­point. Her re­port is in­side

I STOOD at the flimsy, makeshift fence that sep­a­rates Greece from Mace­do­nia, which pens back thou­sands of refugees making their way to a new life in Europe.

Two Greek border pa­trol of­fi­cers al­lowed them to pass through a small gap, sin­gle-file and in small groups; moth­ers with ba­bies in their arms, young men car­ry­ing sheets of card­board to save them sit­ting on the cold, hard ground.

No one checked pass­ports, no one was stopped.

The of­fi­cials, al­though car­ry­ing pis­tols in their belts, merely kept or­der and waved them through.

See­ing this with my own eyes, I could understand how, just weeks ago, two of the men be­hind the Paris ter­ror­ist atroc­ity that was to shake the world had done ex­actly that, pass­ing only feet from where I stood.

It is likely that when Ab­del­hamid Abaaoud, 29, the mas­ter­mind be­hind Fri­day’s at­tacks, and sui­cide bomber Ah­mad al-Mo­ham­mad, came this way, the pas­sage was even eas­ier.

In place of the now op­er­a­tional camp were just a few vol­un­teers and a hand­ful of lo­cal po­lice, merely hand­ing out wa­ter bot­tles and words of ad­vice. In what could have been a scene from the cur­rent se­ries of Home­land, Greece’s in­te­rior min­is­ter has said fin­ger­prints taken from al­Mo­ham­mad’s re­mains match those of a man who reg­is­tered as a refugee us­ing the name Ah­mad at the Greek is­land of Leros in Oc­to­ber.

The camp, such as it is, a field full of barn-like tents, med­i­cal sta­tions and por­ta­ble toi­lets and show­ers, wasn’t com­pleted un­til six weeks ago.

It now han­dles up to 10,000 refugees a day, making it one of the largest in the coun­try.

I watched as Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and a del­e­ga­tion of United Syn­a­gogue rab­bis spoke to fam­i­lies dis­placed by con­flict and wit­nessed for them­selves the aid ef­fort be­ing car­ried out by World Jewish Re­lief.

All had been told to dress down, re­mov­ing any vis­i­ble sign that they were Jewish.

In the bus from the port city of Thes­sa­loniki, I had watched with amaze­ment as the rab­bis pre­pared them­selves, pulling out base­ball caps to cover their kip­pot.

I won­dered how I would have felt if mod­i­fy­ing an in­te­gral part of my iden­tity was needed to keep me safe or “so that peo­ple felt more com­fort­able”.

And I no­ticed the grace of those asked to do just that. This trip was not about them. As our minibus ap­proached the camp it be­came clear the ad­vice to travel un­der the radar had not quite gone to plan.

A vis­i­ble gath­er­ing formed at the en­trance and men in plain clothes and sun­glasses lurked on the edges of the road, while a marked po­lice pa­trol car drove by.

There was a mo­ment of un­cer­tainty, as hushed dis­cus­sions be­tween our party and the men in sun­glasses took place.

“No guns,” were the only words I heard, be­fore it was agreed the men

iden­ti­fied as Greek anti-terror po­lice would keep their dis­tance, as they fol­lowed Rabbi Mirvis around the camp.

Refugees ar­rived and were handed food and wa­ter as they were pro­cessed. Given a num­ber, they made their way into one of the ar­rival tents, a place to sit, rest and charge their phones.

There was no Greek of­fi­cial there to check their doc­u­men­ta­tion, no one other than our group and the tire­less vol­un­teers to ask them “how they were?” or “where they were go­ing?”

Our guide, Marie Halaka, from WJR’s part­ner, NGO Prak­sis, said: “Once they ar­rive on a Greek is­land they have to go to a re­cep­tion ser­vice to be reg­is­tered. Most Syr­i­ans have pass­ports but a lot of peo­ple from other coun­tries do not. They pro­vide their fin­ger­prints on an elec­tronic de­vice and they are sent over to se­cu­rity that checks they are okay. Then they get a pa­per so that they can make their on­ward jour­ney.

“They are not checked again un­til they are in Mace­do­nia where they will go to an­other re­cep­tion cen­tre.

“This border cross­ing is il­le­gal. That is why they are not checked here. The point of their be­ing refugees is they have to travel il­le­gally.”

She ex­plained nearby there was a nor­mal border where if I wanted to cross, peo­ple would check my pass­port and ask me why I was com­ing in.

Our own se­cu­rity kept their dis­tance, and at one stage even blended into the crowd, only to be iden­ti­fied, when Rabbi Mirvis asked them if they were “from Afghanistan?”.

A tall man in T-shirt and jeans replied: “No, Greek.”

It was not hard to see how easy it could have been for some­one to hide them­selves among the hun­dreds of peo­ple flee­ing con­flict.

Since Paris, Rabbi Mirvis has warned that clos­ing bor­ders to refugees in re­sponse would not make sense.

He said he was con­cerned about a back­lash against “the vic­tims of evil, not the per­pe­tra­tors”.

And he was right. The peo­ple who I saw, the chil­dren that I played with, were vic­tims, peo­ple who had seen their fam­i­lies mur­dered. Teenagers not al­lowed an ed­u­ca­tion by the dic­ta­tor­ships that ruled them. The ab­sence of checks and the op­por­tu­nity for safe pas­sage was not their fault.

We ar­rived back in Athens in the mid­dle of a na­tional strike — an­other ex­am­ple that the coun­try the refugees were pass­ing through was, it­self, in tur­moil.

I got in a taxi with rab­bis Danny Berg­son and David Ma­son, keen to re­flect on our day at the camp.

But that wasn’t pos­si­ble. Our driver seemed in a rush, agi­tated as our group of nine dis­cussed who was go­ing to go with whom. He shoved our bags off his seat and pulled away.

“What the f*** is that?” he said, point­ing to Rabbi Berg­son’s kip­pah.

My heart be­gan to beat faster for the first time that day, in­stinct telling me th­ese were not the ques­tions of in­no­cent in­trigue.

He sped along the high­way swing­ing in and out of traf­fic er­rat­i­cally.

“It’s a kip­pah,” Rabbi Berg­son, ex­plained.

“Why do you f***ing wear this?” the driver asked, sound­ing even an­grier.

Stunned into si­lence, a slow sense of fear crept in. But it was the calm dig­nity of my fel­low pas­sen­gers that really took my breath away.

We even thanked him po­litely as he jerked the car into the ho­tel drive.

Even­tu­ally he gave up, but not with­out re­mind­ing me that, in aus­ter­i­tyrav­aged Greece, where neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn is on the rise, it has its own prob­lems when it comes to at­ti­tudes to­wards those who are “other”.

I THINK my fa­ther is dead,” the teenager said. “I don’t know what hap­pened to him. Peo­ple said the Tal­iban killed him but I don’t know. I don’t know where he is.”

Nabi, an 18-year-old from Afghanistan, was sit­ting in the dust of a tran­sit camp in the tiny Greek town of Idomeni, re­count­ing the hor­rific events that had forced him to flee his home­land.

He had no idea that the man lis­ten­ing to his story, dressed plainly in black trousers, white shirt and a flat cap, was Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

Rabbi Mirvis, to­gether with four other United Syn­a­gogue rab­bis, was making a se­cret visit to the camp, next to the Mace­do­nian border, where 10,000 refugees pass through ev­ery day.

Rabbi Mirvis asked Nabi two sim­ple ques­tions: “How do you feel? Where are you go­ing?”

He lis­tened in­tently as the teenager de­scribed how he had trav­elled alone for 20 days, with no idea where he was head­ing, fi­nally making the per­ilous jour­ney across the Aegean Sea from Tur­key.

“I saw peo­ple drown and no one could save them,” he said qui­etly.

Be­hind Na bi a line of peo­ple stretched away — hun­dreds of refugees about to em­bark on the next leg of the jour­ney that they hope will lead them to safety in Europe.

They had been told to sit un­til their turn came to cross the border through the small gap in the fence that sep­a­rates Greece from Mace­do­nia.

Nabi’s eyes lit up as he told Rabbi Mirvis about his dreams of fur­ther­ing his ed­u­ca­tion. He said: “I love to study very much. In Afghanistan the se­cu­rity is not good, I can’t study there.”

The con­ver­sa­tion was cut short as Nabi’s group was given the or­der to stand and move on.

“I think you are amaz­ing, good luck,” Rabbi Mirvis said, reach­ing out to shake the teenager’s hand.

Nabi waved good­bye as he and 50 other refugees walked through the check­point. Within sec­onds an­other group took their place.

De­tails of Rabbi Mirvis’s visit to the camp had been a closely guarded se­cret as the plans to send him and four United Syn­a­gogue rab­bis to the camp, to view the aid work be­ing funded by the char­ity World Jewish Re­lief, were drawn up dur­ing the past fort­night.

The del­e­ga­tion ar­rived last Thurs­day morn­ing, making the 90-minute jour­ney from the city of Salonika by minibus.

The camp — four huge hold­ing tents set in an area the size of three foot­ball pitches — had only been there for a few weeks. It was es­tab­lished in Septem­ber to process the stream of refugees from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pak­istan.

World Jewish Re­lief’s Richard Ver­ber ex­plained: “Be­fore the camp was set up here it was just chaos. Refugees were ar­riv­ing in their thou­sands to what is es­sen­tially just a field.

“There would have been a few peo­ple vol­un­teer­ing and hand­ing out food, but that was it. The refugees ar­rived and just waited to cross the border, but there was no struc­ture, no help and many of them need med­i­cal at­ten­tion.”

The Chief Rabbi and his party had been told it was wise to “dress down” in the camp. In the bus they put on base­ball caps to hide their kip­pot. Some donned sports tops while they were briefed on se­cu­rity.

WJR project man­ager Josh Si­mons had vis­ited the camp a week ear­lier to find out how the refugees might re­spond to Jewish visi­tors.

He said: “Some peo­ple were like ‘ what­ever’ but oth­ers were more un­com­fort­able. Per­haps they only un­der­stood Jews to be one thing be­cause they come from coun­tries who are not par­tic­u­larly friendly to us, or per­haps it is tied into Is­rael.

“My sug­ges­tion to the rab­bis is to get to know them first, judge on the con­ver­sa­tions you are hav­ing, and if you feel you want to re­veal your iden­tity, then do.”

The Greek po­lice had been briefed about the visit. Of­fi­cers gath­ered at the

Refugees ea­ger to tell the Chief Rabbi about their es­cape from per­se­cu­tion camp’s en­trance as the rab­bis ar­rived. Af­ter a brief con­ver­sa­tion it was agreed the po­lice would keep a discreet dis­tance as they fol­lowed Rabbi Mirvis around the camp.

Ac­com­pa­nied by a guide sup­plied by Prak­sis, WJR’s part­ner on the ground, he be­gan a tour of the tents, where women hud­dled in cor­ners, ba­bies cried, and ex­hausted young chil­dren slept on their moth­ers’ laps.

He was in­vited to sit down by one fam­ily who had fled from Afghanistan. They told him: “We had to leave. All of us. This is all we have.”

The mother, who looked no older than 18, changed her baby’ s nappy while Rabbi Mirvis and her hus­band talked in hushed tones along­side them.

The Chief said he was moved by the sto­ries he heard. “Whether th­ese are refugees from Afghanistan or Syria or Libya, they are all talk­ing about the dan­ger­ous lives that they’ve been lead­ing and the dan­ger their fam­i­lies are in.

“Yet there is a real hope for a new life and de­sire to carve out a happy ex­is­tence for them­selves. We are just at one sin­gle point in their jour­ney.”

His fel­low rabbi Danny Berg­son, of Pin­ner United Syn­a­gogue, said he was over­whelmed by the ex­pe­ri­ence.

"No amount of brief­ing could pre­pare me for the ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing peo­ple at their most vul­ner­a­ble,” he said. “To hear peo­ple’s deep­est fears and un­cer­tain­ties was over­whelm­ing. I was moved by their sheer strength and op­ti­mism."

Rabbi Mirvis no­ticed that many of the younger refugees were us­ing smart­phones, up­dat­ing Face­book to let fam­ily know they were safe.

His guide, Marie Halaka, ex­plained: “It may look to some as a sign of money, but amo­bile­phonecould­beasim­por­tan­tas food. This is a mod­ern-day cri­sis — we all have tech­nol­ogy and it is the tech­nol­ogy that helps them on their jour­ney, it of­ten keeps them alive.”

Also ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Chief Rabbi was Rabbi David Ma­son, of Muswell Hill United Syn­a­gogue. He said: “I spoke to two refugees called Sha­hab and Mo­hamed. Sha­hab was Ira­nian and had met Mo­hamed who fled Afghanistan in a refugee camp in Tur­key. They were bro­ken emo­tion­ally. Sha­hab was shak­ing as he de­scribed the jour­ney across the sea.”

Rabbi Ma­son was sur­prised that refugees had lit­tle idea of where they were go­ing to in Europe. He said: “One fam­ily were all to­gether and their par­ents were al­ready in Ger­many — they had an ad­dress and ev­ery­thing. You could see psy­cho­log­i­cally there was a clear di­rec­tion ahead for them.

Oneboy made­the per­ilous boat jour­ney. ‘Isaw­peo­ple drown,’he said qui­etly

“But some­one else ac­tu­ally said to us, ‘where do you think I should go?’ I just can’t get my head around that.”

Rabbi Ma­son said he “found hope” in the fact he was able to “con­nect to refugees from coun­tries known for their hos­til­ity to Jews”.

He said: “You know it was quite amaz­ing, there we all were talk­ing, shar­ing hopes and dreams and fears, a Jew, Ira­nian and Afghani. We even talked to a Pales­tinian vol­un­teer. It ac­tu­ally gives me hope in hu­man­ity.”

A crowd had gath­ered as a vol­un­teer en­ter­tain­ment group called Clowns with­out Bor­ders put on a show.

Ms Halaka said: “It might look strange but this per­for­mance might be the first time the chil­dren have laughed in weeks.”

Dayan Ivan Bin­stock, also part of the del­e­ga­tion, said he was amazed by the "ded­i­ca­tion of the peo­ple who come to vol­un­teer and the ef­fi­ciency of the camp”.

For Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky, from Bore­ham­wood and El­stree United Syn­a­gogue, get­ting a chance to speak to refugees made a deep im­pres­sion.

He said: “See­ing a three-year-old girl be­ing treated by a doc­tor paid for byWJR made me proud of our com­mu­nity.” Thanks to WJR fund­ing, Prak­sis is able to pro­vide food and med­i­cal at­ten­tion to all the refugees ar­riv­ing in Idomeni. Bri­tish Jews have do­nated more than £700,000 to WJR’s refugee ap­peal.

A makeshift court­yard be­yond the tents was home to tem­po­rary toi­lets, show­ers anda“groom­ing shel­ter” where men could shave. Teenage boys wear­ing Gucci belts and


A group of refugees cross the border into the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia

Rabbi Mirvis greets a group of newly ar­rived refugees


A mother and her daugh­ters, tired af­ter their long jour­ney to the camp

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