Journey to help the abandoned
LAST WEEK, legal history was made. On Wednesday, in the notorious Calais Jungle, I was fortunate enough to witness it. I met a young boy, one of four refugees — three children and a young adult with mental health problems — who were having their cases heard in a UK court, lawyers arguing over the boy’s fate at the very moment we spoke.
“Where are you from,” the boy asked me. “England,” I replied. His response, full of sadness, and just a hint of envy: “you’re going home today aren’t you?” At the time, neither of us knew that so was he.
A representative of campaigning organisation Citizens UK, named Laura, whom I met only on Wednesday, was the first to hear the news: “They’ll be arriving in King’s Cross tomorrow,” she announced.
It was astounding. I was moved to tears witnessing the raw emotions of volunteers who had achieved the ultimate outcome for the vulnerable people they work with. The UK courts had decided that four refugees in Calais, three of whom are minors, should, without delay, be reunited with family members in the UK.
Laura had seen these children and vulnerable people regularly for almost a year. She temporarily resides in the town of Calais and has built outstanding relationships with inhabitants of the camp itself.
Her own tears were those of renewed hope as well as a human response to hearing good news about those who matter to you.
I am proud that the Jewish community has found a common cause and a group of people who matter to us. When Jews look across the Channel, we see ourselves.
Last week, I saw Tarek, a 17-year-old boy, who had been alone in Calais for four months. Tarek saw his cousin killed in front of him, one of more than 250,000 reportedly killed in the bloody conflict in Syria.
Tarek has not just been forced fromhishometown,andthenfrom Damascus. His family left Lebanon because of the racism they faced as Syrian refugees. Their time in Turkeywasendedwhenthesituation became unsustainable, with no work opportunities. His mother, who was pregnant, managed to get to the UK.
Tarek, now on his own, is not one of the lucky ones to have been reunited with family in the past few days.
British Jews, and the country as a whole, are on our own journey. We’re rediscovering our campaigning drive, our ability to turn our concerns into action, our ability to partner God in changing the world. This matters to us.
For instance, in September, Reform Judaism held a meeting on the refugee crisis. Announced on the Friday, for a Monday gathering, we had no idea how big the room would need to be. Despite such short notice, almost 90 people attended.
For me, this set the tone for what has been an outstanding few months of campaigning work. Huge credit must go to Citizens UK for leading much of this, and laying the path to the successful outcome in the courts last Wednesday. Rabbi Rich and I sit on the National Refugee Welcome Board. Rabbi Mirvis recently visited a refugee camp in Macedonia with World Jewish Relief, which has just launched a project helping newly arrived refugees find employment in the UK
Often, when we don’t sense instant success, we grow tired. We had the upsurge of media coverage when Alan Kurdi’s body was so tragically washed up on a Turkish beach. Interest spiked, the Prime Minister committed to taking in 20,000 refugees. And then the crisis faded from our screens again.
Firas, from Damascus, who I also met in Calais, is a talented translator. He sat shivering with cold, telling us other people’s stories. His own was compelling, too. “You make me just a refugee,” he said “I’m not a refugee. I’m a telecommunications engineer.” Firas knows Europeans are concerned about terrorism: “Take whatever you want from me. Fingerprints, photos; ask me about my experience. Ask me anything.”
It’s hearing these stories that galvanises us to act on our values. Bringing about change is not a competition to shout the loudest. It’s about learning the strongest arguments and persistently reminding ourselves and all of Britain of the humanity of the crisis in Calais and beyond. Hearing Firas talk so constructively about his plight reminds us not only of the desperation of the situation, but of the prevalence of solutions.
There is now a push for a private sponsorship scheme, that the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements are all supporting. Individuals and communities can raise money to sponsor an individual or a family. In Canada, such a scheme has worked successfully for years.
With suggestions that David Cameronisnowconsideringtaking in unaccompanied refugee children from around Europe, we are again seeing the fruits of values-based, committed campaigning, from across Britain, and across the Jewish community.
The evening after I returned from Calais, I stood at Kings Cross with hundreds of other well-wishers, keen to welcome these four young refugees to the UK. The event was a poignant and rare celebration — we all knew how much more work there still is to do. But everyone had that bubble of excitement that told them this wouldn’t be the last time they’d be able to celebrate. To protect individuals, the names of all refugees mentioned have been changed