‘In the spirit of the Kindertransport we want to extend
a warm welcome to Syria’s refugees’
A German Jewish girl is met off the boat at Harwich by a representative involved in the 1938 ‘Kindertransport’, which gave refuge to unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany or Austria. Photograph: Fred Morley/Getty Images
So far Britain has only taken in 187 refugees from Syria. But across the country there are many who are eager to open their homes and communities, explains Rabbi Goldsmith
Last week I travelled on a minibus from north London with a group of elderly members of our synagogue to the Houses of Parliament to meet their local MP, Mike Freer, and discuss the refugee crisis in Syria.
Anyone looking at us would have seen a group of retired doctors, social workers, teachers and accountants, but the conversations inside that bus revealed an extraordinary gathering of people. As we journeyed they shared their own experiences and trauma of being child refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria, most of them coming to this country alone. Despite the time that had passed, their recollections of realising, as children, that there was something terrible and wrong happening in their home countries, were still raw.
The group met Ayham, a recent refugee from Syria, who has come to this country through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme. This unlikely meeting of an elderly Jewish group with a young Muslim man, organised by Citizens UK, was a powerful moment. Many of our group saw themselves in this young man, and that meeting brought a sense of mission to us all.
It was clear that there was a sense of solidarity between the refugees, and Ayham was equally touched, saying: “My younger brother is very ill, he has leukaemia, and we were able to come to the UK to be with him and help him, we hope, recover. His terrible situation has meant we are now some of the lucky ones.
“I know, through Citizens UK, that many communities across this country also want to help the most vulnerable refugees. Meeting the group from the Alyth synagogue was a wonderful experience. They gave me such hope. I have seen how they have survived a terrible, terrible past to become successful, respected British citizens.
“Together we were welcomed into the Houses of Parliament and our testimonies were heard by a number of MPs. That was an experience we will all remember, and I hope it was the start of a story we can tell together to many more refugees in the future. To know I am supported by so many different people from across the UK of all faiths and backgrounds gives me strength.”
In 1938, as Britain braced itself for war, the government responded to the calls of faith and civil society groups, including brave people like the late Sir Nicholas Winton who rescued 669 Jewish children from occupied Prague, to grant a place of safety in the UK to 10,000 Jewish children through the Kindertransport programme alone.
If the government in the 1930s had listened to the critics who said we didn’t have room, and we had enough problems caring for our own, then the entire group stood before the Houses of Parliament with me would not have survived. We should not forget that the Daily Express in its editorial on the issue on 19th June 1939 was less than charitable saying: “There is no room for any more refugees in this country.” But instead the Kindertransport and many other refugee programmes undertaken since are part of a proud British tradition of helping those in most need. It’s in that spirit that we call on our local council leaders, our constituency MPs and our prime minister to listen to many of those same faith institutions and civil society groups and work with them to expand the VPR scheme and offer sanctuary to some of the most vulnerable refugees who simply are not able to stay in a camp. We must act now.
Currently the UK has admitted just 187 people through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme. The recent announcement by David Cameron will take that number over the next couple of years to about 700. To put this figure in context, an estimated 9 million people have been forced to flee their homes in Syria because of the civil war and the UN is reporting that 320,000 of the most vulnerable refugees need to be resettled from camps as a matter of urgency.
Citizens UK is calling on the government to increase this figure further still, and we have identified support for at least 2,000 refugees through our member communities across the UK. Our call is still small-scale in terms of the crisis, but it’s achievable. Local people have created the support networks ready to welcome new arrivals should the prime minister act and increase the number of people to be resettled in the UK through the VPR scheme.
We’re asking local councils to sign up to the VPR scheme and offer to resettle a small number of refugees. So far eight authorities have agreed and others are considering it – but concerns that they will have problems housing and providing for the refugees are a deterrent. Councils get EU funding for the first year to help cover the costs of accommodation, but we understand it’s still a big ask for local councils who are facing cuts to their tight budgets already.
That’s why we are also playing our part. Members from the 350 Citizens UK member institutions, which include churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, universities, trades unions and community groups, are tackling some of the practical issues that need addressing, working out how to provide housing, school places, healthcare.
We’ve identified private accommodation that can be used to house refugees; we’ve set aside rented accommodation, university flats and unoccupied housing association homes for use by refugees.
We’re pledging a warm welcome for newcomers offering everything from English language classes to invites for mother and baby groups. In our synagogue in north London we already run a refugee drop in session every Sunday where people come together to share food, offer advice on how to settle into the local neighbourhood and navigate British systems as well as link people up to groups like our knitting club. It’s our way of making people feel welcome.
You can encourage your local council to work with us here: Save Lives by Helping Resettle Refugees
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is a member of Citizens UK and rabbi at Alyth synagogue, in Golders Green London.
With thanks to "The Guardian" Click here