by Jenni Frazer
“Syrians are not statistics”, declared World Jewish Relief’s programmes manager, Josh Simons, and never was this more true than on Wednesday night at JW3, London’s Jewish community centre.
A packed and shocked audience froze in silence as Razan Alakraa, a young British-born woman from a large Syrian family, recounted in distressing detail the endless tragedies that have befallen her family since the beginning of the Syrian civil war more than four and a half years ago. Her uncle and two cousins had been tortured to death; her entire home village had been totally destroyed; 15 of her cousins were now said to be missing; some female relations had been raped and tortured; and her oncologist fiance, now marooned in Lebanon, had been tortured for six months and now suffers repeated shoulder dislocations after being hung upside down in Syria.
The evening was a coalition event across the Jewish community spectrum as a way of reporting back the initiatives being taken by more than 20 communal organisations to help with the burgeoning refugee crisis. But despite the numbers – of both refugees and asylum seekers, and of aid given and money raised – it was the personal stories which resonated.
The evening opened with testimony from a Kindertransporte survivor, the entrepreneur Sir Erich Reich, who had arrived in Britain aged four in 1939. “I was born in Vienna but the family was deported to Germany because my father was Polish,” he recalled. Sir Erich noted that Britain had allowed 10,000 children to enter the country in 1938 and 1939 and has written to Downing Street, urging the Prime Minister to review UK policy regarding the Syrian refugees. Like many speakers throughout the evening, Sir Erich said that helping the Syrians was at the core of what being Jewish was about.
Under the stewardship of Richard Verber, WJR’s campaigns manager and senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies, representatives of four London synagogues – New North London, Alyth Gardens, West London and the Liberal Jewish Synagogue – spoke about their monthly drop-in centres for asylum seekers. Alyth Gardens is the only one which serves people who have achieved refugee status, but the programmes have proved so successful in the other synagogues that there is now a standing offer to help launch similar drop-in centres in other communities.
Charlotte Fischer, the first Jewish community worker to be appointed to Citizens UK, issued a heartfelt plea “to move the Jewish community from charity to justice.” She urged support for the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS) and a challenge to the government as to who can be admitted to the UK – since, at the moment, for example, regulations do not allow Razan Alakraa to bring her fiancé into Britain under the terms of family reunification.
Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk of Finchley Progressive Synagogue recounted the emotional moment when Richard Cornelius, the leader of Barnet Council, had told her: “Rabbi, the answer is yes”, after Barnet finally agreed to take in 50 Syrian refugees under SVPRS. It was the latest victory in a campaign run by the synagogue and – as many speakers at the event noted – the irony of the Jewish community celebrating Succot and then dismantling the temporary structures, which could serve as shelter for many refugees, had not gone unnoticed.
Two new volunteer panels, of Jewish lawyers and medics, are being established to offer legal and medical expertise to asylum seekers and refugees.
A number of the speakers – including West London Synagogue’s Nic Schlagman – were the grandchildren of refugees. Mr Schlagman, who drew attention to the Jewish community’s umbrella website, www.supportrefugees.org.uk, was one of several present who had recently visited refugees in Calais. Later, he told the Jewish News that not only the refugees themselves, but other aid workers from the UK, were “amazed” that Jews should be helping refugees and asylum seekers. “Some English guys came to us and said, you do know there aren’t any Jews here? And we said, yes, we know. But helping these people is part of what being Jewish is.”