Progressively Speaking: We owe it to our ancestors to help refugees

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Progressively Speaking: We owe it to our ancestors to help refugees

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi writes about the Jewish perspective on International refugee week

Eighty years ago my father, Rabbi Harry Jacobi,  arrived in this country aboard the SS Bodegraven from Holland. The boat had been commissioned by Gertrude Wijsmuller to bring him and other children from the Amsterdam Orphanage to safety.

However, it was not a safe journey and the boat was torpedoed on the way. Finally, they reached British waters, but it took several days for them to be given permission to land.

As we mark Refugee Week, I am even more conscious of my father’s legacy, and the legacy of so many of our parents and grandparents.

History repeats itself, as can be seen in a short film, available on Vimeo, that my father made before his death called The Story of Harry and Ahmed, which also gives the account of a young Syrian refugee.

Thousands of desperate people continue to go to sea in inadequate vessels in order to flee persecution – and many of them drown.

Their plight was highlighted recently when the body of 15-month-old Artin Iran Nezhad, who was found in Norway. 

The flimsy boat carrying him and his family capsized off Dunkirk and his family, including children aged six and nine, and all drowned. 

The government is proposing to deny refugee status to asylum seekers who do not come by recognised routes. But it is in the very nature of seeking asylum that it is often done by clandestine and dangerous routes.

The only real way to stop people taking desperate measures to reach safety is to find some way of keeping them safe in their home countries. That, of course, is a long-term goal. In the meantime, we must have the humanity to recognise our responsibility to help other human beings whose lives are in danger.

Sending back boats or similar measures will only increase the dangers and result in more tragic loss of life. My father said: “If we can save even one life, we should do so”, echoing the Mishnah, which teaches, “Whoever saves a single human soul is as if they save an entire world.”

We owe it to our own parents and grandparents and our long history of having to flee persecution to help the present generation of refugees, to ensure that they are treated humanely and with compassion and to make sure that children such as Artin no longer lose their lives in their search for freedom. 

  •  Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi serves Birmingham Progressive Synagogue
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