Members of a delegation of six senior Orthodox rabbis said they felt “humbled” to share a meal with Iraqi and Syrian refugees supported by World Jewish Relief (WJR).
United Synagogue rabbis David Mason, Nicky Liss, Marc Levene, Yoni Birnbaum, Ephraim Guttentag, and Sam Taylor visited Coventry on Thursday to meet with refugees enrolled on WJR’s employment programme STEP.
The delegation later joined an English language class for refugees, who arrived in the UK in March, soon to enroll on STEP, which is part-funded by the European Union.
It helps some 350 refugees each year across the country come into employment through volunteering, skills training and one-to-one mentoring, with help from local groups.
Among the refugees supported by WJR, Alyaa and her children arrived in the UK last year, after fleeing Iraq in 2010, to Jordan, leaving behind everything she owned, except for a suitcase packed with clothes.
“In Iraq, I had such a beautiful house, warm, full of light and emotions. I left my house just to keep my children and family safe,” she said. “I lost my husband in 2011, who went back to Iraq and never came back. You can imagine the situation I was in. Fighting for my life to keep my children safe.”
After nine years of limbo in Jordan she could hardly believe the news imparted during a phone call last year that she and her children could come to the UK.
“One day, the phone rang and the United Nations told us ‘You can move to the UK on the 10th of September,'” she said. “I gave the phone to Hafssa because I was shocked, and I cried and cried.”
Thanks to the support offered by WJR, Alyaa secured a volunteering role as a classroom assistant and aspires to teach, while her daughter Hafssa currently works at TK Maxx. “I am proud of my children,” Alyaa said.
“We are now a volunteering family. Yesterday [the Council] told me they accepted my son to volunteer during the summer holiday at the central library. Thank you so much,” she said.
Rabbi Taylor, of Western Marble Arch Synagogue, was among those to pay tribute to WJR and the refugees supported by the organisation, urging the Jewish community to do their bit to support them.
“If you go back a couple of generations to when our families came to the East End of London, Liverpool, Glasgow, wherever it was, our families were like this a few generations ago,” he said.
“Just like communities helped our families a couple of generations ago, now is our opportunity to give back in a way and help the immigrants of the 21st century.
“To have an opportunity to meet with them and the [English-language class], it’s very humbling to see these people say ‘I like tomatoes’ or ‘I don’t like peppers’, to see people learning English in such a way is very humbling because we see how fortunate we are.”
Rabbi Marc Levene, of Belmont Synagogue, added: “Two things really struck me on a personal level, was talking to Hafssa and Alyaa, the mother and daughter. I asked her ‘what did you take with you when you had to leave your home’ and she said ‘nothing, clothes and my children’.
“She couldn’t take anything. We talk about it in theory but to speak to someone who did it nine years ago, literally taking the shirt on your back and her most precious things which were her children.”
Meanwhile rabbi Mason, of Muswell Hill Synagogue, the initiating force behind the trip who encouraged colleagues to join, described the “sense of awe and humility” he felt while listening to the emotional testimonies.
“Sitting next to individuals in the [English language] class and sitting next to Hafssa and Alyaa, I felt a tremendous amount of humility at being in the moment for these people.
“They cannot say the words ‘fruit and vegetables’ in English, or they have had to transition for nine years, survive refugee camps in Amman before coming over and not believe they would get another start in life.
“For me, the statement in the Talmud, which is that there are three identifiers of Jewish people […] that we are compassionate, humble, and that we give love and kindness. Those are values I felt at the forefront today.”
Coventry’s Lord Mayor councillor Linda Bigham, who attended the lunch, extended a warm welcome to the city’s refugees. “You are so welcome, and if Coventry is your place of safety then thank god.”
“Welcoming new people to Coventry is in our bones. We wouldn’t be Coventry if we didn’t do it,” she added.