The asylum seeker drop in centres changing lives, and attitudes about Jews

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The asylum seeker drop in centres changing lives, and attitudes about Jews

One recipient of the United Synagogue-run centres said: 'In Nigeria we believed Jews worshipped idols. I’ve learned Jewish people don’t discriminate. They listen and help us'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

United Synagogue-run asylum seekers help centre
United Synagogue-run asylum seekers help centre

It’s a bright, sunny winter morning in Woodford Forest, and Kemi, from Nigeria, is talking about how she once regarded Jews.

We are standing in the courtyard of Woodford Forest United Synagogue. Kemi says: “In Nigeria we believed Jews worshipped idols, and that they only dealt with other Jews.”

Now Kemi’s daughter attends Ilford Jewish Primary School, and when a friend remonstrated with her that the little girl would be learning Hebrew, Kemi robustly replied: “So what? it’s good for her to learn another language” — adding — “I’ve learned that Jewish people don’t discriminate. They listen to us, and they help us.”

 Kemi is just one of the hundreds of asylum seekers, mainly women, who come to the United Synagogue’s drop-in centre in Woodford Forest. Pre-Covid, the centre operated out of Woodford Forest and Hendon synagogues, on a monthly basis: but government regulations and Covid restrictions have meant a radical shift in service and policy. Now it’s Woodford Forest only, and it’s a weekly event, in order to help the same number of people. 

Under the supervision of Yael Peleg, director of strategy and development at the US, and fieldworker Hannah Gerson, a team of devoted volunteers do whatever they can to help the asylum seekers.

United Synagogue-run asylum seekers help centre

Most of the women and their children live in cramped accommodation; they need basics such as food, clothes and essential toiletries, with nappies and feminine hygiene items high on the list.

Once, in pre-Covid days, the asylum seekers could sort through the items for themselves; now the volunteers pack up bags of clothing in the right sizes, shirts and trousers according to age groups, and hand them over. 

Food is another area which has changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic. Previously all the asylum seekers — who travel from all over London to get to the drop-in centre — would sit down for a hot lunch with the volunteers. There was chat and socialising and laughter. Now the volunteers make 150 meals every Tuesday in Woodford Forest synagogue’s vast and well-appointed kitchen, pack them up in containers, and hand them out to the women. 

Gifts for asylum seekers

The drop-in centres, explains Yael Peleg, “were the first social responsibility project of the United Synagogue”, and they have been running for two years. They operate in co-ordination with asylum seeker centres under the auspices of the Masorti, Reform and Liberal communities. 

People are designated asylum seekers as soon as they arrive in Britain; they are not allowed to work, receive a tiny subsistence allowance, and spend their time applying for leave to remain and to be designated “refugees”, a status which can take some time to achieve. The Jewish drop-in centres used to provide free legal and medical advice, but they have been shelved during the Covid restrictions — primarily because the discretion and sensitivity of the information would require a breach of social distancing regulations, and nobody wants to stand outside talking loudly about their private issues.

Food provided for asylum seekers

But even under such difficult circumstances, the volunteers and the asylum seekers get on well. The asylum seekers now have to book time slots and come in two at a time, rather than surging in all together as they used to do every month. They come from more than 30 different countries — Nigeria, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently a large number of Albanians. 

“We only take women who have children under 16,” says Yael Peleg. “There are very few men on the scene”. Each case is subject to stringent vetting to establish that they are who they say they are, usually by contact with the caseworker or lawyer assigned to them when they arrive in the UK. 

Roma* is from Namibia and says: “It’s a very important place for me to come. Covid isn’t the only thing killing us. We are starving, and the food we get here makes a huge difference.” Like the other asylum seekers, Roma gets from Woodford Forest a reimbursement of her travel expenses and a £15 Tesco voucher. She heard from a friend about the drop-in centre when she first arrived in Britain, and now she is a regular attender, Covid or no Covid. “They are saving people’s lives,” she says.  [*Roma is not her real name. It has been changed to protect her identity]

Food, books and toys are all handed out at the United Synagogue-run asylum seekers help centre

Mariam is from Chad and — as far as I can tell behind the regulation mask — is one big grin as she wheels her daughter’s baby buggy in to the courtyard of the shul. “I’ve just been granted leave to remain”, she says, having arrived in Britain in October 2018 after her husband had to flee from political opponents in Chad. She was told about the centre by other people in the hostel she stayed in when she first arrived. “It’s a lifeline,” she says. 

Because it’s Chanukah and soon to be Christmas, the volunteers have an extra task this week — wrapping up a huge array of presents for the asylum seekers’ children. The group are determined to make the families feel the warmth of what they are doing, and want the children to have toys and gifts so that they can tell their schoolmates that they, too, are celebrating. The mainly Muslim families don’t care that they are being helped by Orthodox Jews — they just appreciate the help, from whatever source. 

The Woodford Forest site is awash with donations from community members — even a shed on the site to contain bags of clothing has been donated. But the US’s latest scheme allows people to help from the comfort of their computers — — which takes the user straight to an Amazon wish list and allows the donor to buy much-needed essentials, from tooth brushes to deodorants.  

“We all have so much stuff”, Yael Peleg says, “and these people have nothing. This is an easy way to help”.

Around 400 individuals, adults and children, are looked after by the United Synagogue drop-in centre, representing 23 different nationalities. On the JN visit there were families from Pakistan, Iran and Iraq as well as five African countries.


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