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June 14, 2019

Rabbis ‘humbled’ by meeting with refugees in Coventry


6 rabbis standing with refugee women in a room, smiling

Rabbis ‘humbled’ by meeting with refugees in Coventry

Rabbis from six United Synagogue communities travelled to Coventry in June to visit World Jewish Relief’s programme supporting refugees into employment. They also spent time visiting the Jewish cemetery, accompanied by the refugees and stopped by the Synagogue which is currently derelict. The Rabbis said they were ‘humbled’ by the experience of meeting people who had fled their homes and were starting their lives again in the UK.

Rabbi David Mason from Muswell Hill Synagogue had encouraged his colleagues to join him on the trip and was accompanied by Rabbi Nicky Liss of Highgate Synagogue, Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum of Hadley Wood Jewish Community, Rabbi Marc Levene of Belmont Synagogue, Rabbi Ephraim Guttentag of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue and Rabbi Sam Taylor of Western Marble Arch Synagogue.

The Rabbis spent the day with five  STEP (Specialist Training and Employment Programme) participants, some of whom have already found work including Martin who arrived in the UK from Iraq in September 2017. He was able to get a job at Waitrose before becoming front of house manager for a social enterprise café in Coventry.

The Lord Mayor of Coventry, Councillor Linda Bigham, hosted the group for lunch at the Council House. The Rabbis and refugees were able to share stories over a kosher bagel lunch where Alyaa spoke movingly about her experience after fleeing Iraq in 2010 to Jordan with her young children. She is now volunteering for local charities and her daughter Hafssa has secured work at clothing store TK Maxx.

The STEP programme helps refugees who have come to the UK on the government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. The programme is now active in five locations across Coventry and West Yorkshire and helps refugees find work through intensive English classes, courses that help improve employability and personalised one-to-one assistance with a dedicated employment manager.

The Rabbis also got to spend time with refugee families who had only arrived in the UK in March and were taking part in an English class before enrolling on STEP. Rabbi Mason said it was humbling spending time with people who have made such a momentous transition from their homes to the UK.

Rabbi Marc Levene said, “we got a very personal raw look at what a family goes through to move their entire life… I asked her (Alyaa) what did you take with when you had to leave your home? And she said ‘nothing, the clothes (on my back) and my children’… it really brought it home to me on a personal level.”

Rabbi Guttentag said World Jewish Relief’s work was the highest form of charity, enabling people to earn a living and support themselves and that it was a tremendous ‘Kiddush Hashem – a public sanctification of God’s name’, showing the world what the Torah teaches Jews by helping people to whom you may have no immediate connection.

Rabbi Nicky Liss said we have a responsibility to be global citizens, “we are blessed to live in a generation where we are settled in the UK… but we have that option to reach further afield and make a difference. World Jewish Relief and the United Synagogue (with its drop in centres) are both showing how we can do that, how the one-on-one help you can give to people can really make a difference to their lives.”

The STEP programme is funded via private donations, the UK Government and EU funding. Janice Lopatkin, World Jewish Relief’s UK Programme Director established the programme in 2016 and received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List earlier this month for services to refugees.

We were delighted that some of the Rabbis have written about their experiences and that their trip was also featured in the Jewish News.

You can read more about what the Rabbis thought of their visit to Coventry in this blog by Rabbi David Mason and in this article by Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum.

The STEP project is part funded by the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Making management of migration flows more efficient across the European Union.