Refugee Week Op-Ed: “We cannot ignore it and hope it will go away”
By Paul Anticoni
Baraa came to the UK as part of the UK Government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme in 2014. He had fled the conflict in Syria and abandoned his home. On arrival in Coventry he was referred to World Jewish Relief’s Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP). Speaking almost no English and fearing that he had no job prospects Baraa saw his traumatic journey as endless. But within 18 months and after hard graft supported by others, Baraa’s English had dramatically improved and with World Jewish Relief’s help he secured employment at Timpson, the key cutters and cobblers. Since then he has been promoted to mobile manager helping other new employees join the workforce. He calls Coventry his home and celebrates the support our Jewish community gave him.
This week is Refugee Week, an important moment to reflect and act on the world’s 70 million people who are displaced from their homes. Unlike Baraa, the majority remain displaced by conflict within their country of origin or remain precariously housed in neighbouring states, split up from their family, with no right to work, living off meagre handouts and vulnerable to Covid 19 and the scourge of poverty. They cannot go home, cannot make a home and cannot move to a new home. Almost half of all current refugees have been displaced for over ten years. A generation of children are growing up stateless, without a home and certainly without an education.
This is clearly not a temporary phenomenon. We cannot ignore it and hope it will go away. It will require either an extraordinary, almost unimaginable global political effort to resolve critical conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia or a similarly almost unimaginable effort to support a constant flow of humanity that is with us for the future.
The spontaneous generosity and outpouring of support from our own Jewish community since 2016 has illustrated how the issue resonates with our own past and values. It is rare for me to need to explain to those around us why we should care. But I am reminded that in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel highlighted that victims of political repression rely on how we use our freedom to speak and act for them. He said, “the quality of our freedom depends on theirs”. Our own freedom is lessened by the suffering of others. And we have to realise that refugees are in need through no fault of their own – there is no personal failing in their decision making just the outcome of external forces.
There are no easy quick fixes to the problem even if conflict could be resolved. The majority of the worlds displaced are either in their own country of origin or in neighbouring countries, so supporting programmes to make life in these countries more bearable may reduce the risks needed for those displaced to move even further away. Giving refugees the right to work and earn a living is critical so that they can assist themselves. Speeding up a fairer and appropriate asylum system is fundamental particularly making sure that children are able to be reunited with families.
There is no doubt we need to increase the financial support to refugees in other countries. But we also need to take the responsibility to welcome refugees here in the UK. To help them navigate our culture, our local knowledge, our language and our employment opportunities.
I am proud that World Jewish Relief has utilised its expertise, gleaned over many years helping unemployed Jews find work in eastern Europe, to assist resettled refugees like Baraa secure his future here. Our STEP programme, in partnership with other agencies is supporting hundreds of refugees find work primarily in the north of England. We know from our own grandparents that language and livelihoods are critical to positive integration. Such learning is helping World Jewish Relief respond to those displaced or who are refugees in Ukraine, Bangladesh, Greece as well as the UK. As we like to say, “we helped refugees in the 1930’s because they were Jewish, and we help refugees today because we are Jewish”.
This Refugee Week take a moment to reflect on one of the defining global challenges of our time. Be open to the opportunities that migration presents to our welcoming society because as the Torah tells us “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”.
Find out how we provide support for refugees through our employment programme and emergency appeals.