When we look to refugees, we see a part of ourselves

The 'little Amal' wooden doll (Jewish News)
The 'little Amal' wooden doll (Jewish News)

Little Amal had been travelling for nearly three months before we could welcome her. Having set off from the Turkish-Syrian border in July, she’s travelled through Greece, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France on her journey to the UK. Now at St Paul’s Cathedral, alongside several hundred children singing a perfect welcome ballad (“Consider yourself at home”) and three other religious leaders, I could see her War Horse-like wooden frame making her way over, each step manoeuvred by specialist puppeteers. It was her face, though, that moved me. The face of a child in search of her mother is one that profoundly resonated for me, as I imagine it might for you. The face of a child fleeing from life-tearing violence is, unfortunately, one which Jews in particular have no trouble identifying.

“Little Amal’s” name might be treated with some irony. Although her 3.5 metre frame is nothing small, and towers above you as she approaches, her features are clearly those of a child, and I become very aware of the short length of her nine years. This confusion may be an apt partner for the second part of her name. Amal is Arabic for ‘hope’, and while her heart-wrenching story is fated to end in reunion with her mother, the future of the child refugees that she represents is less certain.

The day after I greeted Amal marked five years since the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp by the French government, which I visited a few times when it was functioning. At its height, the Jungle contained nearly 10,000 refugees, 1,300 of them unaccompanied minors. Now, refugees have even less stability. In an attempt to make the Calais area inhospitable for asylum-seekers, French police make frequent raids on refugee settlements in the Calais area, taking shelter and belongings from those who already have nothing. On the edge of our island is a humanitarian horror.

As a result of UK policy, refugees, people represented by Amal, have no safe, regular or legal passage to get into the UK. The only way they may reach the UK to claim asylum is by travelling on dangerous, and sometimes fatal, channel-crossings.

This policy arguably contravenes international refugee law. Worse, it costs human lives. The lives of people whose world has already been shattered by unspeakable sadness. It is important to remember that these are not voluntary, economic migrants. These are people forced unwillingly from their home into a strange land, something deep-rooted in our history and our psyche as Jews.

When we look to refugees, whether in France, Kenya or Bangladesh, we see a part of ourselves. And when we look to those who may offer help and refuge to those downtrodden, we should see ourselves at our best. We are told in the Torah to befriend the stranger, to treat them as a citizen, to not oppress them, because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our memory needn’t stretch that far.
We were also children on the Kindertransport and Mizrahi Jews fleeing Arab countries.

So what can we do? As a community, we can increase our presence and voice. We can double down on rallies of solidarity with refugees. We can speak out and organise against far-right groups’ targeting of hotels housing Afghan refugees. We can initiate and maintain discourse about refugee action in our community centres and synagogues. As individuals, we can give our time, our spare clothes and tents, even our rooms to temporarily house refugees.

We know what it’s like for Jews to face persecution for who we are. If we do not offer our solidarity to others in the same ‘boat’ as we’ve been in, who can we expect to return that solidarity?

About the Author
Rabbi Janner-Klausner grew up in London; worked as an educator in Jerusalem for 15 years working with Jews and as dialogue facilitator trainer of Palestinians and Israelis. She is the former Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism in the UK and is now a qualified inclusion and development coach
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