First Person: Scenes From The Refugee Nightmare


It’s 2 in the morning when M knocks on our bedroom door: “I have to tell my story, now.”

He’s been living with us for several weeks, through Refugees at Home, a small British NGO that links asylum-seekers who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets with families who have a spare room.

I’m usually less generous when woken at such an hour, but I know M has fled for his life, passing terrors beyond my sheltered imagination. But this is the hour when he feels able to tell his story, so I get up, sit with him and listen. He makes me swear not to repeat what I hear.

This issue is not somewhere, but everywhere — in Europe, Israel, America. The contexts differ; they arrive from different countries. But they are all refugees, the past a trauma, the present a nowhere, the future – is there even such a thing as a future?

I’m walking with a group of faith leaders through the refugee camp at Calais, France, known as “the jungle,” wearing my kipa when a man accosts me in rough Hebrew: “I’m from Darfur. I was in Israel. They were nice, but there was no future. So I went back home, and they tried to shoot me. I escaped here; yes, on foot, and by those boats across the Mediterranean…”

I’m on the shore on the Greek isle of Lesbos, looking towards the Turkish coast from where the fragile inflatable dinghies overloaded with terrified families set sail. “Show me,” says a worker from Isra-Aid, pointing to the orange life-vest I’ve picked up from the shore. “Tear the lining,” she instructs. “Look, that material inside is water-absorbent. That’s a death-vest, not a life-vest.” Misery is profitable for some.

I visit the Muslim cemetery, created by a single volunteer among the olive groves: “Baby, no name,” “Girl, 3, no name,” read the inscriptions in Greek.

I’m at the drop-in center for destitute asylum-seekers run by my own community in North London, where people aged from 12 to over 90 volunteer, together with supporters of all faiths and none. Inside are men, women, babies, from the Congo, Afghanistan, too many countries. They need food, clothing, medical attention and, above all, competent and compassionate legal help. They know that between them and deportation stands only a good immigration lawyer and the solidarity of good people, committed enough to put their time where their values are.

One day recently, Rabbi Levi Lauer, a passionate Israeli social activist and founder of Atzum, which campaigns against the sex trade, speaks at my home: “What’s at stake?” he asks. “The moral reputation of the Jewish people.

“How can Israel contemplate sending 38,000 asylum-seekers from Eritrea and the Sudan to their probable death in countries in Africa who don’t want them? Such an action would undermine the very cause why the state exists, the reason we left Egypt, the foundation of why we are a people — to protect the most vulnerable, the ger, yatom, ve’almanah, the refugee, the orphan and the widow.”

Lauer continued: “That’s why thousands of Israelis went to the streets and declared: ‘We will not deport. We will shield these people physically.’”

In recent weeks, the focus turned to the brutal separation of children from their parents on the Mexican-American border. After protest from the closest possible domestic quarters, President Trump has apparently put a stop to this brutal cruelty. But it remains unclear where the separated children currently are, or how they will be reunited with their desperate parents.

Responsibility towards refugees is the concern of us all. It’s a moral requirement profoundly rooted in Judaism, text and history. “Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” teaches the Torah. It’s Judaism’s most basic paradigm; Jewish ethics summed up in a sentence: “You’ve been outsiders, repressed, reviled; you’ve known injustice, indignity, cruelty: therefore do justice, exercise humanity and practice compassion.”

Like many, I have a more personal reason for being involved. Both my parents were refugees by the age of 16. When my mother fled to Britain from Nazi Germany in 1939, she and her parents were hosted for many months by a Christian family. “What can we ever do to thank you?” my mother said when they eventually left. They answered, “You’ll thank us by one day doing the same for others.”

To be most effective in living our own responsibilities as Jewish communities, we should share best practices across our different countries, to learn from and encourage one another.

After years as an asylum caseworker for a member of Parliament, Caroline Smith wrote an award-winning collection, “The Immigration Handbook” (Seren Books), including the poem “Removal,” about the last minutes before a deportation: “The life support around you / has been taken away.”

It is up to us to help put it back. 

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is a Masorti rabbi who lives in London.