This week our Drop-In for Destitute Asylum Seekers celebrates its tenth anniversary. Over these years it has offered warmth, friendship, food, clothing, and legal and medical advice to thousands of people from babies to the venerable aged, rendered stateless and homeless by war and violence.
Whenever I’m at the Drop-In, I’m acutely aware that here are people whose stories I do not know, and, if I did, would not be able to fathom. I have sometimes reflected on what refugees lose, – home, family, friends, community, language, hope, capacity, financial means, respect, the daily knowledge of how to manage the thousand little things that enable one to function competently until one finds oneself cast up and cast off in an alien land. It’s not just the past which people tell me they have lost; of equal, or sometimes greater, significance is the loss of future: ‘I’m not wanted here and not needed here; don’t know where to sleep, or where to turn. I can’t even begin to create a future because I’m not allowed to work and all I want is to make a contribution, and build up my family once again.’
The suffering many people have undergone on their journeys of flight, the fear of deportation, the violence experienced directly or indirectly, – we who have lived safe lives do not have the wherewithal to comprehend such matters truly. A lady asked me years ago to pray for her children. ‘Where are they?’ I asked. She had received news from two of them, albeit they were still in danger; about the others there was only silence, in all these many months not one single word.
The Drop-In has been inspired by a deep sense of Jewish values. They derive from the injunction not to hurt, humiliate or oppress the stranger, ‘because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,’ and, we might add, in Germany, Poland, the Middle East and many other lands. They derive from an understanding of Jewish history which commands us to transform the experience of past sufferings as the butt of society, at its margins, as its victims, as the recipients of every kind of hatred and contempt, into the urgent and irrepressible imperative to stand by, and stand up for, all others at whom such mistreatment is directed.
While the heart of support for the Drop-In is the synagogue, volunteers come from many faiths and communities and the body of people who help make the centre run represents in itself a great achievement. Perhaps it is more than fortuitous that this week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, which means ‘He brought together into a community.’ The common purpose of creating sacred space, building a dwelling for God, brings together people of all ages and different gifts, and this itself is part of what makes the space holy. I have been moved to see volunteers from their teens to their eighties, from doctors to those who play with the children, come together to care.
I am deeply grateful to those who envisioned and founded the Drop-In and have kept it running for all these years, most especially Diane Taylor and Deborah Koder. The centre and its leaders have also provided the inspiration for other such projects established by fellow communities.
I am thankful for everyone who has in the past and will in the future take on leadership roles entailing many hours each month of devoted commitment, as well as to all who participate in and give financial support to the work of the Drop-In. It is neither a simple nor a cheap project to run and everyone’s help is greatly needed and much appreciated.
As the Drop-In marks its tenth year, the news grows more disturbing. The northern borders of Greece are being closed; people are being removed from the camp in Calais, including unaccompanied minors; and the lack of a coherent, compassionate and pragmatic response to the crisis of refugees, as well as to the crises which have made them flee their homes in the first place, is ever more deeply troubling.
Here on our door step is something practical and immediate we can and must do. The plight of many seeking asylum here, from the Congo or Cameroon, has often been passed over by the media in silence, yet they suffer no less. We can help by donating clothes and food, volunteering on the day, making a regular donation, and in offering help with housing.
As Lord Ashdown recently said, simply investing in walls and fences is never the final answer. And through walls and fences one is less likely to see the other person’s humanity, his or her tears, fears and hopes.