‘Where’ll she sleep if we haven’t a room?’
‘On the busses, I expect, like often.’
‘We definitely have a room!’
That was a conversation between my wife and Refugees at Home. Ms X. stayed with us for just three weeks; our only problem was stopping her helping around the house the whole time out of gratitude, which made us feel terrible.
This is Refugee Week; tomorrow is World Refugee Day.
Our whole country is mourning Dame Vera Lynn, not just an amazing singer but a wonderful human being, who died yesterday at the age of 103. Her voice, like Churchill’s, sustained, consoled and inspired the nation during World War 2. Her most iconic song is probably ‘We’ll meet again.’ Refugees, when they flee, know that they’ll probably never meet again, never see their parents, their children or the place that once was home.
My great-aunt Jenny told me: ‘The worst time in my life was putting my children on that train in Frankfurt Central Station.’ She saw them again; most parents who wept their way home to desolate rooms in 1938 or 39 never did.
A Midrash explains that God told Abraham to leave home so that he would become the father of all gerim, all outsiders, temporary residents, refugees. The word ger occurs countless times in the Bible, almost invariably with the command not to abandon but to care for them. The classic biblical dictionary gives the root meaning as ‘sojourn,’ including ‘dwell as a newcomer for a (definite or indefinite) time without original rights.’ How those words ‘indefinite’ and ‘without rights’ beleaguer on the souls of thousands, of millions today.
They resonate across Jewish history in the repeated experiences of marginalisation, extortion and exile. Commenting on the Torah’s command not to oppress the stranger, Rashi says simply ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’
When I was six, my father lost his passport (as in ‘lost and found;’ he’d truly lost it once before when he fled Germany aged 16.) Cupboards were ransacked in the search. ‘Why does a passport matter?’ I asked. He answered, ‘If you ever don’t have one, you’ll know.’
Our world still buys and sells people, for slavery, sex or both. Countries bleed other countries dry, through tyranny, exploitation or climate negligence. We must never again trade in the misery of others, individually or nationally. Their pain is not far away: Windrush, children stuck in the Calais ‘jungle’ unable to join family in Britain, people in indefinite detention, cut off from future, hope.
Hope is what gives strength to the feet of refugees: a safe life, a life without fear, a life of work, of making a contribution. That’s what Refugee Week is all about: ‘a UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees.’
S, who escaped a massacre in the Congo and is now a specialist teacher and pastoral counsellor, just told me he and his wife are expecting their first child. B, who fled state terror and is now a physical trainer, called me for a reference: ‘I’ve been asked to offer exercises in a care home just re-opened after Covid.’
Where would the NHS, food, the arts, be in this country, without those of us who were once refugees?
I sometimes think about that Rashi: ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’ The wounds we receive can make us heartless, or they can open our hearts more deeply.
Here is a link to some of the organisations we care about and support.