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Crisis on Continent Opens Britain’s Eyes to Plight of Refugees

On Sunday, September 6, in the sunny yard of a London school, I met Erica, a weary middle-aged woman from Eritrea whom I was trying to help. Over a Styrofoam cup of milky tea, she described her life—an unrelenting limbo of food vouchers, hand-outs and the unpredictable whim of local neighborhood councils.

An asylum seeker, Erica, is one of the successful few who has managed to get into Britain —— and has spent 13 years here, waiting for asylum status. Alone, unable to work and terrified of deportation, she tries to remain positive, her greatest challenge.

“It is so hard,” she related. “I share a house with two women from Congo. We try to keep each other cheerful. But we have nothing here. We are nothing here.”

Image by Lior Zaltzman

Across the English Channel, from the makeshift camp now sprawling its way down the French coastline of Calais, Erica’s nonlife looks like a dream. On a clear day, the White Cliffs of Dover can easily be seen from Calais, a major port for ferries between France and England that also lies close to the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.

Sudanese, Afghans, Eritreans and Iraqis are among the thousands who have made the treacherous journey to Calais in an attempt to cross into Britain, only to find themselves held behind barbed wire in France.

This summer, Britain has woken up to the misery our closed borders have created. Perhaps we’re having what might be described as a moment of collective shame, realizing that our border hysteria has condemned the wretched of the earth to unimagined horrors. Collection points have recently sprung up as we rush to donate clothing, toys, pots and pans, wellington boots, tarpaulins for the camps at Calais. We’re loading vans with whatever could be useful, and driving down to Calais to distribute goods. It’s a small gesture, but it represents our need to confront those whom we’ve shut out and acknowledge their suffering.

Directing efforts toward the crisis at Calais is an ongoing challenge. The immediate question here, however, is, whether we can take in a refugee family.

My daughter has moved from horror to direct action since we first saw the mass movement of desperate people. From her 11-year-old perspective, it is simple: “Nicholas Winton brought children on the Kindertransport,” she said, invoking the British humanitarian she learned about in school, who rescued 669 Jewish children from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia in 1938. “So why don’t we bring Syrians? They could live with us.”

The Syrian war is not the Holocaust. But the sight of exhausted people walking — yes, walking — across Europe stirs painful memories for Jews. It reminds many of us that we owe our lives to the kindness of strangers. The difference is that now, suddenly, we have become those strangers.

With no European plan or state provision, it’s down to us, the general public, to offer our homes as shelter. Judaism places great importance on welcoming the stranger. I wonder how many Jews will actually open their homes to Syrian refugees.

Contact Rachel Lasserson at [email protected]

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