Letter from Berlin
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK and rabbi of New North London Synagogue. He visited Berlin with IsraAID to find out more about their work with refugees living in Germany. This piece first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. Read it here.
I’m shown a child refugee’s drawing of the journey to Europe. It’s graphic, with people drowned on the way. Another depicts a Daesh beheading.
“Expression can relieve stress,” says Yotam Polizer, director of IsraAID’s field work, as we walk through a huge refugee reception centre in Moabit, a neighbourhood of Berlin.
Hundreds of people mill around, waiting. First they need to be issued a number; next, they have to wait until it comes up. Only then can they register. Everywhere, charities have set up tents. There’s also food, and an X-ray clinic to check for TB.
As well as assisting in Germany, which is absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees, IsraAID is already active in Greece, Croatia, Kurdistan and Jordan.
Mr Polizer tells me: “We’ve two teams on Lesbos. An island of 85,000 people, it’s had 100,000 refugees arrive in a single month. One team is medical; they stay above the beach, watching the boats arrive, then run to where they are needed. Boats come in at night. Rubber boats for 20 people bring in 50 or 60. There are many cases of shock and hypothermia.
“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked us to be a focal point for victims of shipwrecks, because of our experience with trauma. Many have lost their children; they stay until the bodies are found. There’s no Muslim burial on the island. We try to accompany those families, often for one or two months.”
Back at the reception centre, Mr Polizer points out the photos on the walls: missing persons, about whom relatives long for news; wanted persons, too. There are people from all over, he tells me; Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Africa, Chechnya, Kosovo. Many get temporary leave to remain; others get deportation orders.
He says: “The big gap we’ve identified is psychosocial. In Germany our focus will be mainly mid- and long-term. Experts come from Israel as volunteers for several weeks, providing training and support. They’ll work side by side with the Germans.’
A particular area of IsraAID’s expertise is its work with victimised women. Christian and Muslim Israelis from Nazareth and Galilee come, Jewish Israelis, Bedouin. There are few trauma experts from elsewhere who speak Arabic.
“Syrians are surprised, then glad, Israelis are helping them,” Mr Polizer explains. “One Syrian doctor said: ‘My worst enemy has become my biggest supporter; the people supposed to protect me chased me away.’ It’s a chance to build bridges.”
Last week IsraAID hosted shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on Lesbos. It would welcome volunteers with appropriate skills and support from the UK too.
For more information, visit: www.israaid.co.il