Refugee Crisis Update from World Jewish Relief

Richard Verber is Campaigns Manager for World Jewish Relief, the UK Jewish community’s international humanitarian agency.

In the evening of September 2 pictures started to circulate round the world of one boy: Alan Kurdi. His image would grace the front cover of nearly every British newspaper the next day. Three years old, from Syria, he died as over 2,600 people have done this year, trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The world suddenly seemed to wake up. The timing was strange: the Syrian civil war has been burning for well over four years. 250,000 people have died. Nearly eight million Syrians are displaced within their own country. Another four million people have fled to neighbouring states – mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – for safety. Many have been there for years.

But it took the tragic death of one little boy – Alan – to galvanise the British public and get the government to act. The British Jewish community knew that it too had to stand up and be counted.

For many of our communal organisations this was a grim reality we knew all too well. JCORE have been campaigning on this issue for months and World Jewish Relief launched an appeal for Syrian refugees back in 2013.

With rations cut, resources expended and the prospect of conflict resolution at home in Syria non-existent, some refugees decided that the only option of a better future was a move westwards into Europe.

Once refugees starting entering the EU – and arriving at Calais in particular – the refugee crisis became a domestic issue for Britain as well as a foreign policy one.

British Jews felt a moral imperative to act, perhaps even a religious duty. Whatever our family backgrounds, we don’t have to go too far back in our history to find relatives who were also refugees.

For many people it is the story of the Second World War and the Kindertransport. Tens of thousands of children – and adults – were saved thanks to the Jewish community here and because Britain eventually opened its doors just a little.

I am only alive today because my grandma, aged eight, somehow made it to a boat from Germany, arriving in Southampton as part of the Kindertransport just two months before war broke out. Her parents died in Auschwitz as did her sister and cousins.

As the Jewish community’s response to international disasters, World Jewish Relief launched a new emergency appeal for Syrian refugees with the support of all the synagogue movements and youth movements, together with a number of community organisations like UJS and the Board of Deputies.

Although our television screens have shown thousands of refugees on the move across Europe, the greatest vulnerability amongst the largest number of refugees still remains in and around Syria itself.

World Jewish Relief’s focus has therefore been to work with other international actors to make being a refugee in Turkey, close to the Syrian border, as accommodating as possible.

Providing education facilities and winter emergency packages to Syrian refugee children seeks to ensure that these families are supported in the short to medium term, and encourages them to feel that there is at the very least a prospect of a reasonable temporary option. World Jewish Relief is delivering these services through our Turkish partner the International Blue Crescent.

Our emergency programmes manager was in Turkey recently visiting the refugee camps and monitoring our programmes. He was impressed with the accountability of our local partner, moved by the plight of these most vulnerable of refugees and convinced that our support is well targeted.

World Jewish Relief cannot of course ignore the fact that there do remain thousands of refugees on the move. We have two partner organisations in Greece providing medical support and emergency packages to refugees both on the North Aegean islands and for those transiting in Athens, Thessaloniki and on the Macedonian border in Eidomenei.

We know that the Jewish community, like other faith communities, are both willing and able to do more and we will continue working with the whole Jewish community to make that happen.