Why we should support refugees this Mitzvah Day

Edie Friedman is Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality. Mitzvah Day is this Sunday 22nd November. Click here to find out how you can get involved.

This article first appeared in the Hendon & Finchley Times.

Media coverage of the ongoing refugee crisis is diminishing, but the reality is that it remains very much with us and with the onset of winter, could be about to get much worse.

With many in north London, and beyond, coming together to help refugees and asylum seekers for Mitzvah Day – the UK’s biggest faith-based day of social action – on November 22, now is a good time to remind ourselves of some of the background.

The biggest driver of this crisis, the civil war in Syria, is now in its fourth year. Over 11 million people have become displaced, including 4 million refugees. More than 250,000 people have been killed.

But statistics can conceal the human reality behind the numbers.  It took the death of one little boy, Alan Kurdi, to change our perception and hence our attitude towards this crisis – which many are calling the worst since the Second World War.

As a result, a number of things have happened.  The biggest change is that the UK government has agreed to take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over a period of five years from refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, prioritising women and children and the most vulnerable.

The UK will work with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to select individuals and families for resettlement. The UK will not be taking any refugees through a European relocation scheme for those who have made their own way to Europe, so we will not be taking people who have made their way to Calais.

But what can ordinary people do? If you’re reading this and keen to help, how can you act?

One of the main difficulties in answering this is that to date very few of the expected 20,000 Syrian refugees have actually arrived in Britain.  The latest report says that 1,000 will arrive by Christmas with one third going to Scotland. Barnet Council has agreed in principle to house 50 families, though at this stage we don’t know if there are any concrete plans.

But even in the absence of new refugees arriving in Britain, there are plenty of things which people can do.

Mitzvah Day and JCORE are two organisations involved in supporting refugees: Mitzvah Day through facilitating huge collections of vital necessities for asylum seekers and refugees and JCORE through campaigning and awareness-raising.

This crisis will be with us for the foreseeable future.  It will require our compassion as well as flexibility in dealing with an ever-changing and unpredictable situation.

The photojournalist Giles Duley, in a recent article in the Observer cogently summed matters up:

“We can argue about the root causes and possible solutions; we can discuss the difference between refugees, asylum seekers and migrants; we can blame traffickers and smugglers.  But the simple truth is that men, women and children are suffering terribly and dying off the coasts of Europe and for the sake of humanity alone we must help them, not turn our backs.”

Make sure that you’re volunteering this Sunday as part of Mitzvah Day. If you’re a member of a synagogue, find out what they’re doing, or contact Mitzvah Day to find out what’s going on in your area.

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