You only have to look around you to see that refugees have contributed, historically. Your knickers may well come from Marks & Spencers. Your pantry may well stock the odd pack of Tilda rice or Patak’s curry paste. Your CD collection may well include something by MIA or Arnold Schoenberg, Wyclif Jean or Bela Bartok. Your bookshelves may well include works by Thomas Mann or Nabokov, your children’s bookshelves those of Judith Kerr or Jan Pienkowski. And that’s before you consider the contributions of the scientists, the philosophers, the painters, the film directors, the sportsmen and women who, at some point in their lives, had to leave their homes to find safety somewhere else.
Of course most refugees won’t turn out to be another Einstein, Marx or Freud. And those who arrive with nothing but the clothes they stand up in, and who live in near destitution, and in fear of deportation back to the peril that they risked everything to escape, will struggle to do much more than survive. But if they are given the chance to be who they can be, free of the threat of starvation, violence and persecution, if they are given the chance to use the skills and qualifications they already have, or to acquire skills that can be used to earn a living and pay taxes, who knows?
If we had not welcomed the children from the Kindertransport in 1939, we would never have known the contribution of impresario Bill Graham, entrepreneur Steve Shirley, film director Karel Reisz, Nobel Laureates Walter Kohn, Arno Penzias and Jack Steinberger.
If CARA had not enabled Jewish academics to take up posts in UK Universities in the 1930s, when they were unable to work in their home countries, we might never have known the contributions of Ernst Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner, Karl Popper, Max Born or Hans Krebs. Those individuals might well have been swallowed up in the barbarity. Anne Frank and Helene Berr left only their extraordinary diaries to suggest what might have been. Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann and Hans Krasa left only tantalising fragments of the musical oeuvre that they could have achieved. Walter Benjamin, Marc Bloch, Irene Nemirovsky, Max Jacob, Dietrich Bonhoeffer- all left a substantial legacy, but could have gone on, could have continued to influence and inspire.
If you really look at the photos above, what do you see? I see weariness and bewilderment, but also a fragile hope, the beginnings of belief in a future that isn’t all about fear and a desperate struggle to survive. I see people like us who had everything they’d relied upon taken away from them, and who have no choice but to trust to the kindness of strangers. We’ll never know the potential of the lives that are lost in the warzones and killing fields of the world, unless we help people in desperate straits to get out, and make a new life in safety.
They won’t all change the world – but they could change us. Our communities, fearful as they are, can gain from hearing the voices of people who have endured more than most of us could possibly imagine, and understanding that it’s all rather more complicated, and at the same time rather less threatening, than the rhetoric of the ‘send them all back – Britain is full’ brigade suggests.They can give us the chance to see things differently, to broaden our horizons as we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our homes.