Posts Tagged Nicholas Winton

Embers of Compassion

Today, on World Refugee Day, Help Refugees‘ legal action against Home Secretary Amber Rudd goes to the High Court. It’s the last chance to re-open the Dubs Scheme and give hope to some of the 95,000 unaccompanied refugee children across Europe.

dubsAs a six-year-old in 1939, Alfred Dubs was one of 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia who escaped to the UK thanks to a young stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, who has been described as Britain’s Oskar Schindler.  There were a number of such initiatives, known collectively as the Kindertransports, taking children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Danzig to safety in the UK – overall around 10000 children were rescued.   An American initiative saved another 1400 children.  Some of them were subsequently reunited with their parents, others were the only survivors from their families.   The transports took place between Kristallnacht, the point at which awareness of the grave danger facing Jews in Nazi territory became much more widespread, and the outbreak of war.

 

Even at such a time there were those who opposed any mass influx of refugees from Nazism, on the usual grounds (we’re full, we don’t have the resources, they’ll take ‘our’ jobs/houses etc) – but these objections seem to have been largely dropped when it came to the proposal to rescue the children.

The British government had just refused to allow 10,000 Jewish children to enter Palestine, but the atrocities in Germany and Austria, the untiring persistence of the refuge advocates, and philosemitic sympathy in some high places – in the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extend the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” – swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom.  It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would rejoin their parents when the crisis was over. A fifty Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” (http://www.kindertransport.org/history03_rising.htm)

Alf Dubs, now a Labour peer,  sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act in April last year that required the government to relocate to the UK a number of refugee children who had reached Europe unaccompanied. Though his proposed figure of 3,000 was not included in the law, many MPs and peers believed the government had committed to accepting something around that number.

However, Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, told MPs that the UK had admitted many children through other refugee schemes, amounting to a total of 8,000 in the year to 2016 (including those resettled directly from camps in or near Syria). But, she said, that “the specified number of 350 children … reasonably meets the intention and spirit behind the provision” of the Dubs amendment.

She also said

The Government have always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children. That is why children must have arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016 to be eligible under section 67 of the Immigration Act. The section 67 obligation was accepted on the basis that the measure would not act as a pull factor for children to travel to Europe and that it would be based on local authority capacity. The Government have a clear strategy and we believe this is the right approach.

Yvette Cooper’s response was robust:

This week, the Government cancelled the Dubs scheme after it had been running for less than six months. The Home Secretary said that it has not closed, but will she confirm what it said in the statement yesterday: that once those 350 children are here, that is it—it is closed? Where does it say in the Hansard record of our debates on the Dubs amendment that I have here that we will help lone child refugees for only six months? Where does it say that, instead of the 3,000 that Parliament debated, we will help only one tenth of that number? Where does it say that when we get the chance we will somehow turn our backs once again? It does not, because we did not say that at the time.

The Home Secretary knows that what she is doing is shameful. Not only has she closed the Dubs programme, but she has cancelled the fast-track Dublin scheme to help those with family here. The Home Secretary did very good work in the autumn of last year to help those in Calais and to make sure we could take as many children as possible, and I commended her for it. But she also knows that most of those have family here already and were entitled to be here. She has said local councils cannot do more; the truth is that many local councils have said they can do more with more support or more time. It takes time to set up these schemes, and they should not be closed down so quickly.

There are still so many children in need of help. The Home Secretary knows there are thousands in Greece in overcrowded accommodation or homeless, or in Italy still at risk of human trafficking, or teenagers in French centres, which are being closed down now, who have nowhere left to go. The Home Secretary talked about clearing Calais; they are heading back to Calais, and back to Dunkirk: back to the mud, back to the danger, back into the arms of the people traffickers and the smugglers, the exploitation, the abuse, the prostitution rings—back into the modern slavery that this Parliament and this Government have pledged to end.  …  We can do this; Britain can do better than this. Will the Home Secretary accept that and reinstate the Dubs programme now?

Clearly, the Home Secretary was unmoved.  Thus the legal challenge which goes to the High Court today.

All we’re asking for is the government to do their job properly and talk to local authorities about the actual number of spaces available. We know, and they know, there are hundreds more spaces available across the UK waiting to be filled.

How is it that, when there is evidence that we do have the capacity to support at least the number of unaccompanied minors proposed in the Dubs Amendment, the Government is unwilling to do any more?  Could it have anything to do with what they anticipate would be the response of certain newspapers, always obsessed with the threat posed by ‘migrants’?

Analogies with the Kindertransports are, of course, not precise.  As was pointed out by one Tory MP opposed to the scheme, today’s child refugees are already in countries that are deemed safe, having already survived the threat that they faced in their home country, and the perilous journey to Europe.   And the very real threat of Islamist terrorism makes it easy to demonise the adolescent males who would be eligible to come here under the Dubs scheme.  It’s not the same.

 

But at heart, it’s still just as simple as it ever was.   There are children and young people who have fled from unimaginable horrors, who are orphaned or have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight, who are vulnerable because of their youth (even those boys in their mid-late teens who look almost like men, but aren’t).  Of course they are ‘our’ problem, ‘our’ responsibility, if we regard ourselves as members of the human race first and of a particular nation second.   It’s a moral question first, and only secondarily a political or even a practical one.  There’s a very clear and obvious right thing to do so we should do it, and deal with the political and practical impacts as necessary.

Tragically, and to our shame, that isn’t the way the government sees things.

Mrs May calculates that the acceptance of refugees in any numbers constitutes a political problem. She sees the provision of asylum not as a moral or legal duty but as a risk of contamination. She looks at Europe’s refugees as a continental affliction best managed by quarantine. And she will gladly suffer the opprobrium of liberal-minded MPs, charities and religious leaders – including the archbishop of Canterbury – if it means escaping wrathful tabloid headlines stoking fear of invading foreign hordes. The numbers actually involved in the Dubs scheme are tiny, the least the government could do after every effort had been made to prick ministerial consciences. Now even that ember of compassion is to be extinguished.

The manner of its snuffing out – the news buried in a statement issued on the eve of parliament’s recess – proves that the government knows what it has done is shameful. That does not mean the prime minister or home secretary are truly ashamed. They hope the moment will pass; that not enough people will care about the cold-blooded cruelty of their actions; that the political cost of callousness is negligible. For the sake of Britain’s reputation as a country that still knows some solidarity with victims of war and terror, we must hope they are wrong. Mrs May must reverse this decision or be haunted by it.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/09/the-guardian-view-on-the-dubs-amendment-a-glowing-ember-of-compassion

History is likely to judge us harshly for this failure.  Meanwhile, there are children and young people who could by now have been starting a new life here, safe and secure, with the chance to regain their health and confidence, make friends, develop their skills and fulfil their potential, but who will at best continue to live the half-life of a stateless refugee, at worst who will vanish for ever.

Those who do give a damn aren’t giving up though.  No chance.

“In February Theresa May put Britain on the wrong side of history.   To our country’s shame, she decided to shut down the Dubs Scheme, which promised child refugees a safe future in the UK.  We fought tooth and nail to win this last year. I won’t let it slip away.  Join me in saying YES – I want Britain to rescue the most vulnerable child refugees.  The Dubs Amendment was a promise to us – to honour our proud British tradition of welcoming those most in need.  I saw that compassion and courage in Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued me as a child from the Nazi regime, along with 669 Jewish children. Acts of heroism like this define our country. They characterise the values we hold dear. Now we are faced with another such turning point in our nation’s history. Will we choose to follow Trump, or to honour our tradition of generosity, compassion and courage? We’ll need to fight harder than ever, organising our communities in the days to come. In the streets, in the offices of MPs, by joining local actions. We’ve won before. We will win again.”

Lord Alf Dubs.

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Don’t Stand By

What makes someone give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn? Giving a damn when it’s not their job, or when it’s a stranger who needs help rather than a friend or a neighbour, someone to whom they owe nothing?

The website of Yad Vashem includes the names and many stories of those who have been designated ‘Righteous amongst the Nations’.

These are people who sheltered Jews or helped them to escape during the Holocaust, often taking huge risks themselves to do so.

Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution … but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross.

(http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/about.asp)

Importantly, these are the people we know about. We know what they did because the people they helped to save told their stories.  But there were many, many more whose stories have not been told. Many of those who survived the Holocaust have never talked about what they experienced, and those who were children at the time may not have known who did what, who took what risks to keep them safe. The rescuers themselves have often been silent about what they did – in parts of Eastern Europe it was hardly wise to make a noise about it after the war, and others were too modest to promote themselves as heroes. It is also worth noting that some of those who chose not to stand by were themselves murdered, and some had to endure the knowledge of the fate that befell those who they had tried to save – in either case it is likely that their acts are and will remain unknown.

Nicholas Winton did not, as is sometimes reported, keep entirely silent about his work in organising transports of children out of Czechoslovakia, but he certainly wasn’t well-known for it, and it took a television programme in 1988 to bring it to worldwide attention. He is not recorded amongst the Righteous – but only because he himself was of partly Jewish ancestry. He was scrupulous in recognising that the achievement was not his alone, and his reticence may also have in part been prompted by the painful knowledge that many more children could have been saved, had the US and other nations been willing to take more of them in.

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As the number of survivors dwindles year on year, we may never know how many more of the Righteous there were.

In Poland, the epicentre of the Holocaust, over 6,500 people are recorded on  Yad Vashem’s database. This is the largest number for any of the countries listed – all the more remarkable since in Poland alone the act of saving or trying to save a Jew was punishable by death for the rescuer and their family.

Stefan Szablewski may have been one of the unknown Righteous. His grandson, Marek, has spent the last few years trying to piece together a remarkable story of life in Warsaw, of survival and resistance.   This has been a significant challenge:

I realised that not only did I have a unique tale to tell, but that as an only child I was the sole keeper. My knowledge, however, was incomplete. I needed to find the missing parts of the jigsaw puzzle to verify the facts that I had, and to learn more about the bigger picture. All I had to go on were my memories of conversations, several boxes of documents, a handful of photographs and medals, a bookshelf of books about Poland, a few contacts, and three precious tapes recorded for me by my father, which told some, but not all, of the story.

 

What these fragments show is that Stefan’s third wife, Anna, was Jewish and that she and her daughter were kept safe during the occupation of Warsaw, living under a false identity. In addition, there are records which state that ‘he organised safe houses or accommodation for people who were hiding along with the fabrication of identity papers, and also hid resistance literature and medical supplies.’ But there’s no hard evidence – just handwritten testimonies, and the recollections of Witold, Stefan’s son. Witold himself went into the Ghetto before its destruction, smuggling messages to the Jewish Council, and did what he could to help his stepmother’s family. Both the necessary habit of secrecy about such activities, and the level of destruction in Warsaw make it very difficult to find out more, or to know with certainty what happened.  The efforts of a second or third generation now are to gather the fragments that do exist, and build as much of a story as possible.  However incomplete, however many question marks remain, these stories are vital and compelling, and a reminder that the worst of times can bring out the best in people as well as the worst.

In Rwanda, the speed and intensity of the genocide meant that the kind of acts commemorated at Yad Vashem are even less likely to be recorded, and the narratives may be disputed. We have the account of Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda, against all advice, and did what he could to protect the lives of Tutsi friends, and by talking his way through roadblocks and negotiating with senior army figures (people who were heavily implicated or actively involved in orchestrating the genocide) to get supplies through and then to arrange the safety of the children in an orphanage.

Of course, the story of Rwanda is the story of a world of bystanders, and those who did stay, and did what they could, are haunted, tormented by the lives they couldn’t save and the knowledge that had the US and other nations responded to the warnings and the increasingly desperate pleas from those who were witnessing the slaughter, so many more lives could have been saved. Whilst the targets of the killing were clearly Tutsi and Hutus suspected of helping them, the murder of Belgian peacekeepers early in the genocide meant that Wilkens and others could not be certain that they would be safe, and as the militia at the roadblocks were frequently drunk and out of control, there is no doubt that they took huge risks. Hutu Rwandans who hid friends, neighbours and colleagues rather than joining in the killing, or handing them over to the mobs, were however taking much greater risks, and if discovered they were certainly killed.

The ending of the film Shooting Dogs has always bothered me.  The film shows a young Briton who was evacuated on a UN transport, leaving around 2,000 Tutsi in the compound of the Ecole Technique Officiel in Kigali, surrounded by Interahamwe militia, almost all of whom were killed as soon as the UN trucks left. In the final scenes, he is asked by a survivor why he left and he says that he left because he was afraid to die.  This is disingenuous (and not challenged by the film) – everyone in that compound was afraid to die.  He left because he could.  Wilkens’ fellow Americans, and the majority of the Europeans in Rwanda when the genocide began, left because they could. They had a choice, and – for reasons that any of us can understand – they chose to take the escape route offered to them. Reading these stories, most of us will ask ourselves, would I have left when I could? Would I have stayed and tried to help? If I’d lived in Occupied Paris, or Warsaw, would I have kept my head down, or tried to help?

If you were a gendarme, or a civil servant, or even a Wehrmacht officer, you could do your job, as defined by the occupying forces, and compile lists of Jews to be rounded up, or round them up and transport them to transit camps, and then on to cattle trucks, or carry out the murders yourself. Or you could use that position to get a warning out about an impending round-up, or produce false papers to enable Jews to escape, or take direct action to get people to safety.

It came down, as it always does, to individuals, to their ability to empathise, to see not the vilified ‘Other’ but someone like themselves, and to their sense of what is fair and right. Fear can overwhelm both, but somehow, wherever and whenever the forces of hatred are unleashed, there will be some who will refuse to stand by.

Think of Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim who worked in the kosher supermarket in Paris which was attacked after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He took some of the customers to the cold store to hide, whilst the killers shot and killed Jewish customers in the shop.

salah farahThink of Salah Farah. When al-Shabab attacked the bus he was travelling on in Mandera in Kenya, the attackers tried to separate Muslims and Christians. Passengers were offered safety if they identified themselves as Muslim.  The response from many was to ask the attackers to kill all of them or leave all of them alone. Muslim women on the bus gave Christian women scarves to use as hijabs. Farah was one of those who refused the offer of safety, and he was shot. He died in hospital almost a month after the attack.

There are always some who refuse to stand by.

 

http://www.thefigtree.org/april11/040111wilkens.html

http://hmd.org.uk/resources/stories/hmd-2016-carl-and-teresa-wilkens

http://hmd.org.uk/resources/stories/hmd-2016-sir-nicholas-winton

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/sendler.asp

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/socha.asp

http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Mandera-bus-attack-victim-says-Muslim-men-confronted-gunmen-/-/1056/3007070/-/7m4m27z/-/index.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-35352763

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-kosher-supermarket-hero-lassana-bathily-given-french-citizenship-for-bravery-and-calls-for-9991738.html

http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/news/marek-szablewski

 

 

 

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Refugee Week 2014

As this year’s Refugee Week draws to a close, I’m reflecting on what effect the experience of displacement has on the children who have been the focus of this year’s event, children who have lost so much that is familiar and reassuring in their lives, had to face hunger, physical danger, separation from family.  The photos of children in refugee camps, smiling for the camera, like children anywhere, should not lull us into believing they are and will be fine.  They are safe, for now at least, they will be fed, and have access to medical attention, maybe even some chances to learn.

UNHCR/D. Kashavelov/November, 2013

http://stories.unhcr.org/refugees/featured-refugees

But what about their future?

Children are resilient, they’re tougher than you’d think, as all parents remind themselves on a regular basis.   But how do those early experiences, that exposure to death and danger and horror, affect them as they grow?

We can draw upon the stories of an earlier generation of children whose parents entrusted them to strangers, to be transported across Europe and to be taken into the homes of other strangers, to be kept safe, in the hope of a reunion that for many was never to happen.   We know of the confusion that many of them felt, about their past, their identity (not all Jewish children were fostered in Jewish homes); and of the trauma of separation from parents and family, and in so many cases, of the discovery post-war that parents and family had been swallowed up in the barbarity and were lost to them for ever.

Some of the children wrote and talked about their experiences, e.g. Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses (1964)  fictionalised her experience growing up in five different English households, from the wealthy Orthodox Jewish Levines to the working-class Hoopers.  There are  a number of collections of memoirs, e.g. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2008, Bloomsbury/St Martins, New York & London) (edited by the daughter of a Kindertransport child).  A collection of personal accounts can be found at the website at www.quaker.org.uk/kinder.

The artist Gustav Metzger’s work responded directly to the experience that would have been his, had he not escaped in 1939 – in 1961 when he was on trial for civil disobedience, he made an unusually personal statement:

I came to this country from Germany when 12 years old, my parents being Polish Jews, and I am grateful to the government for bringing me over. My parents disappeared in 1943 and I would have shared their fate. But the situation is now far more barbaric than Buchenwald, for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment. I have no other choice than to assert my right to live, and we have chosen, in this committee, a method of fighting which is the opposite of war – the principle of total non-violence.

Alison Jones’ introduction to his auto-destructive art, and particularly his Historic Photograph series, makes the link very clearly:

In 1961 on the South Bank in London he painted hydrochloric acid onto nylon canvasses wearing a gas mask and protective clothing, so that eventually the canvas disintegrated South Bank Demonstration. The demonstration was of an artwork being simultaneously created and destroyed. His second manifesto on Auto-Destructive Art stated ‘Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummelling to which individuals and masses are subjected…Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture – polishing to destruction point.’ (3)

The language and metaphors Metzger uses clearly have reference to the military machinery of the capitalist state. Writing about Metzger’s performance, Kristine Stiles describes the temporal structuring and timing of ‘South Bank Demonstration’ as symbolic of the artist’s personal relationship to the Nazi gas chambers.

Metzger formulated his theory precisely 20 years after he was sent to England as a child of 12 in 1939, following his family’s arrest by the Gestapo in Nuremburg. 20 seconds then is a temporal analog for the time it took to destroy his personal world by killing his family; 20 years, the time of gestation in his own auto-transformation.

Metzger has also been stateless since the 1940s, another clear political response to what was done to his family, first by removing their rights as citizens, and forcing them from their home, him to safety in England, his parents to death in Poland.

Stephanie (Steve) Shirley’s philanthropic activity – as a highly successful businesswoman, she used her money to fund pioneering work on autism, and her influence to counter sexism – is something she explicitly relates to her experience as an unaccompanied child refugee, which she says ‘gave me the drive to prove that my life had been worth saving’.

Writing about the ‘One Thousand Children‘ initiative, the American equivalent of the Kindertransport, Iris Posner comments that they have been ‘inordinately successful’.  Perhaps the combination of the challenge of those early experiences and the sense of debt that Steve Shirley speaks about, have led such children to have a greater drive to succeed, and to give something back.

However, the Kindertransport and OTC children were lucky not just in being saved from destruction.  They came to affluent, safe countries where they had access to the best medical care, the best educational opportunities and employment prospects.   Many of their contemporaries, displaced in the chaos and brutality of wartime and postwar Europe, were not to have those chances.  Like many of today’s child refugees, they lost everything.

Even those who are most cynical, who believe the lies and distortions disseminated almost daily it seems by sections of our national press, would surely see that the fate of these children must be a collective responsibility.  UNHCR report that:

Almost half of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children and many spend their entire childhood far from home. Whether they are refugees, internally displaced, asylum-seekers or stateless, children are at a greater risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or forced military recruitment. They may also have witnessed or experienced violent acts and/or been separated from their families.

It’s a huge task, so daunting that one could throw up one’s hands and say, what can we do?

There are many organisations, around the world, who are doing what they can.  Working in war zones and refugee camps, working to support children wherever they are re-settled, trying to give them the chance of a life.

To quote Sir Nicholas Winton, who himself was responsible for saving around 700 children from Nazi Europe, ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it’.

With the resources we have, collectively, it’s not impossible.  It can’t be.

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