The journey towards freedom is not easy – JCORE

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Every year, we recall our ancestors’ journey to freedom through the Passover story. When we imagine ourselves walking from Egypt, we also express solidarity with displaced people escaping modern day tyrants and making their own perilous journeys. Tragically, as we prepare for our Seders, 70 million displaced people and refugees worldwide continue to face uncertainty and desperate conditions.

This year’s Passover falls in circumstances unlike any in recent memory. When we ask “Why is tonight different from all other nights?,” we do so at an unusual and unsettling time. As we begin our Seders, we may be separated from friends, family and community. At this time, we must also think of those forced apart by persecution and conflict; while our communities isolate, we must keep our thoughts outward.

During the Seder, we also remember that the journey towards freedom is not easy. Even after escaping oppression in Egypt, our ancestors faced many hardships. As we read of our forty years in the desert, present-day refugees are trapped in their own wilderness, in unsanitary and overcrowded camps on the edges of Europe. The Coronavirus lockdown has seen borders close and safe routes to sanctuary diminish, with family reunification and plans to relocate child refugees put on hold. Like those before them, they are stuck between persecution and the sanctuary of freedom.

Conditions also remain difficult for those who have reached the UK. JCORE is proud to support young, unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees, through our JUMP befriending project. Already one of the most vulnerable groups within society, many of these young people have suffered psychological harm, are socially isolated and face severe economic hardship. As well as introducing new problems, the Coronavirus pandemic has amplified pre-existing challenges. 

During a time of stockpiling and supermarket shortages, the very limited statutory support provided often isn’t enough, leaving refugees and asylum seekers at a very real risk of extreme poverty. Social distancing regulations have stopped food banks and drop-in centres, a lifeline for years, from running in-person services. Valuable face-to-face social contact, critical to the wellbeing of young people, is also no longer possible. Whereas previously young people supported through JUMP could enjoy rewarding activities with their befrienders, they now have limited opportunity to enjoy time and space away from often poor-quality accommodation.

Despite these chaotic, and challenging times, the refugee and migrant support sector, including drop-ins run through the Jewish community, have adapted swiftly. Organisations like the West London Welcome Centre, where our JUMP project co-ordinator also works, have quickly joined forces with other services, ensuring that all of their clients’ needs are met.

Food banks have moved to food delivery, and while this doesn’t replace the social environment of drop-in centres, it ensures vulnerable people are kept fed. Befriending projects like JUMP are also still running, with phone and online contact now substituting in-person meeting. Crucially, services like legal support and advocacy, English classes and creative projects, like art, yoga and theatre, many of which were previously run at drop-in centres, have adapted and moved online.

While such responses are admirable, they highlight essential needs. Many young refugees are now unable to access the internet, having previously relied on cafes and libraries. Alongside preventing social contact, the lack of WiFi in their accommodation is stopping young people from accessing the latest coronavirus health advice, and newly online services run by charities and drop-ins. Those without internet or laptops are also unable to keep up with their peers while schools and colleges are closed.

Despite all these challenges, there’s a huge amount that our community can, and are, doing to contribute. Following the words “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, there are several actions we can take to support refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

As a first step, write to your MP and local authority and ask them to do more to protect the most vulnerable. The coronavirus doesn’t care about immigration status, and neither should our responses. Asylum seekers must be provided with safe, sanitary accommodation, greater financial support and internet access. Countries like Ireland and Portugal have also removed restrictions on asylum seekers and undocumented migrants accessing public services. It’s common sense for it to happen here too.

If you’re able, contact your local refugee and migrant drop-in centre to see how you can help, or donate food, or old smartphones, laptops or tablets in good working condition. And when normality resumes, take action and campaign for the UK to fully commit to refugee family reunification after Brexit. Together, we can act to ensure that next year, more refugees and asylum seekers see freedom. Then, truly, for these refugees, it would have been enough.

To learn more about JCORE and how you can get involved or support click here.