Volunteers at the drop-in centre work together to offer legal advice, medical care, transportation passes, child care, nutritious meals, friendship and more. (photo from New North London Synagogue)
What would your daily life be like if you were not free? For starters, you would have to learn the skills of surviving while in a state of constant fear. Are you facing torture or rape? Are you in jail for a crime you did not commit? Is there a gun pointed at you because you are gay? If the opportunity to escape persecution presented itself, would you risk your life for a chance at freedom?
Every day in the news, we hear of courageous people doing just this – risking their lives to be free. No matter how dangerous it may be to attempt escape, flight offers their one hope for freedom. The lucky ones end up in free countries. What happens later, though, for those whose hope of establishing legitimacy, of officially being recognized as refugees, is gone? How do undocumented asylum seekers get by?
I was honored when my cousin invited me to volunteer with a group of asylum seekers while vacationing in London, England, last year. Though I was only there for three hours, I caught a brief glimpse into their lives and it has left a lasting impression on me.
Since 2006, New North London Synagogue has been running a monthly asylum drop-in centre. Launched by volunteers, the group works with asylum seekers whose claims have been denied. The group offers medical treatment, legal advice, healthy meals, food parcels, transportation passes, clothing and diapers. The drop-in centre is housed at an elementary school, which I’m told is not large enough to accommodate the more than one thousand people who come from metropolitan London to get assistance.
Asylum can be defined as “a place offering protection and safety; a shelter.” Judging by the crowds in need at the New North London Synagogue, Britain would seem to have failed to offer these protections. Most of the asylum seekers that use the centre’s services have chosen to stay and live in abominable destitution rather than accept deportation to the places from which they risked their lives to escape.
Researching the situation of asylum seekers through the Refugee Council of the United Kingdom, I learned many facts, including:
• The vast majority of people seeking asylum in Britain are law-abiding people;
• Many asylum seekers fear approaching the police to report incidents of assault or sexual harassment. They fear that reporting crimes will expose them to being placed in detention and eventually deported;
• Immigration officers have the power to detain asylum seekers, even if they have not committed any crime; even on mere suspicion.
My cousin, Catherine, is a regular volunteer. Her fluent French is an asset and she often serves as an interpreter. I was there in August and Catherine was worried that there might not be enough volunteers. Thankfully, there were plenty on that day.
Fifteen minutes before opening, a briefing takes place to explain the events of that afternoon. I volunteer to help with the children, as that’s where I think I can be of best use. The children have a section to themselves, but parents may not leave their children unsupervised. In the briefing, we are forewarned that some of the children have difficulty interacting and some may not be comfortable with play because the toys available are foreign to them.
Upon arrival, everyone receives a name tag. New asylum seekers are interviewed. Some queue for legal or medical advice. Everyone enjoys a nutritious meal. There are people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, South Sudan, Zaire, Nigeria and Turkey. It is fascinating to hear the various languages and dialects being spoken.
Eventually, I sum up the courage to sit down and speak to people. I talk to a blind woman from Iran who has been coming to the drop-in centre for several years. She lives in a little room, a good 15 miles away. She has no kitchen facilities and must rely on the kindness of friends for food and other necessities.
A Nigerian family of four has been coming for eight years. They ask me about Canada. They have family in Toronto and have heard such wonderful things about this country but, at this point, they do not dare to make enquiries about moving to Canada. As I hold their youngest child, it’s hard not to feel sad that this little boy, despite being born in Britain, may not be afforded legal status.
A single mother tries to gulp down some lunch and socialize with friends while chasing after her active 2-year-old twin girls.
A situation that touches me deeply is assisting a young paraplegic man from central Africa. He tells me that he arrived in England eight months prior. Once a Paralympian, his proficiency at manoeuvring his rickety manual wheelchair around narrow corridors and cracked sidewalks is impressive. All his family remain in Africa. He tells me that his goal is to become a lawyer. I guide him to the bus stop where it will take him roughly two hours to get home.
Little children are sitting at tables, munching on snacks and playing with the large assortment of toys. All are supervised by a group of caring volunteers who take time to play and read with them.
Surveying the scene it’s hard not to feel that the situation these people face is grim. It’s a harsh reminder that all is not OK in Britain – or in the world, for that matter. Indeed, there are many British who wish asylum seekers would go away and take their problems with them. There’s a post on the New North London Synagogue website that seeks to clarify the situation: “All of our clients have fled persecution and many have been tortured. Yet myths prevail that this group are here for benefits, free housing and to take British jobs. In fact, asylum seekers are not allowed to work and many receive no accommodation or government support.”
At the same time, despite the despair, positive moments are in evidence. Expressions of a caring community are everywhere, woven into every activity. Camaraderie can be felt in the crowded rooms. In fact, if someone were to walk in off the street, they would see what looks to be a happy afternoon gathering. People sit in groups, smiling, laughing, exchanging information and eating a plate of nutritious food. Children play, interacting with each other. Enthusiastic volunteers, teenagers and senior citizens and all ages in between, are connecting and offering advice. Many of them are former asylum seekers who have been given permission to stay in Britain and are volunteering to give back to the community.
On that day in August, the hope was that people would leave the drop-in centre with renewed hope, their spirits lifted, and that volunteers would feel they have played at least a small role in brightening someone’s day.
We must all be active in raising awareness of refugee issues, so that refugees and asylum seekers can know the peace and freedom we are so blessed to enjoy. This Pesach, at my family seder, we will read the Haggadah, celebrating our people’s journey to freedom. My family and I will stop to think of all the refugees of today who have had to make their own exodus from persecution, extreme hunger and violence, and even from modern-day slavery. Stateless, many are forced to continue to wander in an urban wilderness. May they find peace and comfort in a new land.
Jenny Wright is a singer, music therapist and freelance writer in Vancouver who is interested in setting up a similar drop-in centre here. If you are interested in learning more, email [email protected].