We have a moral duty to help asylum-seekers

By Helen Bamber, May 9, 2008
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We, who know about survival, must make the case for refugees publicly I suppose one could say that my professional life began at the age of 20 when I entered the former German concentration camp of Bergen Belsen a few months after its liberation. I was the youngest member of the Jewish Relief Unit, a unit that was formed during the war and had been training its recruits to work for the rehabilitation of Holocaust survivors as soon as the war had ended. I do not need to recount the horror of Belsen even after Camp 1 was burnt to cinders and the bodies buried. There were times when I felt overwhelmed by the suffering of the survivors and helpless in responding to their anguish. My experiences in Belsen after the war are at times still very much present in my mind today. It is through these experiences that I decided to follow a career dedicated to listening to the voices and silences of survivors — in essence, putting memory into action. I remember distinctly the moment when I overcame my sense of total helplessness. I was sitting on the ground with a woman, impossible to say whether she was young or old, and we were holding onto each other rocking backwards and forward. She was digging her fingers into my arms and rasping out her story like a kind of vomit. I suddenly realised what I had to do. I said, “I can’t change the past or bring back the dead, but I can hold and tell the world your story.”  I realised then that I could never be a bystander; the only power I had was to be a witness. It was my first lesson in overcoming helplessness in the face of massive psychic grief. I learnt that I could listen without recoil as we rocked; above all, I could bear witness to the past and to the continued suffering of the living. I did not realise until much later how important it is for a survivor to know that their story will be held and told by others. The survivors in Belsen had practical needs including physical and psychological care. They had, with our help, found their voice and they demanded a solution to their plight. Attitudes changed as they became a problem to the authorities, a nuisance and, eventually, a scapegoat. “They must have done something terrible to have deserved this,” said one army officer to me.  I began to understand that where there is no easy solution, those in charge turn against the victim. The victim is made responsible for his plight and is criticised for demanding a solution.  After Belsen, I began to understand how short the life of compassion is. When Belsen was liberated there was a sense of outrage, of compassion, a need to repair what could be repaired. But the Iron Curtain was consuming Eastern Europe, and people could not return to their countries of origin. When some young people tried to return to find if any of their family had survived, they were set upon and driven back into Germany. Some were killed. America and England did not open their doors to the survivors, and many remained in Belsen and in other former camps until the early 1950s. We see the same response to asylum-seekers in our society today. For Jews, the Holocaust casts a shadow in every living-room. How we deal with the legacy and take our place in the world is complex.  For some, it is enough to be alive, to live decently and to invest in family and friends. They do not wish to burden their children with a catalogue of atrocity and murder.  Indeed, how we tell our children has preoccupied most of us at some time. From others, there is a silence about the suffering of those who have been the present-day victims of persecution, ethnic cleansing, and extreme acts of human cruelty, people who in fact are walking our streets fearful and aware that they are “the other”: present-day refugees.  The silence, as I understand it, is not so much an arrogant disregard as a fear that to put one’s head above the parapet will draw attention to our own otherness, and thereby expose us to the intolerance meted out to present-day refugees. There are those of us who deny their otherness, who pull up the drawbridge and deny any commonality with other victims, other sufferers.  I was deeply saddened to hear a Jewish former Home Secretary exploiting the language of “cracking down on asylum-seekers”, rather as though his role of Home Secretary was greater than the lessons of the Holocaust. Were our grandparents to seek asylum today on the grounds of the persecution they were suffering, very few would be allowed to remain. So for me, the Holocaust carries with it a special responsibility. We are not just the victims, we are survivors. As survivors, we have a particular knowledge and understanding. We understand the capacity in others to deny the enormity and significance of what took place, to see the victims as somehow being responsible for their own catastrophe, and to turn against the victim for creating a problem that requires some sacrifice if a solution is to be found. Deep down in our very bones, we know what it is to be the “other”, to go to school and be identified as different, to walk in the street and to be afraid. We understand suffering. People respond differently, and I have heard it said: “You think we Jews have made it, but we still have enemies, don’t rock the boat, keep your head down, it could be us again.” Believe me, I understand this argument. But there is a counter-argument. Unless we accept a personal mission to do what we can, in whatever sphere of influence we have, to build a more humane and compassionate society, to make us more accepting of those who seek refuge, more willing to make a stand on behalf of those who have suffered atrocity and loss, more tolerant of difference, of otherness, then we increase the chances of it becoming us again. There is no easy answer. None of our choices is without danger. We cannot know the outcome. So we must be driven by other considerations, such as morality and Jewish ethics. And morally, the obligation we all have begins with the woman in the camp, to hold and tell her story. What does this mean for us today? The legislation governing the fate of those seeking asylum is punitive. There is no right to work as long as one is an asylum-seeker. Legal support is cut to the minimum by the reduction in funding for legal aid, many immigration lawyers are unable to continue, and many asylum-seekers are without legal representation. Healthcare, benefits and all means of support are withdrawn once a person is labelled a failed asylum-seeker. In such circumstances, people prefer to live on the streets with nothing rather than return to the country that persecuted and tortured them. A major problem for present-day asylum-seekers is the obligation imposed on them to give their complete story when first interviewed. Sometimes the most sensitive, and for them the most terrible, of their experiences emerge only slowly in the presence of a therapist or a doctor experienced in working in the field of trauma. Such late disclosure is looked on unsympathetically and often serves to undermine their case. Yet, we know how difficult it has been for Holocaust survivors to speak of their dreadful experiences and their massive losses. It will be no surprise to us that the survivors of Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur have difficulty in speaking of how they saw their children mutilated and destroyed. The Jewish community has always been generous in giving provision and clothes to deprived and helpless asylum-seekers and their families. I have only to ask J-Core, for example, and the items flow in. I know that a number of synagogues collect and give. My colleagues and I are forever grateful for the hand-knitted blankets and other items that arrive at a drop of a hat. All too often we offer our help in silence while there are institutions such as J-Core and the JCC, to name but two, which publicly make the case for asylum-seekers and refugees. But by speaking out, we can offer more than practical support. The evidence is there for all who wish to truly know. We can make the case, with those from other sections of the wider community, who are seeking a more humane and compassionate response to the survivors of modern-day catastrophic events. But our voice, the Jewish voice, will carry a special meaning because we have understood throughout our history what it means to be persecuted and reviled. There is a practical opportunity here to use our expertise — personal as well as professional — to be witnesses for the defence and to help the decision-makers understand the psychology of a survivor.  This means using the power we have as a community to act as advocates to politicians, the media and the public. For me, the obligation does not end with asylum-seekers and refugees. One lesson I have learnt is the importance of standing with all those who are victims of extreme acts of human cruelty, as otherwise we risk descent into division and, ultimately, institutionalised discrimination. For this reason, the Helen Bamber Foundation has chosen to work with survivors of genocide, torture, rape, ethnic cleansing and human trafficking for sexual and other forms of exploitation, including domestic violence. Together with my colleagues, we have built a practice that draws upon the skills of a wide range of experts in field of trauma and recovery. The multidisciplinary team comprises therapists, medical practitioners, caseworkers, interpreters and members of the legal profession. We are united by our commitment to upholding the principles of human rights and to treating the people who seek our help with dignity and respect. We accept that it is our responsibility to provide a voice for those who are voiceless so that their story can be told. By listening to the voices of survivors, we acknowledge what they have been through and support their recovery in a place where they can feel safe. We stand side by side with them and we ask the Jewish community to stand with us. In doing so, will we turn ourselves into targets?  I don’t know how much I can control or shape my victimhood, so I am willing to take the chance. I will continue to hold and tell the story. In the words of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, “it is how we treat the person to whom we owe nothing that will determine how we will be judged”. This is the true sign of our compassion, decency and maturity as a community and as a society. Helen Bamber is Director of the Helen Bamber Foundation. She will be speaking at a meeting of the Jewish Community Centre for London and J-Core, on the subject of Putting Memory into Action, on Tuesday May 13. For further information and to book tickets, go to www.jcclondon.org.uk

    Last updated: 3:25pm, August 19 2008