St John's Wood community offers lifeline to asylum seekers

Members of a Liberal Jewish community have spent the past year offering legal, financial and practical help to hundreds of asylum seekers. Here they explain why.


It was a Sunday and inside the usually quiet St John's Wood Liberal Jewish Synagogue members were franticly organising clothes and food parcels, ready for the growing number of asylum seeker families queuing outside.

One mother juggled a screaming baby on her hip while struggling to keep hold of a suitcase. Others waited silently with shopping trolleys, their children tugging at their arms.

But their bags were not packed ready for a summer holiday. They were empty, waiting to be filled with clothes, nappies, toiletries and food parcels, all donated and prepared by Rabbi Alexandra Wright and her team of 10 volunteers.

For Rita Adler, giving up her Sunday is a "drop in the ocean" compared to what she could be doing to help the asylum seeker crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean.

She explained: "I might be exhausted by the end of the day, but it is once and month and it is worth it when you see the children run through the doors happy to be here, to be fed, and to play."

The synagogue is transformed into a day centre every four weeks. Its hall becomes a restaurant and its succah a playground for asylum seekers and their children.

Shul volunteers, take it in turns to hand out care packages, help to pick clothes and fill out forms for more than 100 refugee families who have come to rely on their help.

Rabbi Wright explained: "We see people coming from the Congo, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, China, and Albania - you name it.

"We provide a hot meal for the children and the parents and a supervised play area and stalls where they can get good quality second-hand clothes.

"When they come they each get a food package of essential items that can feed a family.

"Each adult gets £10 cash and £5 reimbursement for travel. Plus we offer a solicitor, doctor and social worker for them to talk to - all for free."

For Mrs Adler the response from the community has been "overwhelming" since the shul decided to launch the drop-in last year.

She said: "We are never short of volunteers, and the donations of food and clothes we get are never-ending.

"We even have members as young as seven saying they want to help."

Karen Newman volunteers each month alongside her teenage daughter. She said building relationships with regular vistors to the centre had been mutually beneficial.

Mrs Newman said: "We've come to know the regulars and they tell their friends about us. It is like an extended family, you get to know them and their stories.

"You can't help but want to do something for them that will make life a bit easier. It is not easy being an asylum seeker or refugee. The conditions they face are far from ideal."

One of the first through the door is 33-year-old Degu, originally from Ethiopia. Mrs Newman explained: "He was one of the first people I helped when the centre opened and now we have come to rely on him for help.

"He has great English and can translate for us when Ethiopian families come in for the first time."

Degu is one of more than 31,000 people who made an asylum application last year. He explained his experience of being in a detention centre.

"It is hell on earth, worse than prison, the windows are locked, the air is hot and it feels like hell. You have no idea when you will leave or where you will go," Degu explained.

He said the shul centre and volunteers had given him faith and hope: "I've been able to speak to solicitors here who have helped me with my case.

"They don't judge me. They listen and just help.

"I know a lot about the Jewish community, being from Ethiopia, and I know a lot about Israel because it is in my bible.

"My great-grandparents were Jews and in our churches we have the Star of David. Coming here feels familiar, I would not be anywhere without this place."

Mrs Newman said: "To be able to help someone like him is what it's all about.As Jews you see what is happening to asylum seekers and refugees in this country and you think, it wasn't long ago we were in the same position."

As she directs another user, Kimani, into the line to register for cash, his children run off to the play area and his wife collects food and clothes.

"My story is long. I've been seeking asylum in the UK for 13 years," he explained. But Kimani's case is not unusual.

More than 21,000 applications for asylum received since April 2006 were still awaiting a decision at the end of March this year.

"I had a lot of trouble at home," Kimani said. "I was a student and was involved in the political resistance. It was violent. I suffered and eventually I found a way to get out.

"Now I'm here and I'm safer physically, but I'm trapped. I can't work. If I do I get in to trouble."

With no clear indication of when his application will be settled, Kimani has to rely on the shul's drop-in centre and an asylum seeker benefit of £36.95 a week to help clothe and feed his family.

He said: "Here at the synagogue you can get bread and milk for the children, and they can come and play and the volunteers are warm and kind.

"My children sometimes need things that I can't buy for them. As a man that makes me very sad.

"It makes you feel like you are not a human being, or you are not strong. But at least we can come here and get help."

Rabbi Wright was inspired to start the centre after witnessing what other shuls in the community had done to help asylum seekers.

"When I preached the idea in a sermon last year people signed up in droves," she said.

"We have always been involved in refugee work. When the shul was first founded we helped bring people over before the Holocaust.

"The widening gap between the rich and poor in our country has placed asylum seekers at the bottom of that pile.

"We feel it is core to Jewish values to stretch out our hand to the needy. As Jews if we are going to embody our faith we have to practise it."

*Some names have been changed to protect identities

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