Volunteers and refugees 'have so much in common'


When the refugee crisis made headlines and the Jewish community united in its response to help, Henry Raine was determined to do his bit.

But the 57-year-old never imagined his volunteering effort would result in him welcoming a Muslim Eritrean teenager into his family.

Mr Raine is one of 30 volunteers who, through the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (Jcore), befriend vulnerable young asylum seekers who have come to Britain without parents or a guardian.

The lawyer and father-of-two said: "When the crisis got under way we were talking as a family about what we could do.

"As practising Jews we knew our whole history was connected to the refugee journey and we really wanted to help."

He was introduced to 18-year-old Aman eight months ago after signing up to Jcore's Jump project.

The scheme matches unaccompanied refugee minors with trained adult volunteers - their befriender.

Mr Raine, who is a member of Highgate Synagogue in north London, said: "Aman was forced to flee one of the most oppressive regimes in the world and left his family when he was 16.

"He went through more than five different countries before he came here. When he arrived, he spoke no English. He couldn't write. He had never been to school and had only been to a madrassa, so he had enormous challenges facing him."

Mr Raine underwent a criminal background check and training in order to support Aman, who is in foster care in Barnet, as the teenager adjusted to life in the UK and education.

He said: "When I started, Aman had never been to the cinema before, so that is where I took him.

"We went to see James Bond. We did a lot of reading and writing together and we talked a lot."

But meeting up with the teenager once a week soon turned into more, when the lawyer introduced the boy to his family.

Mr Raine said: "Over the last nine months, Aman has become part of our family and we see him every weekend at least. We talk regularly throughout the week.

"We couldn't imagine our family without him. He gets on very well with my sons - who are 18 and 21 - and my wife, Rosalind. I think that is in part down to him not having a mother-figure around."

With 30 volunteers helping unaccompanied minors who have arrived from more than 13 countries, the project provides an opportunity for both sides to learn about different cultures and religions.

Mr Raine said: "Aman is a devout Muslim and one of the reasons he can come and eat with us is because we have kosher meat and he eats halal.

"It is a great thing that when relationships between our communities are frankly not great we are able to reach out."

Public transport campaigner and volunteer Lianna Etkind agrees. The 31-year-old was paired with 18-year-old Ethiopian, Armani, three years ago.

Ms Etkind said: "Being a Pentecostal Christian is forbidden by law in Eritrea. So when she came to the UK she became really active in her church and because I am very active in my synagogue we had a lot in common.

"I've been able to develop a friendship with someone I wouldn't normally meet."

Ms Etkind, a member of South London Liberal Synagogue, signed up to the project after her father, who is a rabbi, was approached by Jcore looking for volunteers.

She said: "I went on a training day and a few weeks later I met for a coffee with Jcore's project co-ordinator and Armani and her social worker.

"It was like going on a first date with our escorts. We swapped numbers and went from there."

Malte Gembus, Jump project co-ordinator, explained: "Most of the young people get referred to us through other agencies, so it is really important that when they are first paired up with our volunteers they have the support of someone they trust.

"They have fled conflict and are often traumatised, so it is important that whoever they are matched with is right for them and makes them feel safe and comfortable."

Despite the befriending scheme only lasting a year, Ms Etkind has been seeing Armani for three years, and now considers her as a close friend.

Ms Etkind said: "I guess when I first applied I thought I'd be helping her out with her understanding of the UK and helping her with homework.

"But it has been much more of a deep friendship than I had ever imagined.

"I have learnt so much from her and enjoyed listening to her so much. It hasn't felt burdensome at all."

Ms Etkind said she felt the Jewish community should be at the forefront of helping refugees.

"My Jewish values played a huge part in inspiring me to get involved.

"It is part of our history. And being involved in the project has given me a sense of anger at the refugee system in this country."

As Jcore celebrates its 40th birthday this month, it has 30 people on the waiting list to befriend a young asylum seeker.

According to Mr Gembus: "The response from the community has shot up.

"We have people in their 30s and 60s volunteering, but we also have younger people. One of our befrienders is 21.

"Another works for the Home Office and wanted to see what the experience was like for refugees and asylum seekers from the other side."

He said the asylum seekers - who are aged between 14 and 24 - benefit psychologically and practically from the project.

"It is a frightening and scary thing to be in a country without your family, often with no way of talking to them. To know you have people who are here to support you is so important."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...


Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive