I have changed my mind. Until now I have stayed away from visiting the Jungle Refugee Camp in Calais. Many of my friends working in relief efforts have told me that visitors were not needed but food, trainers, tents and waterproofs would be useful.
So today I shall be travelling in a coach with a group of rabbis and imams (should that be a ‘bunch of rabbis and imams’???) to see the camp at first hand. They have been kind enough to extend an invite to a rabbinic student.
My reason for going is to hear from those in the camp their stories, hopes and aspirations: to show kindness to strangers and to understand more. I feel going with other religious leaders from our two faiths makes this a positive act of solidarity following the launch of World Interfaith Harmony Week. Furthermore, I have become increasingly shocked by the rhetoric from certain politicians and the media in an attempt to vilifying those in Calais.
135 years ago my great-grandparents walked out of Czarist Russia at the height of violence acted out against my people. They wanted to start their lives again and made sacrifices to ensure that their children and children’s children would not suffer from discrimination, oppression and persecution. They wanted a better life And faced similar criticism from politicians and the media of the day. They were no different in my opinion from those who have exited Syria or other war-torn parts of the world.
My friends in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have told me that the millions stuck in refugee camps there have no foreseeable future: no access to their homes, no access to jobs etc. And the mass migration into Europe has occurred as a result of young people wanting to get on with their lives and escape the inactivity and despair of the refugee camps on the border of Syria. For some of those with English it makes sense for them to try and come here: Germany is accepting migrants but the language barrier makes it difficult for them to get on the jobs ladder.
There are those who have attacked my position saying it is naive, that the migrants are somehow something else – that they are not who they say they are etc. The only way that I can verify this is by going there. 135 years ago we were accused of being economic migrants, of having Bolshevik Trojan horses in our midst, of being incompatible with the host society and worse. Plus ça change…
Still, I was reluctant to go until now because of accusations of voyeurism. Last month changed that as politicians ramped up the rhetoric back by an anti-immigration right wing press and the French authorities decided to bulldoze parts of the camp including a Church and a Mosque. This latter act seems to take away their dignity and their freedom of conscience. I simply do not understand why anyone would bulldoze even a makeshift place of worship.
As I sat in synagogue yesterday reading the weekly Torah portion there in black and white was the main reason to go: “And the stranger, you shall not oppress, for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt”…
And that is why I have changed my mind.