Syria’s children and a fine tradition of refuge

I have been very moved by the news about the Dubs amendment passed in spring 2016: Britain has agreed to take lone children who do not necessarily have family ties to the UK and are under 13, and girls or orphans who are fleeing warzones and had reached the European Union by March 20.

As these first children arrive from the migrant camps, it is worth thinking of how poignant the tradition of this legislation is. Lord Dubs, who sponsored the parliamentary amendment which enabled the humanitarian move, was himself brought to the UK as a refugee from war.

He was brought to Britain from Czechoslovakia on one of the Kindertransport trains in 1939, the operation that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, rescuing 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany and other East European countries.

Children sent by Kindertransport from Germany were those most in peril: teenagers who were in concentration camps or in danger of arrest, Polish children or teenagers threatened with deportation, children in Jewish orphanages, children whose parents were too impoverished to keep them, or children with a parent in a concentration camp. They could only take a small sealed suitcase with no valuables and only ten marks or less in money. Some children had nothing but a manila tag with a number on the front and their name on the back, others were issued with a numbered identity card with a photo.

That image of a child labelled like a parcel has informed more of our culture than one might at first think. Consider Paddington Bear, whose creator Michael Bond has revealed his enduringly popular creation was drawn from his own memories of the wartime refugees.

And a recent play at London’s Chickenshed Theatre also delved into the subject with a play called Kindertransport, which followed the story of nine-year-old Eva. The play explored how she was torn between her German heritage and her need to wipe the Kindertransport experience from her memory. With life imitating art, one of the lead actors Michelle Collins revealed her own grandfather had been a Belgian child refugee.

Inspiringly, despite such a desperate start to their new lives, many of these children went on to make a very meaningful contribution to life in their new countries. Lord Dubs has devoted his life to politics, and others grew up to become scientists and writers. Frank Auerbach is one of the UK’s most illustrious artists. Walter Kohn became a physicist and Nobel laureate. Herbert Wise from Austria led a successful life as a British theatre and television director.

Will any of the young refugees arriving in UK go on to such fulfilling and purposeful lives? We cannot and must not ask too much. Instead let us think not what they can do for us, but be glad of what we can do for them.

The biggest challenge is how to support them to recover from the trauma and to be integrated into a completely different culture and lifestyle. That way they will have the best chance to become a productive and fully participating member of society.

However, in this day and age, with political and economic uncertainty everywhere, and mixed with the threat of terrorism, it is inevitable that we ask ourselves what price are we willing to pay for humanity? How do we find balance?

In helping the refugee children, we learn about our own hearts. A friend once told me that if we see someone fallen on the pavement, we can either walk around them or lend a helping hand. It is that simple. We see the best of ourselves in the hope that we foster, the compassion we give and the lives that we change. One hopes that tradition of giving refuge will always be sustained. Humanity depends on it.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation

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