Jewish Chronicle – Meet the refugees who sought sanctuary with Jewish volunteers

July 7, 2019 5:52 pm

The Jewish Chronicle this week featured the Muslim guests with Jewish hosts that our charity has paired together.

From Pinner to Acton, Jewish hosts have been a key part of Refugees at Home’s work, and here they talk about their relationship with their Muslim guests – from understanding laws about food to creating environments to pray.

You can read the full story here in the Jewish Chronicle, or it is reproduced below. 

Abdul Malek Al-Keblawi is a 20-year-old Syrian refugee living in Pinner.

He is a Sunni Muslim, but on the door he opens each night after work there is a mezuzah, and his housemates are a Jewish couple in their 70s.

He is one of 850 refugees to be offered a safe place to live through Refugees at Home — a British charity aiming to connect those with a spare room with asylum seekers and refugees in need of accommodation.

According to the charity, Sarah and David Levy* are one of a disproportionate number of Jews who have opened their home to those fleeing conflict in countries including Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Ethiopia.

“I had never met a Jewish person before,” Mr Al-Keblawi tells me.

“In my country on the television all that was said were bad things about them [Jews]. But when I came to the UK they looked after me. They offered both hands, not one,” he says.

At 16, Mr Al-Keblawi, who has been hosted by more than one Jewish family since arriving in the UK a year ago, fled his country alone, leaving behind his parents and five siblings.

“My family were worried that I had to join the army. I did not want to kill anyone or be killed so I had to leave.

“I had no money, no clothes, no food — it was dangerous. I was scared and very lonely,” he explains.

He made the dangerous journey through Turkey, Greece and Macedonia until he reached France, where he stayed for a year before making the journey to Britain this year.

It was another difficult step. He watched as his fellow refugees from the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp died attempting to jump onto moving lorries. He was too frightened to make the move himself.

“I was on the highway a lot of nights, it was terrible. I didn’t feel safe,” he says.

After a friend suggested an alternative he travelled to Paris where he got into the UK by hiding inside a suitcase that was loaded onto a coach bound for Britain on the Eurostar.

“I couldn’t breathe so I had to leave it a bit open and curled myself up so tight it hurt. I was very frightened.

“One man chucked his suitcase on top of me. It hurt, but I had to stay still. It took three hours to get here,” Mr Al-Keblawi says.

He wandered around London for four hours before walking into a police station to ask for help.

The Levys are no strangers to his situation; Mr Al-Keblawi is the second refugee they have taken in.

“We knew there was a need and we could help,” Mr Levy says plainly.

For the couple, who also foster vulnerable young people, there was never any doubt about providing a home to a refugee from a country with less than sympathetic views towards the Jewish community.

“During our fostering we have had lots of non-Jewish children. Welcoming Muslims is no different. In fact it has been great because they understands the kashrut laws.”

The couple’s primary concern was “being able to create a supportive environment for someone who needs it.

“Malek studies at college and he has a job. He is determined to better himself. We are in awe of how he has managed, being so young and with no one.”

Mr Al-Keblawi’s family, who are now in Lebanon, cannot believe he is being looked after by a Jewish family.

“When I talk to my family I tell them I am treated like one of their children. They can’t believe it, they say it is not possible, but I tell them it is,” he says.

Before the Levys, Mr Al-Keblawi was hosted by another Jewish family who taught him about Judaism and the religious festivals.

“It was strange for me but interesting. We have Ramadan, it is the same sort of thing but different,” he says.

Sara Nathan and her husband, Malcolm Singer, have also welcomed refugees into their home.

The couple, from West London, said it was the obvious thing to do after their children left home.

Ms Nathan, 62, currently has two refugees living with her.

She explains: “We thought it was silly to be rattling around in a big old semi-detached house and we saw the need.”

The family, who belong to West London Synagogue, was moved to help at the height of the refugee crisis.

“My brother’s mother-in-law fled Vienna. Our family in the UK took in Kindertransport children,” she says.

Since 2016 they have provided a home to seven refugees, the majority of them Muslim men aged 18 to 30.

“It isn’t a Jewish charity but they have more Jewish hosts than any other background. I think as a community we have a sense of appreciation that anyone can be a refugee,” says Ms Nathan.

“We also know refugees go on to be pillars of society and upright citizens.”

For Mateza Hasan, a 25-year-old Muslim who fled Ethiopia for political reasons, living with Ms Nathan and Mr Singer is his first experience of meeting Jews.

He explains: “She keeps halal which is great and they understand Ramadan. They look after me and cook for me and I will respect them forever for what they do for me.

“They are kind and lovely. I pray at their house. They are like a family and Sara is like my mum.”

Ms Nathan has never had any apprehension about hosting Muslim men.

“I never tell them I am Jewish beforehand because I want them to see us as people first and Jewish second. But we are obviously a Jewish family.

“You can’t miss it, we have menorahs all over, we have a Jewish book shelf and we do Friday night dinner. But they are fleeing the regime in their country, they are not supportive of it. Even if that country wants to kill me, they don’t.”

She hosted one man from Sudan who had come to Britain after several years in Israel working in a Tel Aviv hotel.

“Hebrew was his second language and a damn sight better than mine,” Ms Nathan says.

Reza Amiri, who came to stay from Iran, says the couple has become family to him.

“When I came I spoke no English, I was moved around all over from Liverpool to Bolton to Swansea.

“In my country they are always saying bad things about the Jewish community. They say Jews are bad people, but here I saw them for the first time.”

The 29-year-old, who fled his country due to a problem with the government, explains: “I realised Jews are people. They trust me in their home, they give me a key, and they cook for me. My family passed away so being with them is like being with my family.”

Rather than worry about her safety, Ms Nathan worries more about domestic tasks.

“The worst thing is they finish the milk without replacing it,” she jokes. “They are like any other house guest.”

In fact one of the only problems for the former Channel 4 News editor is keeping her Jewish motherly instincts at bay.

“I couldn’t wait until Ramadan was over — they all get so skinny.”

* Some names have been changed to protect identities