17 - 23 June 2013 is Refugee Week, a time for us to celebrate the many important contributions that refugees from all over the world have made to life in the UK. A programme of arts, cultural and educational events and activities is taking place across the country – and anyone can take part.
Refugee Week also gives us a chance to explore the reasons people are forced to seek sanctuary in the UK and in other countries. Many refugees have had to flee genocide and other forms of violence and injustice; they have been expelled from the societies they used to be part of and left stateless. Thanks to the UK’s tradition of offering sanctuary to the victims of persecution, many have managed to rebuild their lives and create new communities here.
Both before and during the Holocaust many Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution sought refuge in the UK. Although many requests were denied, by the end of the Second World War about 50,000 refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia had been admitted. When they arrived in the UK they were immersed in an alien culture, often not speaking English and possessing little more than the clothes on their backs. Many had already lost family members and friends and had suffered in concentration camps.
Dr Martin Stern is one of the Holocaust survivors who sought asylum in the UK. Martin was born in 1938 in the Netherlands, where his parents had moved from Germany in order to get married. This was prohibited in Germany at the time since Martin’s father was Jewish and his mother was not. After the murder of both of his parents, Martin went on to survive the camps at both Westerbork and Theresienstadt. After the war, Martin came to live with his aunt and her family in Didsbury, Manchester. At the age of 16 he was happy to become a British Citizen:
I was so grateful to have been given a British nationality, to be a British Citizen. Because I never had Dutch nationality, they called me stateless, so it’s the British; it’s Britain that’s given me a real home.
Martin went on to study medicine at Oxford University and become a doctor.
Many Jewish children came as refugees to the UK as part of the Kindertransport, which brought approximately 10,000 unaccompanied children to Great Britain on boats and trains. The first Kindertransport left Berlin on 1 December 1938 and this year marks its 75th anniversary. Some children came by other routes, including Liesel Carter, who was only four years old when she arrived, alone, in January 1940. Liesel travelled via Sweden and Norway, and was fostered by an English family. She was fortunate enough to see her mother again, but remained living with her foster family. Liesel subsequently married and had three children of her own. When asked if she feels German or English, Liesel responds without doubt: 'English. Definitely English.’
You can celebrate Refugee Week by taking part in the Simple Acts campaign, which asks you to do one thing to help change the perception of refugees in the UK. Simple Acts are small and easy actions that anyone can take. For example, you could:
- Read the theme paper for HMD 2014 Journeys.
- Read the life stories of Holocaust and genocide survivors who have sought refuge in the UK.
- Find out more about Martin Stern’s or Liesel Carter’s experiences – you could even pass their stories on to someone else on Twitter or Facebook.
- You can read the book group activity on Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah.
- Watch Ali’s testimony. Ali is an Iraqi asylum seeker and gay rights activist who faced death threats for his work. In this film he talks about her experiences of escaping Iraq but how he sought asylum in the UK, however still faces persecution. He explains how he is lucky to have the support of the Metropolitan Police.
You could attend an event. There are a number of events taking place for Refugee Week including:
Child Refugees: Five portraits from the Kindertransport Exhibition at The Weiner Library in London
Open on Thursday 13 June – 2 October 2013
100 Images of Migration at Hackney Museum in London
This exhibition displays 100 photographs about migration in and out of Britain, some of which were part of a competition run by the Migration Museum project. It features the photograph of Holocaust survivor, Lily Ebert with the pendant her mother gave her.
Open on 11 June – 31 August 2013
For more events taking place accross the country, visit the Refugee Week events page.
Tell us what you’re doing to mark Refugee Week. Tweet us at @HMD_UK or use the hashtag #Journeys