Sunday, March 30, 2008

How Jews find asylum in a Glasgow high-rise

How Jews find asylum in a Glasgow high-rise
By Leon Symons
When Russian and Middle-Eastern Jews flee to the UK

to escape persecution, they are sent to Scotland’s biggest city. Leon Symons meets the refugees building a new life on a tough council estate

In the past eight years, 10 families officially identified as Jewish have sought asylum in the UK. These families have fled persecution and fear of death in countries such as Iran, Iraq and the former Soviet Union. They arrive here typically having made perilous journeys of thousands of miles. They are afraid, confused, disorientated. And then they get sent to Glasgow.

The city is a designated dispersal centre for asylum-seekers who come to Britain, and up to 4,000 are housed there. Glasgow is also home to Jewish Care Scotland (JCS), which has taken responsibility for looking after refugees who say they are Jewish while their cases are processed by the Home Office.

As they wait for the bureaucrats to decide their fate, they are left in limbo — deposited in flats in the city’s tower blocks, struggling to acclimatise to a strange new language and unfamiliar new customs, — and hoping that they will be allowed to stay.

So what is life like for the Jewish asylum-seekers in Scotland?

Parham and Leila

Parham is a 50-year-old former samovar manufacturer from Tehran. He brought his wife Leila, who is 43, and their two young daughters to Britain in 2002 to avoid being arrested by the Iranian authorities for helping to smuggle fellow Jews out of the country.

The family were granted residents status by the Home Office last summer and can remain in Britain. Parham says their lives have changed dramatically — for good and bad — since they made it over the border to Turkey, the first step on the road that has taken them to Scotland.

“Glasgow is certainly very different from when we were in Iran,” says Parham. “We had a good life economically there, but there was no freedom. Here there is democracy and freedom. That is the good side. But there is another side which is not so good, because this is not my homeland and my family is not here, so that makes it much harder.

“After we escaped, my father was taken in several times for questioning by the police, and they kept him for half a day. He was 86 years old, and after one visit he had a heart attack and died. But we were here, and there was nothing I could do. It was also very difficult because for five years I could not work.

“I used to go to the library to read, or do exercise, because I could not do anything else until we had the right permission to stay here. Now we have been allowed to stay, and I am trying to get a qualification so that I can work for myself. I want to train as an electrician.”

Parham assumed the family would be housed in London, and was “surprised” when they were made to settle north of the border. “We knew nothing about Scotland apart from one thing — it was the place where whisky came from. But we have been here for over five years, and we have made some friends, so we would not want to go anywhere else.”

Now they have been granted leave to remain, they are relieved they can now move out of the “high flats”, the local term for the tower blocks where asylum-seekers are placed. “It was not a very nice place to live, compared to our life in Iran. I had a mezuzah on the door, and once someone tried to burn it off, but it was made of stone so they could not do it.”

For Leila, who is taking English and computer studies at a local college, the fear that surrounded their life in Iran still lingers. “Even here, I tell my children who go to school here not to say they are Jewish; we cannot say we are Jewish because there are many refugees and many of them are Muslims. I worry about it more than my husband. He tells everyone he is Jewish, but I am still nervous about it.”

Mikhail and Sofia

Mikhail, 35, an accountant, and 27-year-old Sofia, a lawyer, were born and raised in the Northern Caucasus region in Russia. They have two sons, the elder of whom goes to primary school. They came to the UK in 2004, fleeing their homeland after they were threatened for being members of a human-rights group strongly critical of the Russian government.

The couple fled to Moscow by taxi — the safest and most anonymous way to travel. They spent a month hidden in a flat while Mikhail made the arrangements for them to leave the country. Their new passports, air tickets and bribes to officials cost them $20,000 from their savings. They bought plane tickets to Brazil with a stopover in London. Once in Britain, they stayed. They were granted residency last year.

Talking in the living-room of their ninth-floor flat in a high-rise block, the couple appear relaxed and content.They say the are happy to be in a place where there ethnic origin and political convictions do not put them at risk.

“We got our residents’ permit in July 2007 and life has changed considerably for the better for us,” says Sofia. “We don’t worry any more that we may be deported to our country. We have got lots of rights here.

“To be an asylum-seeker is not good, because some people in this country don’t like them. I understand why. Some people have a strong misconception about asylum-seekers. Many people think all asylum-seekers come because of economic reasons, which is wrong. Some people, like us, came because of circumstances. Now we are free, now we have our lives back. We can travel, work and do whatever we want.”

Mikhail is training as a bookkeeper while Sofia looks after their two children. She has also worked for the British Red Cross and Jewish Care Scotland as a volunteer helping other asylum-seekers. She is keen to express her gratitude for the help the family has received from JCS.

“They have been so helpful because life has been so difficult. We have no family or friends here to help us. I don’t have enough words to say how grateful I am for what JCS has done. That is from the heart.”

The couple are now looking forward to moving to a new flat in Giffnock, the suburb where many of Glasgow’s Jewish families live.

“We asked to move because we wanted to live near the shul and the Jewish school where our son goes. It will make our lives here so much easier,” says Sofia.

The family decided to leave their home in Russia after they received threatening, antisemitic phone calls. Mikhail and Sofia are still angry about the persecution they experienced.

“In 2002, I joined a human-rights organisation very critical of the government’s policy — Russia for the ethnic Russians,” says Sofia.

“The human rights of all ethnic minorities were regularly broken by the authorities, so people didn’t have rights or dignity. I wanted to help. People with dark skin were abused in the streets because they were not Russians.

“Every member of the organisation I worked for became a target for the authorities and was persecuted. The manager of our organisation went into hiding because he was wanted by the police, and they questioned us repeatedly to find out where he was.

“When people telephoned and threatened our child and our family, I knew it was time for us to go. We could have lived a lie in Russia, but it’s not what I wanted for myself, my husband and my children. They knew I was Jewish because, when some people called, they said very nasty things.”

Mikhail adds: “These people were extremists. Why did they know about us? Where does the information come from? This comes from particular sources like the authorities; it was not a secret. They created the skinhead gangs. Russian people mostly are ready to be involved in this type of activity.”

The couple considered going to Israel, but the immigration process would have taken too long.

“We felt we were at risk. They wanted many official documents and it would have taken months to process visas. That was why we decided just to come to Britain [and seek asylum]. We did not have time to wait,” says Sofia.

“We wanted to go to a country with democratic beliefs, a country that would protect us.”

After four years in Scotland, they are beginning to feel at home. Even the local diet is a source of comfort.

“So many people [in the city’s Jewish community] come from a Russian background, and the food is the same.”

Lev and Anna

Lev and Anna have been in Britain since 2005, and do not yet know whether the government will allow them to stay. The spectre of deportation haunts them.

Like Mikhail and Sofia, they are from Russia. They fled because rising antisemtism made them fear for their lives. Anna speaks some English — both she and Lev attend language classes every morning.

“We feel protected and much safer here in the UK, but we don’t have refugee status yet,” says Anna through an interpreter.

“We are still very nervous because we could be deported to Russia at any time. Only when the Home Office makes its decision will we feel better, and we don’t know how long that will take. Until then we cannot work or anything like that, so we learn English every day.”

She explains what made the couple leave their homeland. “We came here because of rising persecution by extremist nationalists in our town and region. My husband worked in a family-owned business selling cars. We lived on the island of Sakhalin, between Russia and Japan, for some time. I worked as a mortgage and travel consultant. My husband had a typical Jewish surname and it led to the start of our problems.

“After the break-up of the Soviet Union, America tried to improve Jewish life in Russia, by opening up communities and educating Jewish people.

“My husband was asked to help set up an office for a local Jewish community. An extremist antisemitic party found out. This group did not want a Jewish community in the town, so they asked my husband to give the office space to them instead. Naturally, he refused.

“A few days later, my husband and his partner were driving home when they were attacked by gunmen. My husband was shot in the arm and his partner killed. He has a large scar and a piece of the bullet is still in his arm.

“The police said it was the mafia. We knew that was a lie because my husband was never involved with them.

“We had to leave, and went 12,000km west to Kaliningrad [Russia’s smallest region, lying between Poland and Lithuania].

“Unfortunately, because of our name, we were singled out again. At first we had little problems, like difficulty registering our son at nursery.

“Then one night we went to bed as normal when there was a huge explosion. Our family’s minibus had blown up. Someone had put a bomb underneath it. We reported it to the police, but they said it was an electrical fault.

“In September 2005 came the incident that made us leave. My husband’s driver came to collect him for work one morning. When my husband opened the door, there was an explosion. Someone had left a bomb by our front door, rigged to explode when it opened. The driver was hurt. My husband was lucky that he was inside and was blown backwards.

“We were absolutely terrified. We were frightened that if we did not leave then, we would all be killed — and all because we are Jews.

“We are only 36 years old, yet we both have grey hair and look years older because of all the troubles we have had. I do not want to say how we got out because there might be other people who will do the same as us.”

The names of the people interviewed have been changed to protect family members still living in their homelands

Coping with a 21st-century exodus — how Glasgow cares for the new refugee Diaspora

Anyone who arrives at a British port of entry – Heathrow or Dover, for example — and declares that they are seeking asylum and are Jewish will eventually be sent to Glasgow.

Once there, they will be put into the hands of Jewish Care Scotland, the country’s leading Jewish social-welfare agency (not connected in any way to Jewish Care). JCS, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, works closely with Glasgow City Council, which has agreed to receive up to 4,000 asylum-seekers under the government’s dispersal programme.

JCS has dealt with 10 Jewish families since assuming responsibility for asylum-seekers in 2000. The organisation got involved after a council social-services project worker asked for help in dealing with a Jewish asylum family.

“The project worker contacted us to ask if we could support them. That was our first asylum family,” says JCS chair Maureen Solomons.

Families are usually referred to the JCS by Glasgow council.

“They are placed in asylum support housing in which they must remain until a decision is made about whether or not they can stay,” says Ms Solomons.

“Glasgow Council pays all the bills for that because these families usually come with very little or nothing at all. We do try to ensure the people who are referred to us are Jewish. Some have brought a copy of their grandparents’ ketubah [marriage certificate] with them. We are allowed to help them with a small amount of money.

“The process of applying for legal status to remain here in the UK is very lengthy and can take years, with successive appeals. We have dealt with half a dozen families since that first one, but it seems like more because it takes so long. So far, two families have been given full status and can remain here, and a third has been given discretionary leave to stay.”

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