By Jess Baker
Over Pesach this year, we retold the story of the Exodus, of people leaving a country that they were not safe in. As Jews, we understand how our ancestors have moved over and over. It is part of the history of many of our families, including mine. From helping my mum collect sleeping bags from the community to send to Calais, to going out there myself for two months of this year, working with refugees and helping them begin to feel safe is something I care about deeply. That’s why the practise of detaining people indefinitely and threatening to return them, regardless of whether they even remember the country they’re headed to, or could be punished on arrival, seems so wrong.
Working in Calais I often had excited teenagers ask me what London is like, or tell me about the uncle they were planning to live with in Manchester. Often they had a similar, idealised image of this welcoming country, where the rain wouldn’t matter because nobody would abuse them in the streets. I think this reputation is the greatest compliment the UK has ever received. To me, that makes the real situation even more heartbreaking.
It was impossible to comfortably respond to this idealised image. I couldn’t comfortably confirm their preconceptions, but equally I couldn’t hurt them with stories of rising hate crime or the growing housing crisis either. I tried to stay neutral, but couldn’t help but think about the detention centres and potential deportations that might end the journeys of so many of the people I was befriending. We celebrated messages from friends who’d reached the UK safely, but worried about what would come next. At the time I only knew about these risks from stories at activism events and the internet. Then I started my internship with René Cassin and learnt quite how scary those potential outcomes might be; that the UK is the only country in the EU with no time limit on detention, how someone can have lived here longer than my parents and are being classed as illegal.
The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike began shortly before my first day in the office. Yarl’s Wood is a detention centre that predominantly holds women deemed to be here illegally, many of whom have been held for months, or even years. The women argue that the Home Office is “not fit for purpose”, and announced a hunger strike alongside publishing fifteen demands for change. I know people who’d been to detention centres to protest before so when an invite came to go to one at Yarl’s Wood the next weekend, I rearranged my diary. I knew these protests were unusual. I just didn’t know quite how much it would impact either the women inside, or myself, until I got there.
My limited experience of protesting involves various purposes and locations, but limited outcomes. My understanding of them is that they motivate the people involved, occasionally raise awareness amongst onlookers and can rarely, but importantly, have the power to make real change. This protest was different; it wasn’t about us. We weren’t there to make ourselves feel better, we were there to make the women waving at us from blocked out windows feel better.
We stood in a field, facing two floors of waving handkerchiefs, scraps of paper and shirts. We hung banners, waved back, tied flowers to the fence, did anything to make sure that they know how much we care. They may have been on hunger strike but we fed them our energy and our belief in them. These are women who have done nothing wrong, whose crime is existence.
Our purpose was simply to remind them that, outside of the system they are trapped in, other people do know that they are not criminals, and should not be locked up. We repeated the refrain that “no human is illegal”, as hundreds of people lined up to kick against a massive metal fence, making a noise to reach the people inside the building who couldn’t see us. It wasn’t much but it was the most we could do.
The most moving moments were when people inside phoned us and were projected on loud speaker so that they could tell their stories and explain their conditions to all of us. This was often followed by them leading us in chanting. A powerful reminder of what technology has given us the ability to do, and of how important empowering people is.
Those moments have stuck with me, amongst the memories of the waving and the shouting and the free cake being handed out. The crackled voices of people who needed to be heard. Heard and believed and accepted. On the coach back to London we reflected on those voices, and on how lucky we are. On how lucky it is that by the virtue of the birth lottery I can visit Yarl’s Wood, or Calais, but then leave, leaving so many behind. That Britain was the country I was born in and have never felt that I need to run from.
This Pesach, we celebrated the Exodus of our people to a safe country. Now, we should be remembering that, today, this is impossible. Today, the sea doesn’t part, the chasing enemy doesn’t drown and the welcome is more than hostile. My great grandparents were able to move here and be protected from the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, children are denied entry and sent back to countries that may not be safe for them.
We need to stand against this system. As Jews, but also as people who now have the privilege of safety, we have so much ability to make a difference. From writing to our MPs (look at the #freeforgood campaign) or going to Yarl’s Wood or other centres, as a visitor or a protester, we should all be pushing for change. We should not just be grateful for our safety, but see it as a mandate to support others.
Jess Baker (@jessica_baker_) is currently interning at René Cassin.