We can do more for Syria: open our homes to refugees

The government announced in January that it would welcome a small number of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees to Britain. This is not enough, says Mike Levy, who is calling for a national effort to take 10,000 refugees into our homes

The Syrian situation has been described as the worst refugee crisis since the second world war. More than two million men, women and children are languishing in hastily erected camps in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. More than half are children and vulnerable women.

The British government has pledged £600m to aid the refugees – making it the second largest bilateral donor worldwide. Something to be proud of, but is it enough? In late January, the government also performed a U-turn on its decision not to host refugees and said it would allow a limited number of the most vulnerable from the Syrian conflict into Britain. Although no quota has been announced, a figure of up to 500 has been mooted.

But is there more that each and every one of us could do? One answer may be to offer our own homes.

In December 2013, I gave a lecture at Limmud, the national learning conference for Jewish people, where I talked about the nationwide response to the second world war refugee crisis. A member of the audience asked: “Why don’t we do the same today – offer our homes as a temporary refuge for Syrian refugees?” It struck me as a good idea. A few days later, I gathered a group of friends in Cambridge and the 10,000 Homes for Syrian Refugees campaign was born.

Our inspiration came from the Kindertransport rescue of 1938-39. Answering the need to rescue the Jewish children of Nazi-occupied Europe, volunteers from all over Britain came forward to offer homes to these children, as well as training places, help with medical needs, social clubs, canteens and befriending schemes. This was all in an age before social services and free healthcare.

“To us, it’s clear that the British people are ready to take action as their grandparents did 75 years ago”

The idea now is to galvanise the natural goodwill of British people and ask them to emulate the families who offered their homes in 1939, and in doing so, add another notch of pressure on the government. Already, Germany has taken in 11,000 refugees from Syria as part of the UN’s international resettlement programme, which aims to bring to Europe the most vulnerable refugees: mothers with children, the old and disabled; women in physical danger. What the British government announced in January is a good start, but nowhere near a large enough response to what is a catastrophic need.

We are not an NGO or any kind of authority; all we are is a group of concerned citizens. The logistics of choosing which refugees to send to Britain and the arrangements for getting them here will be the responsibility of the British government working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while initial medical, psychological and welfare support will be in the hands of local authorities, social services and others.

But what we the British people can offer are homes; a temporary place of refuge. If we can collect offers of up to 10,000 homes for the Syrian refugees, the list of those willing to offer a home will be forwarded to the appropriate authorities. It will then be up to these bodies to liaise with potential home-givers.

Already the campaign has been receiving offers of help: “I have a large empty house and am willing to look after up to 12 refugees,” states one widowed lady. “We have a spare room and would be happy to take in a refugee from Syria,” say an elderly couple. To us, it’s clear that the British people, with their natural generosity of spirit once called upon, are ready to take action as their grandparents did 75 years ago.

Though we have little power to change policy, as homeowners we are at least at the end of a long supply chain of care. Our message is a simple one: “We have a home.”

For more information and to sign up to offer a temporary home for Syrian refugees: www.tenthousandhomes.org.uk, www.facebook.com/10kHomes, Twitter hashtag: #10khomes