A week after reading this book, I attended a #RefugeesWelcome demonstration in Picadilly Gardens in Manchester. I have been an occasional attender of such events over a number of years, but the size of this event was greater. It was just after the distressing pictures of a drowned, young, Syrian boy, Aylan Al-Kurdi, had been on the front pages of the newspapers and filled up my Facebook page and Twitter feed. (I won’t reproduce the photograph here. I know that if my child died, that I would not want her corpse to be used for political effect and more importantly, that I probably would have the power to prevent that happening). I attend these events, I suspect from a purely selfish perspective. I don’t want to be one of the “bad guys.”
Yet, as Waldman’s novel lets me know, choices about being on the right side are not easy.
This is a fascinating book, divided into three overlapping stories. For me, the first part was the most compelling. It is set during the Second World War, where Jack is a US soldier stationed in Austria. Oh, and he is Jewish.
“Yes of course you are son. You are a soldier. But you are also a Jew. And also a righteous man, aren’t you?”
It was no easier now to answer the question than it had been the first time the rabbi had posed it, months before, no easier, in fact, event to discern the truth behind the question. Jack felt as though the rabbi was trying to tug on a string in his heart, a string labelled ‘Jew’. But that string was tangled and frayed from disuse. Nothing happened when you pulled it.
With the hindsight of history, it is easy to label those who supported and enabled the migration of European Jews as heroes. But in the midst of war, destitution, the fight for survival, the need to build and re-build alliances, the right thing is less easy to detect.
Jack meets a man in yellow socks, a survivor of Auschwitz.
“As difficult as it is for the Jewish survivors in Germany and here in Austria in the terribly overcrowded DP camps, it is worse in Poland. Those who have tried to reclaim their homes have been threatened. Some of them have been killed. They survive the camps and find their way home at last, and there they die, on their own doorsteps, killed by their own neighbours. It is a terrible dilemma, don’t you think?”
“What to do with all these Jews. Hitler killed so many of them, but still some remain. Perhaps one hundred thousand, perhaps a million. No one is sure. Neither is anyone sure what to do with them. Will your government take them, do you suppose? Will Mr Harry Truman say, Please, half-dead Polish Jews, come to New York. Come to Missouri?”
From where I stand in history, it is properly acknowledged those who survived the Nazi concentration camps are an amazing testament to the human spirit.
“Millions died”, Yuval said. “Millions. These DPs who survived, I don’t ask what they did, what they stole, or who they killed so that they of all the millions would live.” He lifted his hand to silence Jack’s protest. “Whatever they did, maybe some of them have the strength and courage to live in the land of Israel. I don’t know. I hope some do. But most of them are broken people. And in our new land, with all our enemies, we have no room for broken people”.
Immigration is not only a product of war, it is also a weapon of war.
So, back to the present, the demonstration and social work (pictured here are the fabulous Women Asylum Seekers Together choir). Social work has a long and difficult history in relation to immigration, asylum-seeking and refugees. UK Social Work operates within a system that is keen to make distinctions between refugees (“the good guys”), asylum-seekers (they are only seeking and presumed bogus) and the migrant (with “the economic migrant” somehow at the bottom of the pile, despite rhetoric that tells us all to pull ourselves up by our boot-straps). UK Social Work also operates within a history that has made little effort in the long-term settlement of those who enter the country, through whatever means (Sales, 2002). The profession has also found itself in the paradoxical position of forming a part of the “internal controls” of the migration system whilst also being charged to help those who are threatened by that system (Hayes, 2004). For the profession this means that there has to be a dialogue about what professionalism means. Teloni and Mantanika (2015) suggest that we have to move away from ideas of ‘neutrality’ and ‘culture of silence’ to embrace social change and social justice.
So attending that demonstration and reading this novel, what do I know?
- That despite the political inability to talk about ‘race’, racism and immigration in a way that addresses people’s concerns, there is a genuine desire to help those in need
- That large scale movements of people are made up of terrible, terrifying, courageous, individual stories
- That arrival is not the same as safety
- That loss forms a crucial part of the migrant identity
- That migration is apparently always linked to discourses of disease and crime
- That single migrant men are feared and that young migrant families are pitied, but neither have control over how they are portrayed by others
- That identity is made in relations and gets hardened by resistance
- That after I have sung with the choir and chanted with the crowd, I come home and hug my family and enjoy warmth and security
That avoiding being one of the ‘bad guys’ isn’t easy…
Hayes, D. (2004) “History and Context: The Impact of Immigration Control” in Hayes, D. and Humphries, B. (eds.) Social Work, Immigration and Asylum London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Sales, R. (2002) “The deserving and the undeserving? Refugees, Asylum seekers and welfare in Britain” Critical Social Policy 22 (3): 456 – 478
Teloni, D-D and Mantanika, R. (2015) “This is a cage for migrants”: The rise of racism and the challenges for social work in the Greek context Critical and Radical Social Work 3 (2): 189 – 206
Waldman, A. (2014) Love and Treasure London: Two Roads