Changing the narrative: Refugee week

By Michelle Huberman, Harif creative director
Last weekend I participated in the Celebrating Sanctuary festival on the Southbank in London. It was Refugee week and it was a day of celebrating all the contributions that the various refugees had made to our country. Here in the UK we have offered safety and support to those fleeing repression and wars. They have been given homes, citizenship and help in creating new lives. Most refugees bring with them a certain dynamism and an aspiration to better themselves. Through their losses they dream of a good education for their children and take on the jobs that the locals deem too lowly for them. As an employer, I know London would collapse without our immigrants as most bring with them an energy that is lacking in the local community.
Michelle Huberman handing out Mezuzot (Courtesy)
As I sat in one of the tents sipping coffee with an Ethiopian lady roasting coffee beans over an open stove, I pondered why Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and other Arab states don’t hold  ‘Celebrating Sanctuary’ weeks of their own. Of course Arab countries are not Scandinavia or Benelux, as we have seen from the savage murder of ‘Arab Spring’ protesters by ruthless Arab dictators. But when the Palestinians left in 1948 and arrived in the neighboring countries they became political weapons. Instead of giving them citizenship and helping them integrate with their Muslim brothers, these states left them languishing in squalid refugee camps. Not even supplying them with water and electricity. Their oil-rich brethren could have solved the problem at a stroke, but 63 years on, the lot of the Palestinians has not improved. Imagine if they''d been made citizens and helped to set up own businesses?  It is an eternal mark of shame on these countries. I can never understand why the keffiyah-wearing Palestinian supporters are not standing outside these embassies demanding human rights for their Palestinian refugees. But they are only interested in exploiting Palestinian suffering to blame Israel.
I remember once taking a wrong turn when I was on a business trip in Paterson, New Jersey in the USA. I felt like I was in the Gaza Strip. I had stumbled upon a community of Palestinian Arabs who were now all US citizens. They ran all the local shops and restaurants: the Ramallah cafe, the Gaza Souk, etc. They prided themselves on their Palestinian hospitality. Surely this is how it should have been in the Arab countries? A community that should have been helped to its feet and welcomed as part of the ethnic make-up of the host country. If pressure had been put on these countries the Middle East could have been so different today.
I shared these views with some of the visitors who stopped at our booth. Our organization Harif, had taken a small stand backing directly onto the Thames. We hung a poster advertising the Middle East''s 870,000 Forgotten Jewish Refugees. The stand was decorated like a Jewish Middle Eastern home with a mixture of Moroccan and Syrian furniture that I had schlepped out of my house in the early hours of Sunday morning. The sound of Algerian Jewish music playing softly in the background was drowned out by the beat of the ethnic bands playing on the grass near us. In the center of our stand we had a beautiful old Syrian door, bearing a large mezuzah that is the focus of our campaign.
As the tourists and visitors to the event thronged along the Thames, they were greeted with dozens of small stalls like ours representing various communities that have found refuge in the UK. Most were very friendly and into the spirit of the event. As they stopped to find out more on our stand they were presented with one of our Harif mezuzot. We had painstakingly made these by inserting into clear tubes a scroll of facts and statistics about Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. The Mezuzah is our campaign symbol for Jewish homes abandoned all over these countries and we were happily distributing them to those with an enquiring mind.
Niran Tirman, born in Baghdad holds a Mezuzah at the event (Courtesy)
One of our not so pleasant visitors was a hostile man from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. "You''re changing the narrative!" he spluttered, churning out robotic slogans about ''Ethnic cleansing and Palestinian land stolen by the Zionists.''
Well yes, we are changing the narrative. Not many people are aware about the Jewish refugees amongst us from the Arab lands. Nearly one million left these countries after 1948. The rest went mostly to Israel, mostly the poorer ones. Others who could went to France, Canada and the USA. Around 20,000 were taken in by Britain and were helped here by the Central British Fund, now known as World Jewish Relief.
This man came back later with his troublemaking friends from the PSC, and their shouting soon caused a small crowd to gather round. But unfortunately they couldn''t win the debate with us as my colleagues on the stand were born in Iraq. They were able to tell them firsthand of their experiences of living there and squashed theories of Zionist conspiracies in Baghdad.
The rest of the visitors were interested and happy to listen to us. The man from the Moroccan Tagine stall said how much Moroccan Muslims missed their Jewish neighbors. An elderly Arab couple stopped by to say hello. A Sudanese Muslim girl and her Iraqi-Indian companion, who had worked with refugees, were genuinely fascinated by Jewish refugees from Arab countries and requested a copy of our film The Forgotten Refugees.
 A refugee who had to flee Rwanda lingered to say what a struggle it was to get her children interested in their African roots. My colleague Lyn Julius told her that it would be her grandchildren that would want to know more. In fact we were experiencing this on our stand. Numerous young people stopped by and confessed that they had a Jewish grandparent but knew nothing about Judaism. They wanted to find out more about their roots and our stand gave them a good opportunity to touch base. 
Everybody knew about Jewish Holocaust refugees, but very few of the public had any idea that Jews had lived for thousands of years in Arab counties and that 99% of these populations were expelled or had fled from them.
Harif are starting to change the narrative in the UK, but it''s a very slow process. Recently myself and Lyn Julius were invited onto a Christian TV channel, Revelation TV, on the weekly program entitled ''The Middle East Report. ''They devoted the full program to the topic. After the airing we were inundated with Christian groups wanting more information.
I want to appeal to Jerusalem Post readers around the world to duplicate what we are doing at Harif. Join festivals for ethnic groups, and use the relaxed atmosphere to educate people on the Middle Eastern background of 50% of Israelis. 
As Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon wrote this week on his Facebook page, "Kol Hakavod to Michelle Huberman for spreading the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands in London. The issue is finally gaining traction all over the world."
Thank you Danny for those kind words. The Israeli Foreign Ministry and embassies around the world are no doubt working to change the narrative. But it’s also up to every individual who cares about Israel to keep repeating this message because the effect can be revolutionary.
The author can be contacted at: [email protected]