Michael Kenton describes his experiences during a trip to Israel organised by the Abrahamic Reunion.
In February this year I received an email regarding a planned group trip to Israel; the timing was perfect as my wife and I were planning to visit Israel at that time.
What made the trip totally unmissible was that its stated aim was to:
‘Meditate and pray for peace and spiritual support of the Abrahamic Reunion, visiting and enjoying some of the holy ancient places and holy people found in Israel.’ The organiser was Shahabuddin David Less, who led an amazing tour of India in which I took part over 30 years ago.
On May 29th we teamed up with our fellow peacemakers from the USA, Canada and Europe for our 11-day tour.
The Abrahamic Reunion was established in 2004 to bring harmony and peace between the people of the religions of Abraham by uplifting human consciousness in the Holy Land. They are a team of spiritual peacemakers, women and men, dedicated to opening hearts to the love and wisdom of all spiritual traditions of the Holy Land. They do not dwell on old grievances and they avoid blame.
This approach reminds me of the Buddhist way of being in the present; it ‘frees us from the conditioning of the past and apprehension of the future.’1 I took with me a book by Eckhart Tolle that has a similar message.2
On the tour we met and dined with Jews, Muslims, Christians and members of the Druze and Bedouin communities in various parts of the country including the West Bank. Members of the Abrahamic Reunion regularly share food together and join in with each other’s family events. Over the last few years they have convened a day-long gathering in different parts of Israel hosting as many as 300 people per event.
During a two-day conference at Tantur Ecumenical Institute3 I initially wondered whether the methods of the Abrahamic Reunion could actually make any difference. However, an Orthodox Jew explained that the Abrahamic Reunion is attempting to cure the cause of the disharmony, whereas the politicians are merely trying to cure the symptoms, an analogy I found very powerful.
To quote Eliyahu McLean, Israeli co-ordinator of the Abrahamic Reunion:
‘We are breaking down the walls of fear in our minds and between our people, this is what will tear down the physical cement barriers…’.
This is the message of the mystics from all the religions, to quote a Sufi mystic:
‘Man must first create peace in himself if he desires to see peace in the world; for lacking peace within, no effort of his can bring any result.’4
Often the stories we heard were contrary to what the media broadcasts. For example, when we visited Ibrahim Abu al Hawa, from the Mount of Olives,5 he told us of his experience during the Six Day War. When Israel captured the area in which he lives, the soldiers knocked on the door of his house. He expected that all his family would be killed; quaking with fear, he opened the door, to find that the soldiers had come to give his family bread.
Israelis and tourists are told of how, in 1929, Muslims who had lived with Jews for generations in the West Bank discovered that armed Palestinians from outside the area were coming to kill the Jews. The story only mentions the 85 Jews who were killed but in fact 250 were saved from almost certain death by their Muslim neighbours, who risked their lives by hiding them in their own houses.
People we met of all religious persuasions said: ‘If the politicians would leave us alone we would be happy to live in peace.’
On the final day of our tour Shahabuddin led a Universal Worship Service, a service to attune to and invoke the prophets of the world religions.6 The great teachers gave, in essence, the same message of love, peace and harmony. The Abrahamic Reunion is living that message.
To quote Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’7
Reprinted from Caduceus magazine issue 92
1. Norton F, Smith C. An Emerald Earth. Two Seas Join Press, NY, USA, 2008.
2. Tolle E. The Power of Now – A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, London, 2001.
3. www.tantur.org . Tantur Ecumenical Institute, PO Box 11381, Jerusalem 9111301, Israel.
4. Khan HI. The Complete Sayings. Omega Publications, 2nd edn, NY, USA, 1990.
5. See http://peaceforibrahim. org .
6. www.pirzia.org/universal_ worship/ .
7. www.berkana.org/articles/ axioms.htm .
Michael Vakil Kenton has been Hon Treasurer and Trustee of the Sufi Order UK for many years and a supporter and contributor to Caduceus from its inception. He is co-founder of Sacred Music Radio, an online interfaith radio station
How refreshing to read Rabbi Mark Goldsmith’s article in Jewish News [29 October] headlined: ‘Now Israel and the Palestinians must value peace above victory’.
Considering the recent violence in Israel, it’s so easy to give way to despair of peace ever being achieved in Israel.
However, it is heartening to hear of individuals in Israel who find ways to build bridges. One such initiative is run by an organization called Abrahamic Reunion, which is creating harmony between Jews, Muslims, Christians and members of the Druze and Bedouin communities in Israel be working at a grassroots level.
In June we participated in a tour, extended from Jerusalem, including the West Bank, to Tzfat and Tel Aviv. We met and dined with peacemakers of all denominations. Members of Abrahamic Reunion regularly share food together and join each other’s family events.
Our tour included a two-day conference at Tantur Ecumenical Institute with Priests, rabbis, sheiks and imams as well as female spiritual leaders. It really opened our eyes to the possibilities. For example, we met Muslins who are working for peace, something we previously believed to be contradiction in terms. The conference was led my Shahabuddin David Less, Eliyahu McLean and Sheik Ghassan Manasra, who were trained in the interfaith peace-making process by the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
To quote Eliyahu McLean: “We are breaking down the wall of fear in our minds and between our people; this is what will tear down the physical cement barriers.”
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently said so inspiringly on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day: “What we need now is a new and broader Nostra Aetate, bringing together all the great faiths in a covenant of mutual respect and responsibility. We need leaders from every religion publicly to declare that much of what’s being done today in the name of faith is in fact a desecration of faith and a violation of its most sacred principles. It took the Holocaust to bring about Nostra Aetate. Let’s not wait for another crime against humanity and God bring us to our senses.
Michael and Amanda Kenton
And they shall beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3
The first blog recounts aspects of David and Anna’s interview with Clare Balding at BBC 2, where Clare hosts a live weekly Sunday morning program from 7 – 9 AM that focuses on various faith issues, called Good Morning Sunday.
In the interview we begin by describing our work in the Holy Land; we talk about building bridges and connections, we describe our Iftar dinners, the text study groups, and our interfaith prayer gatherings in Jerusalem. We also talk about our upcoming fundraisers and programs. It feels like word about the AR’s work is really getting out to the UK, work that can offer so much to this country.
David tells the following story:
Many years ago I was privileged to be mentored by a very great teacher who believed in the principle of harmony and love as the very essence of religion. He taught me to always look at life through the lens of two words: “what if?”
In my five decades of work, with religious leaders from many of our world’s faiths, I have often asked this question regarding the differences and variations of beliefs in religions.
What if we could honour the basic tenets, customs and traditions of any religion and yet pierce the veils of separation and find the living core common to all.
For the first time in our known history we are developing a global civilization. By knowing the basic practices and beliefs of the other we can become inwardly global.
Dialogue and understanding emerge naturally, when respect and knowledge are seminal.
Our group, the Abrahamic Reunion, has brought thousands of the inheritors of Abraham’s vision together to experience in houses of worship, in eating together, in sharing prayers together, an opportunity to rekindle our deeply rooted generations old memory of the family of Abraham.
What if we really lived that memory?
He concludes by reading Rumi’s poem
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” Rumi
London Interfaith Iftar with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Sheik Ghassan Manasra of the Abrahamic Reunion at the Catholic Archbishop’s House in London.
This was one of the rare early summer evenings in London that seem to last forever. I could not think of a better way to spend it than to go with Sheik Ghassan Manasra to an event that was in its own way as brilliant as the evening. We had been invited as special guests to an interfaith Iftar event hosted by His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols at the Catholic Archbishop’s House. The evening was sponsored by the Naz Legacy Foundation and attended by London Mayor, Sadiq Khan and Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis.
We arrived just in time for the introduction of Sadiq Khan, whose remarks were funny, topical and inspiring. They were particularly aimed at the 100 young people (aged 18-30 years old, the average age was 23!), representing all 32 boroughs of London, from all faiths and none. After the remarks, the young people broke up into groups to discuss ‘how they best thought they could bring faith and non-faith communities together in London for the betterment of all our communities.’ This was a great chance for us to mingle and listen to the many yet harmonious voices of young Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahias, Buddhists, Sikhs, and those of no particular faith.
Sheik Ghassan gently introduced the Abrahamic Reunion to everyone he met, and the reception was always enthusiastic. I also went from table to table to listen and talk about the AR. My favourite reaction was from a young woman who said:
“What a wonderful idea. Too often religion is blamed for conflict, and here is an example of true religion bringing peace.”
The setting was beautiful, the throne room of the Edwardian residence of the Catholic Archdiocese. Being in that setting reminded me of my Catholic upbringing. I remembered the excitement of the first interfaith events, which in Wisconsin were between the Catholics and the Lutherans. Listening to the young people of so many different faiths explore ways to bring people together was a great lesson in how far we’ve come and how bright the future looks.
Michael Macy. Abrahamic Reunion England
“If we live in our oneness-heart, we will feel the essence of all religions which is the love of God. Forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, brotherhood and the feeling of oneness are the signs of a true religion.”
– Sri Chinmoy
Blogs through the lens of Dr. Anna Less, Co-Founder and International Executive Director of the Abrahamic Reunion, May 14th – June 6th 2017
This is the third speaking tour to the UK that The Abrahamic Reunion’s International Executive Directors, Dr. Anna Less and Ghassan Manasra, have done on behalf of the Abrahamic Reunion. Anna’s husband David Less, another founding member and Chairman of the Board, accompanied them on part of this tour to hold a fundraiser in London for the Abrahamic Reunion, before leaving for Germany, where he met with the Abrahamic Reunion’s German board. While in London, Anna, Ghassan and David worked with the AR UK team, founded by the AR UK board members Amanda and Michael Kenton.
Blog London 5/22/17 After the Manchester Bombing
It is May 22 and the horrifying news comes in from Manchester.
There has been a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert attended by mostly young teenage girls and their families.
Police release pictures from a security camera of Salman Abedi the 22 year old suicide bomber sauntering into the concert in his £150 Nike trainers and trendy jacket on the night of the attack. A short time later Abedi killed 22 people and injured 119 when he detonated a bomb after the concert.
Isil calls on followers to rise up in ‘war’ on infidels in the West and eight men are in custody “on suspicion of offences contrary to the Terrorism Act”
A few days have passed and the terror threat has been downgraded to severe and police say the investigation is ‘making good progress’ as they appeal for more information from the public.
We stay in Shepherd’s Bush, a diverse, but predominately Muslim neighbourhood. It has many Muslim restaurants, Arabic writing on the shop signs, and a Mosque within walking distance of our apartment. It is common to see women in full niqab and men in kaftans shopping in the markets.
We talk to the Muslims we meet in our neighbourhood, and in the shops and in the restaurants and in the trains. We talk to our Muslim Uber drivers, our Muslim landlord, we talk to the Muslims foundation leaders we meet. We talk to Muslims from Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
They have different theories, “Perhaps he wanted to kill himself, but he did not want to die alone”, “Perhaps someone planned it who is against Muslims” “People are under so much stress they are just crazy”
It is clear the Muslims we talk to are as baffled as we are, and even more frightened. Some of them are so afraid they do not even want to talk about it. They also do not regard themselves as safe.
We ask the ones who have teenagers what the mosques are doing to protect them and to teach them.
Ghassan admits that he was worried about going to the mosque for Jummah prayers after the attack. He doesn’t know what to expect. His history of attacks from radicals makes these events come even closer.
Is the mosque safe? Will the public attack the mosque? Could someone bomb the mosque? Will there be radicals in the mosque? Ramadan is coming the next day.
He decides not to go to our local neighbourhood mosque, but instead goes to the large Central Mosque.
The police are there. The London police carry guns now. Amanda reminds me that until recently the London police didn’t even carry guns.
When we meet up with Ghassan in a coffee shop later, we sit and talk over coffee and lemonade, and he is palpably relieved after going to the mosque. He said that when he first entered the mosque a number of the congregants were dressed as strict orthodox Salafis, which generally indicates they uphold a very fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, but after the prayers, when the Imam spoke, Ghassan came to understand that the Imam was advocating a very moderate perspective. The Imam told the congregation that they are members of the UK society and need to protect their home and their fellow countrymen and come forward if they knew anything. He explained that the people who are most damaged by these types of acts are the Muslim community itself and he prepared them to enter the sacred month of Ramadan, which is a time of deep inner reflection for all Muslims.
After we talk we prepare to enter the train for our next meeting. It is rush hour and I realize I feel nervous about getting on the train, there is no security or metal scanners, features that I have come to expect in public places in much of the world, and as we squeeze on board our bodies are pressed against our fellow passengers. My heart begins to pound as I anxiously scan people with backpacks and look into the faces of young men, as the train carrying thousands of passengers zooms beneath metropolitan London, I wonder why choose a venue with young teenage girls as a target. Why? I close my eyes and pray for those children and their families and I remember words of the Sura al Fatiha and send it out as a prayer to all.
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.
AR 2017 UK Peace Tour Blog #4: Multi-faith Contemplations of the Elements with Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (pt.1)
London 23/6/17 with Rabbi Zeller
AR 2017 UK Peace Tour Blog #4: Multi-faith Contemplations of the Elements with Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (pt.1)
London 6/23/17 with Rabbi Zeller
Rabbi Zeller, Shahabuddin, Ghassan and I talk about what Jewish tradition regards as the Four Holy Cities in the Holy Land.
I had heard that Jerusalem was regarded by the Kabbalists as the city associated with the fire element, and the city of Safed (Tz’fat) was associated with the air element, and that Hebron was associated with the Earth Element, but I did not know what city was associated with the water element, so I asked Rabbi Zeller.
He shared that it was Tiberius.
We shared that in India there is a belief that associates certain cities with certain elements, and the chakras, and we wondered if this same microcosmic macrocosmic model exists within Judaism.
We spent the rest of the day talking about these four cities, the elements they represent, and why these four cities represent these particular elements.
We filmed our dialogue and that film will be available on the Abrahamic Reunion website soon. The next blogs will contain the highlights from our discussion.
Jerusalem and the Fire Element, with Rabbi Zeller, Dr. Anna Less, David Less, and Sheikh Ghassan Manasra
Rabbi Zeller explained that Jerusalem has been the holiest city in Judaism and the spiritual center of the Jewish people since the 10th century BC when that site was chosen by King David to be the location of the Holy Temple. However, interestingly, King David was forbidden from building the temple himself because according to the Bible God said,
‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood.’
Rabbi Zeller explains that it was King David’s son, King Solomon who built the first temple. And we collectively speculate that perhaps Jerusalem was associated with the fire element because of the fire element because of the fire sacrifices that were made at the temple.
We have a further discussion about the characteristics of the Fire element and Rabbi Zeller shares that the fire element has a unique quality that allows it to be shared without diminishing itself.
He demonstrates with cup of water and shows us how if we try to share a cup of water, we are only left with a few drops in our cup, but he goes on to say “if we try to share the light from a candle, we can light another candle without ever diminishing our own light.” He thinks this has great metaphysical significance and quotes the prophet Isaiah in Hebrew, and then translates, Jerusalem is supposed, “be a light to all nations.” We all share a moment of “enlightenment” as he describes how the Jews tried to express this metaphysical concept in the structure of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and explained that rather than allowing light to come in through the windows, the ancient temple had special windows designed so that the light would shine out from within the temple.
Ghassan recites the following verse from the Quran.
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp,
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star, Lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree,
Neither of the east nor of the west,
Whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire.
Light upon light.
Allah guides to His light whom He wills.
And Allah presents examples for the people,
and Allah is Knowing of all things.
We each described what we knew about the characteristics of the fire element and Shahabudidn and I shared that we had visited temples in India where the same fire had been kept burning for thousands of years.
Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Dr Anna Less travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.
Dinner With Rabbi Wittenberg and Members of the Jewish Community in London
November 10, 2017
Rabbi Jonathon Wittenberg is Masorti Judaism’s senior rabbi in the UK. He is also the Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue, which has approximately 2400 members. Besides being a leading writer and thinker on Judaism, he is also a board member of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, an organisation that partners with the Abrahamic Reunion and Tantur Institute, to co-sponsor “Praying Together In Jerusalem”, a monthly event whose participants believe in the power of side-by-side prayer to bring friendship, respect and, ultimately, peace between people of all faiths. These gatherings have been held at various venues within, and outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem since 2015. They are currently held on the last Thursday of every month, at sunset, at the Jaffa Gate.
Rabbi Wittenberg and his congregation together with a few other congregations have collectively taken on the responsibility of supporting a community of Syrian Refugees in their North London district of Finchley, and it was at his home, last spring that the Abrahamic Reunion was invited to co-host an interfaith Iftar for those refugees, and the congregations that support them. To this day we have still maintained a close relationship with the Syrian families we met there.
The depth of Jonathon Wittenberg’s commitment to these refugee families and to interfaith can best be described in his own blog, which begins like this:
Refugees from Nazi Germany, new to London, twice bombed out in 1940, my mother and her family were taken in by a devout Christian couple, the Micklems. These good people welcomed them into their home in Boxmoor, where they stayed until the end of the war.
When they were leaving, my mother said to Mrs Micklem:
How can I ever thank you enough?
One day you’ll help others who are refugees as you once were. That’s how you’ll thank us.
(To read more: http://jonathanwittenberg.org/community/an-impassioned-plea-for-refugees/)
This time we have been invited to Rabbi Wittenberg’s home to help him commemorate, together with members of his large congregation, the event described in Genesis of when Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father, Abraham.
Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron, son of Zohar the Hittite, in the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah.
The story is profound in its simplicity: Isaac and Ishmael, half-brothers who earlier did not get along, come together in peace to bury their father. It’s an amazing story of forgiveness that I think still says a lot to us today.
We meet many influential members of the Jewish community in Rabbi Wittenberg’s home. Most of them hail from all over the world, and have fascinating backgrounds.
One older woman, Judith, explains that her family came from Aleppo, Syria but she was born and raised in Jerusalem and although she is Jewish, her first language was Arabic, “because at that time almost all of the Jews in my generation who lived in Jerusalem spoke Arabic as their first language.”
I was also surprised to learn that Judith’s brothers and sisters had Arabic names rather than Jewish names. “It didn’t used to be like it is now,” she says, “in those days we all lived together, we spoke Arabic, we were neighbours, and we were friends.”Read more
I am in awe of this woman, who although she is 88 years old, is still a practicing psychotherapist who travels to the West Bank and Israel regularly to train and mentor psychotherapists there. She founded, and is the chair of an organization in the UK called the “Friends of the Bereaved Families’ Forum”, a group that supports 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost close relatives to inter-communal violence, and are determined to spare others what they have suffered.
The next day, for Interfaith Week, Judith will be speaking to the congregation of a large mosque in London to represent the Jewish community, and the perspective of the “Friends of the Bereaved Families’ Forum.”
We were also happy to meet Liron Velleman again. Liron is the Campaign Manager for the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), which represents 85,000 Jewish students on campuses across the UK and Ireland. Last year we met Liron at an Abrahamic Reunion event he helped to organise for students, at JW3, the Jewish Cultural Centre in London.
Another gentleman seeks us out, and takes our card and says he is anxious to connect, because he was the psychotherapist who trained the therapists at Grendon Prison, where he knows The Abrahamic Reunion has been working. He wants to support our prison work and we are eager to follow up.
Other important connections are made, and since that evening a number of participants, who took our cards, have reached out to connect.
Thank you Rabbi Wittenberg for supporting our work. We look forward to being together again soon.
In October 2016, Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, Dr Anna Less and David Less made presentations across London (including for students of Kings College, London) and at Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge Universities. They spoke to over four hundred pupils at the prestigious the Camden School For Girls’ sixth formers, hosted two interfaith Sukkot events (one with old friend of the AR, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller, recently moved to the UK), and held a beautiful interfaith evening at St Ethelburga’s Centre For Peace & Reconciliation.
Photos by Jonathan Tait of Tait Films
Interfaith Sukkot Celebration in Cambridge, UK, with Rabbi Mordechai Zeller
Interfaith Sukkot Celebration in London
Blog Dinner in Alaa’s Home
Last night we were invited to Alaa’s home for an Iftar dinner.
Alaa and his family are Syrian refugees from Aleppo that we met at Rabbi Wittenberg’s party.
Before we leave for Alaa’s home we go to the Syrian market around the corner and Ghassan helps me pick out the special sweets that are made for Ramadan and we prepare a gift to bring. We call an Uber and take off for the Finchley district of London. Along the way we see traditionally dressed Jewish families walking to shul for Shavuot services.
Shavuot is a major Jewish holiday celebrated fifty days after the second day of Passover for two reasons. 1. It marks the all-important wheat harvest in the Land of Israel and 2. It commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai.
In other words Shavout for the Jews correlates to Ramadan for the Muslims.
It is interesting to me that the British government has chosen this neighbourhood as a place to settle Syrian refugees. I make a mental note to ask Alaa about this later in the evening.Read more
After some driving around the Uber driver drops us in front of a vacant storefront in the middle of a shopping district and tells us this is the address.
We look around and see lights in apartment above and call Alaa on the phone. He pokes his head out the window, grins and waves and points around the corner.
He meets us in an alleyway behind the empty store and we climb the stairs to a tiny apartment.
We enter a small entry hall where men’s, women’s and children’s shoes are neatly assembled along the wall. As soon as we pass the shoes we turn left into a very small living room jammed with 3 obviously used and mismatched loveseat sofa’s lining 3 of the walls. A large flat-screened TV is playing on the 4rth wall and 2 small mismatched end tables fill the center of the room. There is nothing on the cleanly painted walls and a curtain hangs in the window.
Alaa, Ghassan and I each sit on separate loveseats and begin to talk.
Alaa explains that he is a pharmacist, but he has also worked as a professional translator, so he is fluent in English. He is also fluent in Russian and Ukrainian, because he studied to be a pharmacist in the Ukraine. He glances at the TV and says he has studied English since he was a child, but he learned Russian and Ukrainian by watching TV. He explains they keep the TV playing to help the children and his wife learn English now, and tells us that many Syrian families have no one who can speak English in the family, so they all watch a lot of TV to learn as quickly as possible. They find the children’s shows particularly helpful and explains that because of these shows the young refugee children have been able to learn English well even though they haven’t attended school yet. “In fact,” he says, “They can speak even better than the adults, who are occupied with other responsibilities.”
Alaa’s 4 year-old niece Julia comes in to introduce herself and Alaa’s 8 year-old daughter carries in her 2 year-old cousin. She introduces herself and her cousin in a perfect British accent and uses the remote to turn down the sound on the TV, which continues to play in the background.
The aroma of delicious smelling food fills the apartment. It is almost 9:00 and I am acutely aware that no one in the apartment has eaten or drunk anything since about 2:30 AM.
We chat for a while and I ask Alaa why has the British government settled them in a Jewish neighborhood and he replies, because the Jewish people petitioned for us to be here. They invited us….
“It has been the Jewish community that has helped us 100% since we have come to England,” he says. No other community has really done much. It’s the Jewish community that has supported us.
Blog: The Food at Alaa’s House
After about twenty minutes the Muslim call to prayer blasts out. At first I wonder is there a mosque nearby? But then quickly realize the sound is coming from Alaa’s phone. It is time to break the fast. We walk down the hallway past a bathroom and 1 bedroom to the only other room in the house, a kitchen.
As soon as we walk into the kitchen there is a table laden with a huge feast. The table fills the entire room and I worry, have they spent their entire week’s food allowance on this one meal? Two very quiet and young women are laying out the last dishes and pouring drinks for everyone. Every one washes their hands and we squeeze around the table Alaa, Ghassan and I are on one side and Hashim’s wife sits on the other side with the other woman who gathers Alaa’s niece and nephew onto her lap. Alaa’s daughter sits at the end of the table. The adults are studying their cell phone’s intently counting the seconds until they can take a sip of juice. The younger children are already sucking on sippy cups. Finally the moment comes and the call to prayer blasts out again and each person reaches for their waiting glass of juice and nearly finishes it in a few gulps. They smile and begin serving food.
My plate is so full it is spilling over. There are kibbeh, kebabs, and stuffed zucchinis, dates, salad and roast chickens over rice with raisins and nuts. It is the best Syrian food I have ever tasted, but people eat quickly. Hunger overcoming the need to savor the food.
I remember to take a picture of the food before it is entirely gone.
Once people’s hunger has been satisfied we settle down to talk and eat more slowly.
Blog Where is Alaa’s brother?
I look at the two women in hijabs and long robes sitting opposite me who have prepared this meal. They have barely spoken and look nearly identical. I wonder are they twins?
It is not polite in Arab culture to ask a man to introduce his wife by name so I still do not know how to address them.
But slowly, quietly and hesitatingly the women begin to join the conversation.
A’aa explains they are sisters. And Alaa’s wife says she is thirty-one. Her sister introduces herself as twenty-six. She cradles her small son who looks about one and half, but is nearly three. He wears thick glasses and barely speaks and sits very quietly in her lap. She explains that she is alone here with her children because her husband has not been able to “get out” yet. She says that although her daughter goes to a nursery, her son does not want her to leave him, so it is difficult for her to go to school to learn English. She lives about 25 minutes away by bus from Alaa’s family, so can only see them once every week or two, because here she is a single parent with the full responsibility for her two children and her household.
Alaa explains that the Jewish synagogue has a women’s program every other week so the Syrian women and the Jewish women in the synagogue can meet. He says this is a lifeline for the refugee women who have traditionally depended on relatives for companionship. He says that Syrian women do not have the skills to make friends with women outside of their families, so in England they can be very isolated and depressed. I look at this young 26 year old mother and tell her she is strong and doing great job and she smiles.
Alaa goes on to explain she is married to his brother.
“We are two brothers married to two sisters.”
When we left Syria the only thing I took with me were my papers.
We went to Lebanon, but they only let us stay for one day so we went to Jordon, We were in the camps for two days. Then I found a small apartment and we lived together, my family, and my brother’s family.
Because I was a pharmacist they let me work and I could find a job working nights because the Jordanian pharmacists all wanted to be home with their families at night, and because I was a refugee, they could pay me very little. I could not support every one on what I was making. We had nothing but because my brother was a refugee he was forbidden from working. But he managed to find work under the table, but someone reported him, and they took away his papers, and told him if they caught him working again they would send him back to Syria.
So he looked what to do, and he found an office where he could get permission papers to work in Dubai. He paid for those papers and went to Dubai, but it turned out the papers were fakes, so because of this, he was not with us when we got permission to come to England. He was in Dubai. They told us that our best chance was for my sister-in-law to come with us and apply for him to come once she got settled here. We are still waiting.
His sister-in-law says her 4-year-old daughter asks for her father all the time, but her son cannot remember him and never asks.
Blog Alaa’s Daughter
I look around the kitchen as I consider trying to help the women prepare the deserts and drinks, but I can’t figure out how to get past the kitchen table to the kitchen counter. I notice there is a bed in the kitchen and I ask about it. Alaa explains that his daughter has nightmares,
She does not want to sleep in a room with windows, and this is the only place where she feels safe at night.
As I continue to look around the room I ask Alaa how does this apartment compare to where he lived in Aleppo and he shakes his head and smiles and softly says, “There is no comparison.” He begins to count the rooms of his Syrian home on his fingers and concludes that they had a two-story home with over 12 rooms not including the bathrooms.
Blog Is Alaa Surprised That the Jewish Community has Helped Them?
After dinner we sit in the living room and I ask Alaa where does he see his future and he says,
“Definitely I want to be here in England. I want to work. I want to be apart of this society. I want to pay taxes. I want to build my life here. “
Alaa’s refined mannerisms and perfect English clash with the shabby room and its large TV. It was easier to imagine him in an upper middle class suburban home suitable to a highly, educated successful professional. But he explains he still has many hurtles to overcome before he can work here. He has to live in England at least two years and he has to become relicensed as a pharmacist in England before he can work. He says he is taking college courses and he consistently graduates as number one in his class. He also does volunteer work as a translator, and as a teacher, but he longs to work and earn money. He says they have enough for basics, but nothing extra. Although he has lived here for six months, he has only visited other areas of London once because he worries about spending their meager income on transportation. He has not been able to afford to eat in a restaurant, nor been able to get a driver’s license (although in Syria he owned a car).
I ask him if he is surprised that it is the Jewish community that has helped him and the other refugees and he says:
When we lived in Syria life was very hard and they always told us that the reason conditions were bad was because Syria has to defend themselves against Israel.
Conflict with Israel is the excuse that governments in the Middle East use to keep their own people oppressed. People know that the “problem with Israel” not entirely true, but still I was surprised. It is the Jewish community that has supported us one hundred percent. And without them I don’t know where we would be now.
We continue to talk until almost mid-night. Alaa says he is so grateful to England for saving them and he is “disappointed” that the Gulf States have refused entry to the Syrian refugees. His family is scattered around the world now, they are in Africa, England, Sweden, the US and Jordon, and Syria. He says worriedly he has had no news of his parents and other family members left behind in Aleppo since he left over six months ago. We take pictures and promise to stay in touch.