Afghan refugees: a perspective from Herts

My grandparents fled the pogroms in Russia and several members of my family escaped from the Nazis in Germany. A lifetime as an activist in the Liberal Democrats has taught me that immigration is a blessing not a curse and we have always stood up for those fleeing persecution. And as an Asylum Judge, I heard every day harrowing tales of people who have not been welcomed to our country. The first Afghan refugee arrivals came to two hotels bang in the middle of my division in Hertfordshire.

Sunday morning saw a three mile traffic jam outside a car park. People had rushed to local shops to buy items we had requested for our welcome guests.

I had three principal reasons for involving myself with the Afghan refugees arriving in the UK these past few days.

  1. My grandparents fled the pogroms in Russia and several members of my family escaped from the Nazis in Germany. To me, on a personal level, the plight of the Afghan refugees really resonated.
  2. On a political level, a lifetime as an activist in the Liberal Democrats has taught me that immigration is a blessing not a curse and our party has always stood up for those fleeing persecution.
  3. I spent the last fifteen years of my professional life as an Asylum Judge hearing every day harrowing tales of those from overseas whose welcome on these shores was, to say the least, not very warm and who were deprived of the most basic essentials we need to have a decent quality of life.

It was, therefore, fortuitous that the Home Office decided to place the first Afghan refugee arrivals in Hertfordshire in two hotels bang in the middle of the Division I happen represent on the County Council to which I was elected less than four months ago.

As soon as I was able to identify the hotels I rushed over and made contact with the three dozen families there. The fathers, who, as interpreters, spoke perfect English explained to me that they had left their homeland with just one item of luggage weighing no more than ten pounds for the whole family including several young children. They were short of clothes, especially warm clothes for our climate, and the children had virtually nothing beyond the clothes on their back.

Remembering tales of my own family, I dashed off to see the Rabbi at the local Synagogue of which I am a member. Within minutes an appeal went out to the membership for clothes, nappies, toys, toiletries and other essentials and the result was truly phenomenal. Last Sunday morning there was a three mile traffic jam outside the Synagogue car park with members who had rushed to local shops to buy items we had requested for our welcome guests.

Local Conservative politicians, now sensing the sudden mood of sympathy towards the Afghans, started accusing me of interference and County officials told me to do everything through the Red Cross even though no-one had even seen them. I ignored all the instructions and together with the Rabbi and a team of volunteers we took our convoy down to the two hotels and distributed much of what we had collected. It was a truly heart-warming experience.

Our activity certainly caught the public imagination and every TV channel rushed to Bushey for interviews and the story was covered in media all over the world. I am linking a clip of a typical item on ITV News. I made sure that everyone knew that I was a Lib Dem Councillor and it is our Party’s policy to always be on the side of refugees.

* Laurence Brass is Lib Dem County Councillor for Bushey North, Herts

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  • John McHugo 25th Aug '21 - 1:09pm

    Thank you for such a heart warming story. Apart from the items you, your Rabbi and his congregation were able to give the refugees, you also established personal contact with them. That in itself is probably even more valuable for them and for their morale. If everything had been done through the Red Cross, i.e. “official channels”, that would presumably have been lacking – or at least there would have been less personal contact with local people.

  • Yeovil Yokel 25th Aug '21 - 2:33pm

    An inspirational story, well done Laurence.

  • Barry Lofty 25th Aug '21 - 3:59pm

    Well done to everyone involved, I can only imagine what it must be like to find myself in the same position as these refugees!

  • Denis Loretto| 26th Aug '21 - 8:31am

    This is an amazing and inspiring story of which I for one knew nothing. Can action be taken to get it more widely publicised – not for party political purposes but to give a powerful lead to other communities?

  • Neil Hickman 26th Aug '21 - 11:10pm

    I remember Laurence from when he was seeking to become PPC for Bedford more years ago than either of us would like to acknowledge (I suspect it was in the 1970s). He was personable and full of ideas then (even though Bedford picked someone else) and it’s great to see him being so effective decades later.
    This is an admirable story, not least for the Tories and the County Council suits whinging and simply being ignored.
    Bravo Laurence.

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