A Key on the Seder Plate: Remembering those who are detained indefinitely while their applications for asylum are being processed.

keysforfreedomImagine the fear of being subject to indefinite detention. No way of knowing how long you will be there,” feeling like you have been put into some sort of human storage facility” (Ajay from Freed Voices).  Imagine trying to keep your sense of self, already damaged by the treatment you have received earlier in your own country, the torture and abuse you have fled, leaving behind family and home in an attempt to save yourself.  Imagine the dangerous journey to freedom, the cold and the heat, the hunger and the insecurity, the anxiety for those you have left behind, the fear of what the future will hold.

Imagine then arriving at a country of sanctuary, hopeful, grateful, ready to work hard to create a new home and make new relationships, to build a good future. And then imagine the bureaucracy, the suspicion, the black hole you fall into as you try to do all the things that will bring a new start. Imagine the xenophobia, the misery, the violence of those who are losing all hope. Imagine that your innocence is questioned, that being locked up without any time structure is seen as normal. Imagine the limbo you find yourself in, no end in sight, nothing to hold on to. In 2015, 255 people had been detained for between one and two years, 41 for over two years.  But these figures exclude the many people who are held in prisons under immigration powers, so the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.  Detention is justified as a way to deport people, but the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported.

There is no clarity or transparency in the process. It just grinds on slowly – at least you hope it is grinding on – how would you know if you are not forgotten?  How do you hold on to your humanity when others see you only as a statistic, and a hostile statistic at that?

As one detained asylum seeker said:    “In prison you count the days down to your release, but in detention you count the days up and up” (Suleymane from Freed Voices”)

In 2015 official figures report that almost three thousand people were placed on suicide watch, eleven of them children.  And the figures for suicide attempts inside these centres is going up. The mental health of detained asylum seekers becomes further fractured by the fear, the lack of any clear process or time structure, the prison conditions in which they are held.

As Richard Fuller MP said at an interfaith event hosted by Tzelem and Rene Cassin in the House of Commons yesterday (20th April 2016) “the system is costly, it is inefficient, and it is unjust”. It costs £70 thousand a year to hold someone in detention in Colnbrook detention centre – money that could be used for their rehabilitation and to facilitate their entry into society.

The UK is the only European country with indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The immigration bill is coming back to the Commons with many amendments from the Lords, one of which is to set a time limit of 28 days. As we go into Pesach, our festival of freedom, let’s do all we can to remember and to hold in our hearts and minds the frightened people held in indefinite detention in our own country. Put a key on your Seder plate and pledge to work for the freedom of all people to live in security and peace, to work for the ordinary and common desire we all share to be able to get on with our lives without fear.

Parashat Terumah – creating our own sanctuary

 “Dabeir el bnei Yisrael vayik’hu li teruma. Me’eit kol ish asher yidvennu libo, tik’hu et terumati. …. va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham .And God spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of everyone whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering….And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”

With this sidra we embark upon no fewer than thirteen weeks’ worth of Torah portions detailing how the Mishkan, the tabernacle, was meant to be built. One might contrast this to the narrative about the creation of the world which takes two chapters to tell two stories, or the narrative about Sinai and the revelation of Torah which takes three chapters in total.   So why is Torah focussing so narrowly and for so long? The answer can I think be found in the key word – Terumah is usually translated as an offering that is lifted up, but it is made clear in this passage that this is an offering freely given by whoever is moved to give.

There is none of the hard sell we are used to in charitable appeals, none of the slightly guilt tinged writing of cheques or pledge cards.  This is an offering that is motivated only by the desire to give. The root of the word terumah is something that is uplifted, elevated to a higher status. What we see here is the moment when human beings choose to do something extraordinary of their own free will; and then they are uplifted in some profound way. This elevation happens not because they are giving, but rather they are giving because they are in some way transcending their base selves.

What is it that causes this shift in the soul, this opening out of the awareness of the person? The narrative comes immediately after the debacle of the golden calf, when again the people gave, but that time they gave their gold and jewels in order to make for themselves an idol to worship.

 it must surely be some deep recognition that however much we make for ourselves external props and supports in order to buttress our fragile existence, true strength comes from within us. God’s words in verse 8 “va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham” is a clue – “let them make for me a sacred space and I will dwell within them”.

Once the people truly understand that the space they make within themselves by stopping all their frantic activity and verbal whirlwind and just letting themselves breathe and be – once they see that that this internal mindful space is effectively a mikdash, a sanctuary that is within themselves, then it quickly becomes apparent that the resources they need to support themselves are all there, all available and accessible. Call it God, call it by any other name, once we stop and let ourselves simply be, once we make the time and space to simply notice what our heart and mind truly wants, when we stop trying to fill the space around us and within us with busy-ness and activity then we ourselves are raised above the mundane. We become Terumah – uplifted; and we offer Terumah – the gift of who we are is a gift both to God and to ourselves.

Where does God dwell? This portion reminds us of the response of the Kotsker Rebbe Menachem Mendel. “God dwells wherever we let God in”.

As we begin the long and extraordinarily detailed description of the building of the sanctuary in the desert, we may reflect on why Torah spends so many weeks on the particular descriptions and the minutiae.   It takes a long time to create such a sacred space, yet consider the mikdash which we ourselves can create – without the gold or the silver, the purple or scarlet. The mikdash which we create within ourselves comes from our taking time out of our constant activity. And when we create that space within ourselves, we may find it filled with the Terumah – the willing heart, the presence of God, the strength and support that dwells within ourselves, if only we would reach for it.