On this International Workers Day, we’re thinking about international solidarity. Across the world, thousands of unaccompanied children are living in squalor in refugee camps and we have a moral duty to help them. Today, we have a guest blog from John Dennis, Secretary of Dumfries TUC speaking about the campaign.
I’d never heard of either Safe Passage or the Kindertransport Association until I got an email out of the blue from Margaret Woods, the well-known campaigner for refugees in Glasgow.
Margaret knows my family background as she’s heard me talk about it at a Holocaust Memorial event at the STUC HQ 3 years ago and at anti-racism rallies in Scotland.
My father, then called Kurt Deutsch, was rescued, aged nearly 10, from Prague in July 1939 as one of a train load of Jewish children organised by Nicholas Winton. He got his place as his father Ernst had already died in February 1939 of mistreatment and typhus in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.
His mother Melanie sent him to Britain with a big black metal trunk filled with full sets of clothes in various sizes to last him for 3 to 4 years.
She kept up an almost daily stream of letters to him (which I’ve translated from German for my family) till the start of WW2. She managed to send intermittent letters via contacts in neutral countries until she and her relatives were rounded up and sent to Theresienstadt and then on to Auschwitz in March 1942.
My father was sent by Nicholas Winton’s organisation to Selkirk where he spent the war years in the Priory. It was then a Church of Scotland orphanage accommodating up to 20 mainly Jewish child refugees of both sexes.
At the end of the war Kurt changed his name (to Kenneth John Dennis) after he had discovered that his mother and almost all his relatives had been murdered. From a wee shy 10 year old Czech boy with German as his second language and no English, he managed, thanks to the support of Selkirk High School and the community there, to win a bursary to study medicine at Edinburgh University.
He met my mother, the daughter of his landlady in Edinburgh and they had 4 kids. After gaining experience in various Scottish hospitals, he worked as an obstetrician in Aberdeen for 12 years before eventually becoming professor in Southampton where he worked till his death in 1989.
I knew nothing about my father’s early life until I was 14. I knew he’d been brought up in an orphanage in Selkirk. All I knew was that his parents had both died in the war and that the subject was too distressing for him to discuss. I’d assumed up to that point that they’d both died in air raids.
Anyway , to return to Margaret Woods’ email : It was forwarding a call by Barbara Winton (daughter of Nicholas) and Safe Passage for former Kindertransport children and their relatives to a rally in London to mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport and at the same time to promote efforts to rescue unaccompanied child refugees from dire situations in camps in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
I attended the rally on November 15th with my mother and was impressed by the work done by Lord Alf Dubs and the Safe Passage charity. I was particularly pleased that many at the rally , including some of the now aged Kindertransport evacuees, booed the speech of the UK immigration minister Caroline Nokes.
Unfortunately the rally did not get much media coverage as it took place the same day as a number of Tory ministers resigned over Brexit.
Those involved in the Safe Passage Initiative have approached a number of local councils to help find families and organisations who are willing to take unaccompanied child refugees. To date hundreds of places have been found, mostly in England. So far no local authority in Scotland has pledged any places.
I thought that I could take this forward through my involvement with the trade union movement in Scotland. I am Secretary of Dumfries Trades Union Council and I was Secretary of Dumfries & Galloway EIS (the teachers’ union) for 12 years up till my retirement in 2017.
I have had pledges of support from leading members of the SNP, Labour, the Lib-Dems and Green parties in South West Scotland and I was very glad that the General Council of the STUC agreed to my proposal to launch the campaign at STUC HQ in Glasgow on 1st May – International Labour Day.
I’m sure that people in Scotland will come forward in numbers to offer homes to child refugees once they receive the call from Scotland’s Councils.
In the 1930s many Basque children fleeing Franco’s Fascists were found places in Scotland as were many of the Kindertransport kids in 1938-39.
We are looking for 10,000 places across the UK over the next few years to match the 1939 totals. The UK government has been deliberately putting bureaucratic obstacles in the way of child refugees and only 20 children had been allowed in by September 2018. We need as many people as possible to come forward and offer places in their homes to increase the political pressure on the Home Office so that vulnerable children can be rescued from the squalor of the refugee camps.
The campaign is launching on social media on Wednesday 1st May at 11am, you can keep up with it by looking at the hashtag #OurTurnScotland.