Thursday, March 25, 2010

Yemeni families flee persecution for Stamford Hill

Musa Badani in his new home in Stamford Hill (photo: The Independent)

The Independent newspaper focuses on 49 Jews, now resettled in the ultra-orthodox area of Stamford Hill, London, following persecution in Yemen. They are calling for their relatives to join them and to be granted asylum by the British government following harassment, abductions and assault. The local MP, Diane Abbott, is supporting their campaign.

In the past five years, attacks on Jewish families have increased. Scores of women have been kidnapped and forced to covert to Islam, prominent leaders have been assassinated and notes have been pasted on doors telling the Jewish occupants to leave the country.

The Yemeni government, which is trying to halt the violence, has given refuge to 65 Jews in the capital, Sana'a, after they were expelled by the al-Houthi tribe, a rebel Shia faction fighting the government from their powerbase in the north. A further 200 or so Jews still live in the towns of Raida and Kharif, just south of al-Houthi territory.

Those who managed to escape already have headed to Israel, America and Britain. At least 49 families (sic - 49 people - ed) are known to have travelled to London where they have settled with the country's largest Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community in Hackney's Stamford Hill.

Shlomo Efraim, 29, knows all about the violence meted out to Yemen's Jews. In 2003, his father's second wife (Yemeni Jews, like their Arab neighbours, still practise polygamy) was kidnapped and forced to covert to Islam. "The next year my younger sister was kidnapped," he said as his three-year-old son Bezalal looked on. "She had left the house to go see a neighbour when she was taken. We looked everywhere for her until a local sheikh told us that she had been taken by a Muslim family. We went to report her kidnapping to the police and instead of arresting the family they locked us up in jail for the night. The only question the police officer asked us was why we hadn't converted to Islam."

The Efraim family come from Raida and lived next door to Moshe Nahari, a prominent teacher with nine children who was shot dead by an extremist in December 2008. Abdul Aziz al-Abdi, a retired air force pilot, had repeatedly ordered him to convert to Islam and when Nahari refused he was gunned down. Al-Abdi was sentenced to death last year but he has not yet been executed.

Because female members of the family were most at risk, Shlomo Efraim – with help from Haredi leaders in London – obtained Argentinean study visas for his sisters who then applied for asylum in the UK as they changed planes at Heathrow. They chose Britain because they already had family members living here. The sisters, who would normally wear a full face-veil on the streets of Yemen, had never left their village before.

Eli Low, a member of Stamford Hill's Haredi community who has spent more than a decade helping Yemen's Jews escape, went to Heathrow to meet the sisters. "When we went through Departures I spotted a friend of the family who lives in Golders Green," he said, laughing at the memory. "I'll never forget the look on his face when he spotted this Orthodox Jewish man leading a woman in an abaya (Islamic dress) and all her sisters out of the airport. They must have thought it was the strangest sight."

The Efraims now live next door to a family from Bangladesh and are slowly learning to adapt to life in a community where Muslims and Jews happily live side by side. The Yemenis that have made it to Britain have quickly settled into Stamford Hill's Haredi community, whose Ultra-Orthodox customs are closest to the type of Judaism practised in Yemen. The children have been placed free of charge in the local Jewish schools, and local Jewish families have adopted large numbers of Yemeni girls who are now fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish and English. But Stamford Hill's Jews say Britain is not doing enough to help the remaining Yemeni Jews escape. Last year, the American government declared that any Yemeni Jew wishing to travel to the US would automatically be granted asylum. The State Department even organised an airlift last summer for 150 people ( currently 62 - ed) who wanted to join family members in the States.

There was talk of Britain making a similar offer but it never materialised. Instead, each asylum application is considered on an individual basis. One of Shlomo Efraim's brothers had his asylum application refused last week and his elderly parents have spent seven months trying to secure a visa to travel to Britain.

The Hackney Labour MP Diane Abbott has called on the Government to provide blanket refugee status to those Jews left in Yemen thought to have relatives already living in the UK. "If these people do lose their lives to militant Arab extremism then the British government will stand accused of having known about the danger for more than a year but refusing to act," she said. But the Government may be finally shifting its stance. In February Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis visited Jewish families in Sana'a and Timothy Torlot, Britain's ambassador to Yemen, met some of Raida's Jews last week.

Mr Lewis told The Independent: "We are in active discussions with the President and government of Yemen about the Jewish community's safety and the possibility of relocating those families who have direct links to Britain. We hope to have some sort of decision made within the next 10 days." That will be welcome new for Rabbi Avrohom Goldman, a junior rabbi at the Yetev Lev synagogue, who joined Mr Low for a lunch of steaming flatbread and chicken soup at the Badani household.

Musa Badani, a man who appeared to be in his fifties, but said he did not know his age, regaled his visitors in Arabic with stories of how hostile al-Houthi tribesmen descended on their village after the 11 September al-Qa'ida attacks on America to tell the Jews that they were next. "They burned bonfires and fired their weapons in the air," he said. "They told us we would be put to death by the sword of Mohammad."

As Rabbi Goldman left the house he sighed. "We're not asking for much," he said. "We're talking about a very small number of people who would be quickly assimilated and provided for by the Jewish community here. The Americans accept that Yemen's Jews are in desperate need of refuge, so why can't Britain do the same?"

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