Eight Refugee Stories: Candle Readings for Chanukah

During Chanukah, a Jewish festival celebrating of religious freedom, we invite you to share a refugee’s story as a candle reading each night. These stories shine a light on refugees' contributions over the decades to our community in Birmingham and beyond – from children who fled Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport, to a Syrian refugee who has set up a thriving catering business in our city.  

As we read their stories and light the Chanukah lights, let’s be inspired to support people who seek safety on our shores.

First Candle Story: Nelly: 'England seemed to me a country of fairness'

In 1938 Nelly Hewspear fled Nazi-occupied Vienna when she was 18. She arrived in England to work at first as a domestic servant. Then she trained as a nurse, despite restrictive quotas. She worked as a district nurse, and later worked for 18 years in cytology, examining cells through a microscope to screen for cancer. With her husband David, she joined Birmingham Progressive Synagogue. Nelly welcomed newcomers warmly, remembering those who had helped her as a newly-arrived refugee. She lived till she was 100, a dearly-loved member of the community.



Second Candle Story: Yousef: 'We were lucky to be offered refugee resettlement in the UK'

Yousef: ‘We were lucky to be offered refugee resettlement in the UK’

Yousef and his family fled the war in Syria in 2011. Speaking no English, they arrived in Birmingham in 2017, where his youngest daughter Fatimah received essential medical treatment. Yousef set up a thriving business selling delicious Syrian fast food like falafel and shawarma from a food truck in the Bull Ring Market – until the pandemic struck. Now he has established a new catering business named SHOF, after his children’s initials, Shams, Omran and Fatimah www.shof.uk


Third Candle Story: Henry: 'Whenever the train stopped there were Dutch women with chocolate and apples and sandwiches

Preparing food for asylum seekers at RMC Nov 23

Muslim and Jewish women of Nisa-Nashim West Midlands work together to offer hot drinks and breakfast snacks to asylum seekers, queuing on winter mornings for advice at the Birmingham Refugee and Migrant Centre. This echoes memories of Henry Wuga and other Kindertransport children, of the Dutch women waiting at the railway stations in Holland with cocoa and food for refugee children escaping out of Nazi Germany.


Fourth Candle Story: Sharda: I remember the sound of guns

Sharda Lavingia

I lived as a child in Jinjia in Uganda with 6 sisters and 4 brothers at the time of Idi Amin’s military dictatorship. My father was a talented goldsmith. One day we shut the shop at 6 pm and I remember the sound of the guns. My father said, “I’m not going to live here any more,” and within three months we had fled. Idi Amin expelled all Ugandan Asians in 1972. We left a lot behind, and we didn’t know if we would get out or be stopped.

We had a friend in Birmingham, so we moved to Sparkbrook, but I found life totally different than what we were used to in Uganda. The city of Birmingham was so beautiful; we had Christmas trees in our all roads!

I’ve done community work now for over 51 years here in Birmingham. My husband and I organise workshops on stress management, and besides that I work for a university sharing my lived experience as an expert by experience.

We started an international organisation in Birmingham, which gradually grew in UK then worldwide. We have taken part in four World Culture Festivals as a result – an international reach from our home. My husband and I recently went to Washington DC to take part in the 4th World Culture Festival and took part in Gujarati dance, Garba and the flag ceremony that consisted of representatives from 180 countries.

You can see Sharda at the World Culture Festival in this video clip: https://bit.ly/46Njm0E


Fifth Candle Story: Edgar: from Kindertransport to metal spinning in Birmingham

14-year-old Edgar Neuberg and his younger sister fled Nazi persecution in Germany in 1939. They arrived on the Kindertransport, but the rest of their family did not survive. Edgar and his sister were taken in by a Methodist minister and his wife in Stockport. Edgar trained at the local engineering college. In Birmingham in the late 1950s, Edgar established Neuberg Metals, a metal spinning business. They made pots, pans, and later lighting fittings. It was a successful venture, and employed 70-80 people at its height in the 1980s. Neuberg Metals, still run by Edgar’s son Clive, made the 15,000 silver discs cladding the Birmingham Selfridges Building.


Sixth Candle Story: Tsegazghi: I was a judge, a fugitive and a refugee

Tsegazghi was born in Eritrea, where he was appointed as a judge at the age of 23. He was imprisoned when he refused to follow government demands that he defy the law with his rulings. Knowing that he may never be released, his planned a successful escape and became a fugitive, eventually making it into Ethiopia as a refugee. He later came to the UK, where he settled in Birmingham and is an active member of Citizens UK and other community initiatives. He says he has been shaped by his story as a refugee, knowing that it can happen to anyone, and tries to give back to other refugees.

Seventh Candle Story: Jonathan, who hosted Ukrainian refugees

Jonathan says, "My mother came to this country as a refugee from Germany in 1938 and was welcomed and made a new life here with her family.

When the opportunity came to provide a home for a family from Ukraine, it felt like the right thing to do. A mother and son stayed with us for 6 months, while they in turn were able to make a life here (working and studying at school) until they can be reunited with their family.”


Eighth Candle Readings: Ruth Shire and Benjamin Zephaniah 'We Refugees'

In Nazi Germany, Ruth was forced to leave school at 14, as no school would have her because she was Jewish. When she was 15, Ruth’s parents sent her to England. They knew of an Oxfordshire group helping Jewish families to escape the emerging horrors of Nazi Germany. A Christian family took her in. 

Ruth, now 102, recalls: “As an only child, I was very happy to be part of a large family, who were so generous. One of the children, Martin was eight years younger than me and had a tree house. I was the only one who would climb up to have tea there and we became friends for the rest of our lives. The family also later sponsored my parents so they could escape Germany as war broke out.  

Later my father worked in a shop in Oxford where he sold black-out material. When a new nun joined the local convent, they would ask Mr Cohen for black-out material for their uniforms. In return the nuns would occasionally bring butter from their trips back home to Ireland.

Female refugees could only do nursing or domestic work, so I trained and worked as a nurse. When I got married I moved to Birmingham and had a family. I have had a great life in Birmingham because of its go-ahead views. Wherever I have lived there has been a nice community with friendly and helpful people and it offers so much in art and education, music and religion. Living in Birmingham has given me a lot of possibilities, even in old age, to still be active. Until the pandemic I did a lot of work for the U3A, for my progressive synagogue and with the Council of Christian and Jews, as my experiences when younger with Christians was so good. And just this year I was the oldest person ever to have an operation at Birmingham's premier hospital for a TAVI heart valve. It was marvellous and I’m still here because of it.”

We Refugees
Benjamin Zephaniah 15 April 1958-7 Dec 2023

I come from a musical place
Where they shoot me for my song
And my brother has been tortured
By my brother in my land.

I come from a beautiful place
Where they hate my shade of skin
They don't like the way I pray
And they ban free poetry.

I come from a beautiful place
Where girls cannot go to school
There you are told what to believe
And even young boys must grow beards.

I come from a great old forest
I think it is now a field
And the people I once knew
Are not there now.

We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe,
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food,
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go,
We can be hated by someone
For being someone.

I come from a beautiful place
Where the valley floods each year
And each year the hurricane tells us
That we must keep moving on.

I come from an ancient place
All my family were born there
And I would like to go there
But I really want to live.

I am told I have no country now
I am told I am a lie
I am told that modern history books
May forget my name.

We can all be refugees
Sometimes it only takes a day,
Sometimes it only takes a handshake
Or a paper that is signed.
We all came from refugees
Nobody simply just appeared,
Nobody's here without a struggle,
And why should we live in fear
Of the weather or the troubles?
We all came here from somewhere.

From Wicked World by Benjamin Zephaniah