I am a refugee. But first and foremost, I am a human being

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28 Jul 2016

Paul Lorber fled Czechoslovakia in 1968 following Soviet invasion. His parents, who had survived concentration camps, took their family to safety in Britain, where their son went on to become the Leader of London’s Brent Council.

It doesn’t take long for those in difficult situations to make an extremely positive contribution to our society and those around them.

At university I had a chance meeting. It was 1974 and Britain was between general elections. A friend of mine was leafleting for the Liberal Democrats. He told me – “Come along. You’ve got nothing better to do.”

Eight years later, I was elected councillor in Brent. After over twenty years serving my local area I became the first Liberal Democrat to lead Brent Council. I served as Councillor in my part of London for 32 years. For the past 5 years I have been volunteering at the Community Library charity I set up. The closure of local libraries is an issue really close to my heart.

As a child, I was exposed to politics from the off. I saw the effects all around me.

In 1968 the Soviet Union and allies marched into Czechoslovakia, bringing with them an end to freedom.

My parents were no strangers to war.

They were caught up in the hatred of the Second World War. My mother survived Auschwitz and my father Sachsenhausen concentration camp. About two thirds of my family were killed. I never had any grandparents.

Two weeks after Russian tanks flowed into Bratislava and six days after my thirteenth birthday, my oldest brother convinced my parents that we were no longer safe in our home. Under the guise of going away on holiday, carrying fake documents, we travelled to Vienna then onwards to Brighton where my mother’s sister and her husband lived in a one bedroom flat.

My aunt and uncle did their very best to help us, but space was limited. Often my brother and I went to sleep at neighbours’ houses.

My father helped out in his sister’s shop. He was a talented architect but he didn’t speak the language, styles were different and Britain was experiencing a housing slump. Eventually he found a job as a draughtsman in London.

Once again we were uprooted. In a modest flat in Willesden Green provided by the Refugee Housing Association we finally settled. I have called Brent home ever since.

As a child I had been active and adventurous. I had found it easy to make friends. Nevertheless in this new, strange place where I didn’t speak the language it was tough. But eventually I made a breakthrough. I put a lot of that down to playing football and going to matches with my new English friends.

I started school in all of the bottom classes but left with 9 CSEs. Two years later I went to Manchester University, where my friend and I had that first fateful conversation.

Throughout the years we have seen how those who have lost everything fleeing war and persecution can make such a positive impact in their adopted homes.  The UK must continue to provide support and welcome to refugees. We should treat everyone as fellow human beings who, if given a fair chance, will make a very positive contribution to our country.

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