Refugees and relief

Refugee Week starts next Monday and here at Friends House we are having a series of events including a small exhibition in the Library on Monday open to all (

The exhibition will consist of banners giving an overview of Quaker work to help refugees, mainly in the mid-twentieth century, culminating in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to American and British Quakers in 1947. We will also have some archive and contemporary published material on display.

Why do Quakers help refugees?

At the root of the Quaker faith is a belief that there is something of God in everyone, that each life is sacred. Quakers are guided by a set of values known as ‘testimonies’: peace, equality, truth and simplicity. They try to live out these values in the world and to be guided by their faith into action.

The peace testimony is a core expression of Quaker faith and, from the early days of the movement, has led Quakers to reject war and military service, and to work with others on a wide range of peace and relief work, not just in the UK but around the world. A key principle has always been that help and support are offered in a non-political and non-partisan way, also reflecting the testimony of equality.

Quakers have been led by their testimonies to help victims during times of crisis. This has included victims of war such as those whose homes were destroyed, victims of persecution such as those living under violent regimes, and people fleeing economic devastation, disease and famine.

Historical examples

Although the term ‘refugee’ is relatively modern, and subject to different definitions, there are early examples of Quakers helping refugees. From the 1824 report of a committee established to respond to an application for relief of refugees in Greece, to the establishment of a Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) in 1870 to aid victims of the Franco-Prussian War, there were several periods of crisis in the 19th century which caused displacement of people and drew support from Quakers.

However, the 20th century brought refugee crises on an unprecedented scale. There were many opportunities for Quakers to assist and offer relief.

World War I

World War I saw the destruction of swathes of homes in Belgium and northern France, leaving thousands homeless. Friends Emergency & War Victims Relief Committee (FEWVRC) and the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) assisted these refugees, both with short term aid, and in rebuilding housing and reconstructing industry and farming.

Revolution and the ensuing civil war in Russia caused many to flee southwards, while the breakdown of empire in Europe and territorial carve-up at the end of the war caused further population chaos. This mass movement of people caused the widespread outbreak of contagious disease. Again the FEWVRC was able to offer medical aid, food, and reconstruction.

The aftermath of war left many central European countries, especially the defeated powers, suffering hunger and famine. British Quakers, mainly under the American Friends Service Committee’s management, undertook mass feeding programmes in Germany and Austria.

People whose homes have been destroyed near the Front in World War I

People whose homes have been destroyed near the Front in World War I (Library reference: LSF FEWVRC France pics 8_3_6 refugee family depart Oise)

Displaced people in Russian camp after World War I

Displaced people in Russian camp after World War I (Library reference: FEWVRC-PICS-RS-AL1-1)

Spanish Civil War

In the 1930s Europe suffered another crisis with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Quakers were able to assist people fleeing the war, both in areas of Spain and neighbouring France, and by assisting refugees who came to Britain.

You can find out more about Quakers and the Spanish Civil War by visiting Haverford College’s digital project Testimonies in Art & Action which includes material from our collections.

Spanish children fleeing the war

Spanish children fleeing the war (Library reference: LSF FSC photos_Spain refugees crossing over to France c1939)

World War II

As well as carrying out post-World War I relief work in Germany,  Quakers established international centres in Germany and Austria during the interwar period. This meant that Quakers in Britain had people on the ground relaying information about the political situation as it unfolded after Nazis took power in 1933. They became acutely aware of the danger for certain groups in society. From 1933, Quakers assisted people to leave Nazi Europe and this continued through the war.

After the war millions of people were displaced across Europe and the world. Quakers were involved in various aspects of relief for these people through Friends Relief Service (FRS) and Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). You can read more about FRS and FAU in World War II on Quakers in the World.

LSF 066.34 FCRA 1_21 Caring for the child refugees

Image from a pamphlet about caring for child refugees to Britain (Library reference: 066.34 FCRA 1_21 Caring for the child refugees)

In addition to offering assistance and aid to refugees in times of crisis, Quakers have also lobbied for changes in national and international policy towards those forced to migrate, and continue to do so today.

We invite anyone interested in Quakers’ work for refugees and relief to come along on Monday, from 11am-3pm, and view the exhibition.

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2 Responses to Refugees and relief

  1. Pingback: A year in view: Quaker Strongrooms blog 2017 | Quaker Strongrooms

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