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When Karina Litvack meets somebody new, she’ll often show them a photo of her ‘children’. One of them is her biological daughter Gabriela; the other is Basel, a refugee who has been living with her for a year and a half now.
“Basel is like my son,” Karina, 55, told HuffPost UK. “I love him to bits.”
Last Christmas was not only Basel’s first experience of a British Christmas, having come over to the UK from Syria earlier that year, but it was also the first time Karina and her husband had celebrated the occasion.
“We don’t do Christmas, as we aren’t Christian,” said Karina, who lives in London but is originally from Canada. Having Basel and his cousin with them for Christmas, however, gave them the perfect excuse to try it out.
The family bought a tree and decorated it, adding something a little different to the tree – a decoration combining the Star of David and a crescent moon. And then, on December 24, “the boys came down in their suits” and surprised the family with a recording of Silent Night in Arabic.
That evening they were also joined by the family’s housekeeper, who is Polish, for a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner, before waking the following morning to Christmas presents. “We had a very multi-ethnic day,” noted Karina.
It was a tough time for Basel, whose brother had become trapped in Turkey after fleeing Syria and was arrested by police. “I was really depressed because of my brother,” he told me in a phone call.
Karina added: “Basel’s brother had been in jail for three or four months and we were really frightened about what his fate would be.”
The family was working with lawyers to try and get him out of prison, which meant Christmas was a fraught time for all involved – with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over their heads. It was also a worrying time for the rest of Basel’s family, who were still living in Turkey.
“They [Karina and her husband] took me from that situation and they made me happy,” Basel said. And some good news: in May this year, his brother was finally released.
Karina and Basel were thrown into each other’s lives within a space of days, following a meeting set up by a charity which paired refugees with hosts in the UK. They are now supported by Refugees At Home, a UK-based charity that connects people who have a spare room in their home with asylum seekers and refugees in need of accommodation.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 6.3 million Syrian refugees worldwide by the end of 2017. Around 4.4 million of these were being hosted by just two countries – Turkey and Lebanon.
The UK pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme; by the end of 2017, just over 10,000 had come to the UK.
Karina has been helping Basel to learn English. “Every day she told me to study one article or one song [in English],” said Basel. “She looks out for me.”
This year will be the first time 79-year-old Penelope Farmer gets to spend Christmas with her host Maher, as last year he was in Sweden with family following his mother’s sudden death and his father’s hospitalisation.
Penelope Farmer, who is 79, first invited 29-year-old Maher, originally from Syria, into her home in July 2017. “Normally people don’t stay for very long but he’s had a very hard time because he and his family got split up [fleeing Syria],” said the writer who lives in Shepherd’s Bush, London.
When Penelope had an accident and had to go to hospital, Maher held the fort at home. “When I came home he was immensely helpful and helped cook my dinner in the evenings,” she said. “It was just really nice to have him around, I was very grateful to him.”
Penelope and Maher will spend this Christmas with Penelope’s husband David McFarland, and the couple’s daughter. There are no major plans, other than a meal on Christmas Eve and another on Christmas Day. “I’m looking forward to the family being together and having Maher with us,” Penelope said. “He’s part of the family now.”
Maher is incredibly fond of Penelope. “I feel she’s like my mother,” he said. “She supports me, she deals with me like her son ... and she always wants to help me. I love her. Her family are like my family.”
Hosting is “critically important to the refugees who would otherwise be street-homeless at this festive but cold time of year,” said Sara Nathan, co-founder of Refugees At Home, which always needs more hosts in the run up to Christmas, as people may go away or not have room in their homes for extra guests.
Some 80 guests need somewhere to stay between now and early January. (People can volunteer to host at www.refugeesathome.org.)
“Getting to know Maher has put a human face on the tragedy that is his country, more than any photo could,” Penelope said. “His life and his family’s life has been smashed to pieces - a microcosm of a huge and awful whole.
“I understand that now, which is why I am so grateful to be able do this one small thing. And I’m so glad to have got to know and love Maher.”
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