“H and I have been chatting on Instagram”, my 14-year-old daughter tells me, “she’s really into Panic at the Disco”.
H is a young Muslim woman from Ethiopia. She was trafficked into the UK as a modern slave and left behind a small child in hiding, a husband who disappeared and the mental scars of political persecution. She stayed with us for 22 months.
Panic at the Disco, for the uninitiated or over-20s, is a pop group. Music and social media are the common language of H and my daughter Alexia. In fact, the two of them manage to bridge the gap in language, culture, religion and upbringing with remarkable ease. While Alexia shows H new Instagram feeds and vloggers, H teaches her some phrases in Oromo, and how to make injera with lentils. Unlike me, Alexia doesn’t worry about political sensitivities. She talks to H with an open and curious mind, and I know H trusts her more than me.
Brought up in a cocoon of peace, safety and relative prosperity, Alexia is used to the absence of war, persecution and fear; the presence of shelter, food and education.
Getting to know H has opened a new world for her: A realisation that none of these things can be taken for granted, and how lucky she is. An insight into a country where religious and ethnic conflict has led to centuries of persecution. An understanding that not all things are black and white, that most conflicts are complicated and cannot be solved with simple slogans. A sense of the desperation and existential fear that makes people leave everything behind and seek a new life. And, not least, a clear picture of the difficulty this new life entails even here – from linguistic barriers to the ‘hostile environment’ our own government creates for its most vulnerable residents.
None of these things are taught in school, or by parents. Hosting refugees has been the best education Alexia could have had. Throughout the past two years she has become much more reflective, open-minded and critical in her thinking. She has taken her insights into school and engaged in debates and activities with genuine interest and passion. Today, Alexia is an active campaigner for refugee issues, joined a political party and volunteers for Friends of Calais and a children’s charity in Africa.
Sadly, H’s second asylum application was denied and she has moved away. Thanks to social media, Alexia is still in contact with her and we know she is well and hope one day she will be able to return to Ethiopia and be reunited with her child. Meanwhile, another refugee moved into the guest room and will continue to inform and inspire Alexia’s journey into adulthood.
Irina von Wiese is a lawyer and human rights campaigner