I asked my son, Joseph, last week whether he wanted a brother or sister. He looked at me with the absolute conviction only four-year olds can muster and said, “don’t be silly Mummy, I’ve got a brother *and* a sister already” (which was news to me). The siblings he meant are a 30-year-old Syrian and a one-year old Eritrean - guests we’ve hosted through Refugees at Home - people he adores, and who have become part of his family.
As long as he can remember, we’ve had people in our spare room. Grandparents, cousins visiting, once a friend going through a nasty divorce, and then one day two years ago it was a nervous-looking Syrian who arrived, and stayed for a year. Hassan became a firm favourite, as, missing his young family members still in the Middle East, he was happy to play endless games, teach Joseph Arabic songs and pretend to be interested in Power Rangers.
Hassan was soon part of the family. Charming and funny, with brilliant English, he mostly hid a horrific story of torture and loss. Bits accidentally slipped out, like when his shoulder dislocated ‘again’ on the bus and he absently remarked that that and his wrist and his knee had never really recovered from his imprisonment, or maybe it was the second imprisonment - difficult to be sure. I went and read back through his Facebook that night, piecing together his story of gilded youth, Arab Spring, solitary confinement, torture and eventual release and exile, hand clamped to my mouth with the horror and sheer injustice of it all. Over the next months I picked up more bits and pieces and endlessly marvelled at his resilience and sheer bloody mindedness in surviving.
But you’d never know what he lived with day by day. He regularly cooked us delicious food under his mother’s watchful eye over Skype. The iPad spent so much time propped up in the kitchen that I was no longer surprised to hear a burst of Arabic from behind the pepper mill, and would wave cheerfully while she wondered aloud why I couldn’t cook properly. Joseph adored Hassan’s cooking and adores our current guests’ delicious Eritrean curries. He will eat - or at least try - pretty much anything, and I’m sure it’s because he has been fed such a wide range of strong flavours from such a young age. Or maybe he would have been like that anyway? Who knows? And who cares, really, as we all pile into a huge plate of injera (Eritrean flatbread) and zigni berbere (an incredible, spicy stew).
When I tell people that refugees stay with us, the first questions are often about safety. No, I don’t worry, no, we don’t have locks on the doors, no, no one has ever stolen anything, no, I have never felt unsafe. I have never had even a moment’s doubt that Joseph is safe with our guests - if I did we wouldn’t host, no question. Our long-term guests, Hassan and the current Eritrean family staying with us, I trust implicitly. They babysit, go on adventures together, they comfort Joseph when he cries and know what makes him laugh. One of them is even down as an approved contact with nursery in case I ever go awol and they need someone to pick Joseph up.
But I have never doubted he was safe with our short term guests either. Periodically we host emergencies - where some organisational snafu means someone needs a night or two somewhere safe and warm to avoid ending up in a park bench or a night bus - or worse. We don’t get to know these guests really - they come, sleep on our camp bed in a glorified cupboard and then move on. All have been polite, respectful and, crucially, great with Joseph. He bolted out of the shower one day to tell a failed asylum seeker called Emmanuel that he shared a name with an angel. Emmanuel, who stayed with us for just one night, just laughed and shooed him back into the bathroom. I don’t think I am particularly laissez faire about his safety (in fact I have to try not to be too precious about my adored only child) but I genuinely believe the vast majority of people are good, and hosted guests also have every incentive in the world to behave well. It also seems to me (massive generalisation alert) that many guests come from cultures where generations of families live much more closely together, so they understand the noise and mess and unexpected demands of children and often know how to make family life easier. I’ve never been proved wrong in my trust - and in nearly 1,000 hostings arranged by Refugees at Home, we have had a handful of issues, none of which involved violence, sexual assault or theft. I sometimes idly wonder if you’d get the same statistics with, say, MPs?
Having a child helps guests to settle in, I think. Non-judgemental, uninterested in global affairs or the politics of migration, Joseph accepts people as they are. You don’t need great English to keep up your end of a conversation with a four-year-old, either, so being dragged into building a Lego fire engine can really help people feel at home. My football-mad partner, Chris, likes to take guests to Dulwich Hamlet games, where many friends make them welcome and try and explain the rituals of non-league football. (Football is a global bonding experience - I don’t think I realised how much till now.) All our friends and family have been incredibly warm and supportive - I read horror stories about people being ostracised or attacked for their support of refugees, but we have encountered nothing like that at all. I think even if you have prejudices it’s very difficult to be ‘anti-refugee’ when that refugee has a name and a face and is having dinner with you - which is why I wish more people had that experience! Most guests even seem to like our cats.
But hosting isn’t forever - it’s a short-term solution to address the horrible situation where people who come to this country for sanctuary face destitution. Refugee support organisations, lawyers, volunteers and friends refer people to us, we do some due diligence and make a match, and that refugee or asylum seeker has somewhere to stay with an ordinary British family for a time. And after a period, they move on - Hassan got a fantastic job and moved into a glamorous flat in North London with a friend. J cried, I cried, Chris denies crying, and I vowed never to get so emotionally involved again. It is the only time I have ever doubted hosting - was it fair to bring people into J’s life for them to leave it again? But you can’t protect children from loss; the love and fun are more than worth it - and we still see Hassan, just not as often (and not enough for him to keep up to date with Power Rangers).
A week after Hassan moved out, Joseph marched into the room where our new guests were settling in and announced ‘this Hattan’s room!’, before pausing, eying the 4-week-old baby and saying, doubtfully, “know any games?” Ruftana didn’t, so now, a year later, he earnestly explains each one to her, jabbing his finger at the instructions and telling her to stop eating the pieces while she gazes at him adoringly (I’ll have a chat about mansplaining when he’s a bit older). He adores her parents too - gentle, warm, generous and quietly determined, they are lovely to share a house with. We are lucky to have met them.
So, we’ve all completely failed on the ‘not getting emotionally involved’ front but our family has got a bit bigger, our house a little warmer, and that, to me, feels like a win. I’ll cry when ‘Team Eritrea’ move out, but they won’t be leaving our lives, we’ll see them as often as we can - and I’ll also look forward to the next chapter, and the next guest, and everything we can learn and experience together.