This week marking Refugee Week, it’s been difficult not to think about the refugees and asylum seekers who have largely been forgotten in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Stranded far from family and friends in a strange country without any money and no roof over their head, many have had nowhere to turn.
Just two months before Covid-19 forced Britain into lockdown we, two retired academics in our 80s, welcomed into our home the wife of Omari*, a refugee we have been hosting since last summer.
I and my husband first met Omari in August 2019 through Refugees At Home, a national UK charity that connects people with a spare room with refugees and asylum seekers in need of accommodation. We were keen to support a refugee as we are highly aware of the difficulties of settling as a newcomer in a new land because we came to Britain in 1960 from South Africa. Our own parents had escaped poverty and persecution in Eastern Europe and landed up as Jewish refugees in South Africa. My father was one of the First World War generation who, at the age of 12, was forced to flee in order to avoid the Russian army which was forcibly conscripting any young Jewish men they caught, many no older than him. Plus I had chaired the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) for many years, and been active in the anti-Apartheid movement.
We warmed to Omari, a political refugee from Ethiopia, immediately, when he joined us. A dedicated marine engineer, he was forced to abandon his home country – having to make the enormously painful decision to jump ship in London with his wife Aisha (not her real name) still in Ethiopia.
“Unable to find a job and with nowhere to stay, Omari landed up sleeping on trains, buses and in train stations.”
Once here, Omari managed to secure a university place but, four months into the degree, it turned out that the university’s student finance office had given him the wrong advice and enrolled him on a course he wasn’t eligible for. No longer able to continue, Omari found himself homeless and pursued to immediately pay back his tuition and student loan.
Unable to find a job and with nowhere to stay, Omari landed up sleeping on trains, buses and in train stations. Eventually Omari secured accommodation through Refugees at Home and, after a few months, moved into a room in a shared flat and, last summer, had new offers from two universities for a master’s course. As fortune would have it, we live in South London, a short distance from one of the universities that offered Omari a place. We offered him free lodging and food to enable him to attend university in London. The other benefit? We were happy to also host Aisha* once she got her reunification visa.
It did not take long for Omari to settle in with us. A kind, thoughtful, calm and caring man,Omari quickly endeared himself to the rest of the family too – having someone else in the house brought a great piece of mind to all of them. Always cleaning up after shared meals and sorting out repairs to long-standing problems with equipment, like the fridge and computers (he is after all an engineer),Omari quickly became a treasured member of the household.
But despite the progress he had made, Omari still had major worries about Aisha. She was living in a remote part of Oromia where the Ethiopian security forces were waging war on Oromo separatists and treating civilians brutally. Roads and all means of communication were being regularly cut off and crops deliberately burnt down to starve the local population.Omari made multiple approaches to the Home Office to find out about Aisha’s visa but got nowhere until our local MP got involved.
“It is impossible for us to imagine the emotions they felt as they hugged each other for the first time in three years.”
Even after Omari secured the visa, getting a message to Aisha of the visa proved a major challenge – Oromo was then in the midst of serious communication blackout. Omari’s stress was made all the more acute because he knew that if Aisha did not collect the visa within the required 28 days she would lose it. Once he finally reached her, she managed to fly out on a ticket purchased with the incredible generosity of strangers who heard about her case.
Omari was reunited with Aisha at Heathrow one cold morning in late January. It is impossible for us to imagine the emotions they felt as they hugged each other for the first time in three years.
Despite arriving with no English and having never been beyond Ethiopia, Omari’s wife adjusted remarkably quickly to her new surroundings. Arriving just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, she and Omari had to contend with the difficulties of entering lockdown with us. Concerned about the risk of transmitting the virus to us, they quickly took it upon themselves to isolate completely and not venture beyond our house and garden.
Having only met six months before lockdown, we have all coped remarkably well - helped by the fact that we have food delivered to the house. For us, Omari and Aisha’s presence has been both welcome and reassuring given our isolation from our family and friends. On their part, Omari’s in a safe place to keep studying through lockdown, while Aisha, unable to attend any English classes, has been teaching herself online. From their perspective they could not think of a better place to be and they hope to be with us for the foreseeable future. Omari very much hopes to do a doctorate after completing his master’s degree. This, he admits, he would never have dreamt of doing without our support and his other hosts through Refugees at Home.
Clearly having strong academic abilities and interpersonal skills there is no doubt in my mind that Omari will go very far in the future whatever he chooses to do. As one of his previous hosts puts it to us: “While Omari is very modest, his dreams are not. However hard he has been pushed back he has always had a vision that is about more than survival.”
Omari and Aisha’s resilience, persistence, and at the same time gentleness, has been a lesson to us all.
As told to Lara Marks.
*name changed for the safety of the refugees
For more information on Refugees at Home, visit their website here. Refugee Week, the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees, takes place on 15-21 June 2020. Refugee Week is a partnership project coordinated by Counterpoints Arts. For more information on Refugee Week and to get involved, visit refugeeweek.org.uk