When Lord Bassam of Brighton and his wife agreed to take in a Syrian refugee as a lodger last year they braced themselves for culture clashes and misunderstandings.
But after the arrival of Riam, a 28-year-old student, their biggest problem was a little more prosaic: she didn’t like cats — and the Labour peer has two British blues, Toby and Parker.
Their other main challenge was dietary as Riam is vegetarian. “We’ve done more nut roasts than we might otherwise have,” the peer said.
Lord Bassam, 63, is shadow chief whip in the upper chamber and the most senior British politician known to have offered a spare room to a Syrian refugee.
Although he does “not want a big fuss” made about the invitation and stresses his respect for his guest’s privacy, he agreed to speak about the “positive” experience he and his wife, Jill, have had to encourage others to follow suit. The couple are one of 22,000 households that have offered to take in a Syrian refugee.
Riam travelled to Britain about 18 months ago, fleeing Syria through Lebanon on “an arduous journey”, and she is studying for a master’s degree at a British university. Her sister and brother are refugees elsewhere in Europe. Her parents remain in Syria.
While she is often “glued to the news” and “worries” about her mother and father, who update her over Skype on the fighting on the periphery of their town, she is nonetheless of a “cheerful” and “easy-natured” disposition, Lord Bassam said. “It’s like having a friend to stay,” he said.
“I suppose I was a bit nervous to start with about how it would work out. But partly because she’s so delightful, I found it easier than I imagined.”
Riam has a network of friends, whom she has invited round to the house from time to time. She also has a British boyfriend whose father went to school 125 miles away in Clacton with the peer. “An incredible coincidence,” he said.
At home, conversation between the three inhabitants has ranged from deep reflections on the Syrian war to lively debates about British politics. Lord Bassam suggested that the UK model remains bemusing for Riam. “The concept of an open democracy is something you have to learn about and come to terms with from her culture,” he said.
His guest “has a strong feminist streak to her”. He conceded that he and his wife had developed a parental affection for Riam. Their three adult children have left home. Realising that it “must be really traumatising” and “lonely” for Riam to have been separated from her mother and father for years, he said that they had attempted to “decode life in the UK” for her.
Riam’s application for asylum has been granted and she can legally earn a living, so she is moving out to shared rental accommodation and a more independent existence.
“We’ll really miss her,” Lord Bassam said, adding that he planned to stay in close touch. The experience of hosting Riam has been so “enjoyable” that he and Lady Bassam plan to open their home again to another refugee within months.
Stressing how much he has learnt from his visitor, he said that the experience had also changed Riam. In recent days he caught her on the stairs stroking the cats.