When an Eritrean refugee moved in, Alexandra Frean didn’t expect that she’d be the one to benefit from the arrangement
May 17, 2017
“Dad wants to know why I didn’t stop you,” my brother says, amused. Chatting to my parents on the phone earlier, I had casually dropped into the conversation that Youssef, an Eritrean refugee I had never met, was coming to stay in my spare room. They asked me what I knew about him. Not much: he’s 27 and has been in the UK since last year, I’m the third family to host him, he likes football, he’s Muslim. That’s it. But how did I know I would be safe, they want to know. Now my brother is asking the same question.
In fact, it’s a question a lot of friends have asked. A week earlier Refugees at Home, a charity that matches homeless refugees with volunteer hosts, sent a representative to my home to check me out and make sure my two-bedroom central London flat was suitable. He explained most people in Youssef’s situation had faced unimaginable hardships to get here and were strongly motivated to do whatever it takes to make a good life for themselves and not jeopardise anything. Ultimately, he said, it’s a leap of faith. You just have to trust him. I liked his candour.
The idea of having a refugee to stay now seems perfectly sane to me. Refugees at Home was formed in October 2015 after a summer of heart-wrenching news stories about refugees being drowned in the Mediterranean or stifled in lorries. I am moved by this, but this is not what inspires me. I have already worked with refugees in the US, where I lived until last year and where I volunteered to teach English to a family of Iraqi refugees. I also taught literacy to immigrant healthcare workers (mostly orderlies and cleaners), who would take a one-hour bus ride after exhausting eight-hour shifts to study with me and still find the energy to joke about my English accent. I would leave feeling happy that I had done something worthwhile. Honestly, that feeling is hard to beat.
I survey my flat before Youssef’s arrival. I wonder what this young Muslim man will think of moving into a home with a 55-year-old godless, independent, wine-drinking Englishwoman. What will it be like sleeping with just a paper-thin wall between us and having use of a shared bathroom? I rearrange the furniture so that our beds are against opposite walls, as far as they can be from each other. I drink what’s left of the wine and chuck out some dubious-looking half-empty bottles of spirits. I order fruit, vegetables and hummus on Tesco.com, and stuff the non-halal meat in my fridge into the bottom of the freezer.
I have spoken to the lovely lady who is at present hosting Youssef. She tells me he is a delight, but very reserved. “What do you know about his life? How did he get here?” I ask. She says she didn’t like to ask.
Youssef arrives, carrying all his possessions in a very small bag. I spread out a map of the world on the dining table and point first to Eritrea and then to London. “Please,” I say, “tell me your story.”
I have done my homework. A United Nations report from 2016 concluded that Eritreans have been subjected to “gross violations of human rights” for 25 years. Many Eritreans are forced into indefinite military service and subjected to horrific abuses. This is why so many people like Youssef brave one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes, across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to Europe, to escape. Suddenly, this project takes a new dimension.
In faltering English Youssef tells me about his journey, walking 550 miles from Eritrea to Khartoum and then to Egypt. Eleven terrifying days at sea, landing eventually in Italy. From there to Calais and then, finally to the UK, where he reported himself to the police on arrival. Despite all he has been through, he never criticises the Eritrean regime. He still has family there.
Over dinner we look at photographs of his six siblings on his phone and talk about his family. My sons are both abroad at college. I facetime them and introduce Youssef to them — at this point I am still nervous about having him in my house. I want him to realise that if anything happens to me, there will be people — two lovely young men like him — who would miss me.
I awake to news of a terror attack at an Ariana Grande concert and freeze when I hear the word “Manchester” (I had expected to hear some foreign place name). I explain to Youssef what has happened. He knows where Manchester is. It turns out that he has a pretty good knowledge of English geography based on a lifelong love of Premier League football. I worry about racist reprisal attacks and feel he should be prepared. “Do you know what racism is?” I ask stupidly. “Yes, I do,” he replies with feeling. “I’m sorry,” I say. “How many dead?” he asks.
Five days in and we are getting used to each other. Youssef studies English at college two days a week. He hopes to get a job soon and, when his English is better, to study to become an electrician. I can’t walk around naked any more and I no longer hang up my underwear to dry in the living room, but neither is really a hardship. He is slightly confused about whether to call me Alex or Alexa, since I am always addressing my Amazon Echo speaker as Alexa.
I’m off to the Hay-on-Wye literary festival for the weekend and put Youssef in charge of the cats. He seems delighted to have some small thing he can do for me. The cats can’t believe their luck at having an additional human around. He has even won over the standoffish ginger tabby. Without being asked, Youssef carries my suitcase downstairs. This has become a pattern. He observes all the time, to find small acts of kindness he can perform. He empties the dishwasher and sweeps the floor unbidden and makes me cups of tea. He replaces the milk before we run out. Sensing that I am a bit of a neat freak, he keeps his room immaculately clean and tidy.
I return from Wales. The cats are totally under Youssef’s spell.
Something is not right. I arrive home late in a cab after a night out. There are police everywhere. I put on flat shoes, grab a notebook and head out again. An officer turns me back at the end of my street. Another yells: “Take cover, go back.” “I’m a reporter,” I say, “I need to get through.” But they turn me back again. I watch news of the London Bridge terror attack on Twitter. I’m not entirely sober and realise there’s not much I can do. I lie in bed listening to police helicopters circling all night and waiting for Youssef to come home. The next morning he tells me he had been seeing friends and arrived back in the neighbourhood around midnight. By then our street, a stone’s throw away from the attacks, was sealed off. He had no idea what was going on. The police made him wait three hours before letting him through the cordon to the flat. I tell him what happened. “How many dead?” he asks. I’m sick of having this conversation with him.
“You haven’t thought this through, have you?” I’m having lunch with my friend James and talking about the other big project in my life — my decision to start dating. “How can you bring a man home with Youssef there?” James wants to know. It’s five years since my husband died, suddenly, of a heart attack, and I don’t like being alone. I think I am ready now to start seeing someone. But James is right, I don’t feel I could bring anyone home with Youssef there. I still have no idea what he thinks of the fact that I am out most nights with friends and family and often don’t come home till late. Does he ever compare me with his own mother and wonder what kind of crazy world he has ended up in?
At an election night party, my fellow diners tell me how “brave” I am. It’s a common reaction. I tell them I got lucky with Youssef; he’s quiet, considerate and respectful and helps around the house. He doesn’t have a single annoying habit. He’s figured out my routines and we’ve settled into a quiet companionship. There’s often no need to talk. On evenings when we are both home, we sit in the living room — him working on his English homework, me watching Netflix — goodness knows what he makes of Lilyhammeror Backstrom, the two rather offbeat series I’ve been watching (I’ve been careful not to watch anything with too much sex — that would feel weird).
Youssef’s arrival at my home followed a very dark time in my life. In February, on the fifth anniversary of my husband’s death, I fell off an emotional cliff. It felt like I was going backwards. At the insistence of my sister, I agreed to see a therapist. Annette is wise and is wonderful at helping me to navigate my way back up to the surface. By the time Youssef arrives I am already much better. I tell her that having him in my home has contributed enormously to my recovery and she smiles knowingly. A couple of weeks ago she asked me: “How do you want to use the rest of your life?” It was an interesting way of looking at things and now I think I know part of the answer.
A friend from Pakistan tells me that with Youssef I am not just helping one person, I am helping a whole family, possibly a village. It’s touching, but I suddenly feel an immense burden of responsibility.
“How are you going to transfer money to your family back home?” I ask Youssef. “Western Union?” He smiles at me indulgently. I’ve learnt in the past month that he is both smart and funny and he tolerates my, at times, uninformed questions with good humour. There is no functioning Western Union in Eritrea, he says. He will have to rely on informal ways of sending money home through London’s Eritrean community. “But then you’d have to check it arrived there,” I say. He looks at me kindly, as if I’m an idiot. “Yes,” he says.
I am returning from a weekend break on the Continent, but my flight is delayed by the knock-on effects of an interfering drone at Gatwick. It’s very late. A text from Youssef asks what time I will be home. It’s the kind of thing my boys might do if I don’t turn up when expected and it’s a sign, I think, of how far we have come in a few short weeks.
My dilemma is what to do when my sons come home from college in mid-July. I tell Youssef he’ll have to move out, but can come back in September. He is trying to find a room to rent, but first needs a job. When he arrived, the question of how long he would stay was left open. I realise now how much support he’s going to need long-term and, having got to know him, I’m happy to help in whatever way I can because I’ve been a winner in this relationship too. It feels like the very least I can do.