Refugee crisis — this is what happened when we moved an asylum seeker into our spare room

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Refugee crisis — this is what happened when we moved an asylum seeker into our spare room

Moved deeply by the refugee crisis, Simon Neville and his wife opened their home to a young Iranian man. The experience changed all their lives.

Musa lives with the Nevilles (from left), Rachael, Leo, Joseph and Simon
Musa lives with the Nevilles (from left), Rachael, Leo, Joseph and Simon
When the bomb went off two months ago at Parsons Green Tube and a refugee was subsequently detained and charged, I couldn’t help thinking about all the young male refugees who would now face a fresh barrage of suspicious looks. In particular, I thought about the impact it would have on the 23-year-old refugee living in my house. Just a week into his stay with us, he had twice been stopped and searched by the police (in one case for “looking suspicious” for having his hands in his pockets on a cold evening).

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no bleeding-heart liberal. I like to think I do right by people and that I can be supportive and caring, but, deep down, I’m pretty selfish. I’m not particularly altruistic and I don’t suffer fools gladly. Think of me as a Centrist Dad. But when Donald Trump announced his travel ban for citizens from Muslim countries, my wife and I felt we should do something meaningful. We’d recently had a loft conversion on our terraced house in Brixton, south London, and had a spare bedroom, since our sons, Joseph, 4, and Leo, 2, preferred to keep sharing theirs. So we decided to offer it to a refugee.

At the time, it felt like an easy decision to make. How hard could it be letting a self-sufficient man live in our house? Living with two young boys, I figured if he could get dressed by himself and occasionally eat vegetables, he’d be easier work than them. Maybe he could even babysit from time to time and give us the rare treat of having a life outside the house again?

First question: how do you find a refugee? After a bit of basic research, we discovered Refugees at Home, a UK-based charity that acts as a broker between people looking to house a refugee and newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees looking for somewhere to live. The charity, set up only two years ago, asked us to specify how long we would be willing to host someone. It also wanted to know if we’d prefer a male or female guest, young or old, or if we’d accept an entire family.

At this point in the process, the charity was at pains to advise that most refugees were young men and most potential hosts say they don’t want that. We had no such qualms and said we’d take a young man for an initial period of six weeks. If it all went well, we would carry on.

A few days later, a volunteer from the charity came to our home to check it out and to explain some of the issues that we hadn’t even considered, such as helping our refugee get set up with a local GP and find English classes, and even informing our house insurers to make sure the hosting wouldn’t invalidate our policy (it didn’t). There were other questions: would we help pay his travel? Would we provide food? Did we want to establish any ground rules? Could we help him sign up for benefits? To be frank, we had little idea of what to expect, so we agreed to work with him to see what would be best for everyone.

I dug out an old computer for him, set up a sturdy inflatable bed I had used for an escape during the worst of the baby nights and prepared everything as best I could. Three weeks later, there on our doorstep was Musa (not his real name — some of his family are still in Iran). That first night, we did what any self-respecting British family would do and took him to Nando’s for dinner.

I would be lying if I said that meal wasn’t awkward. Musa was quiet, perhaps because his English wasn’t great, so we filled the space with information about our family. His English might have been limited, but his appetite certainly wasn’t. He delicately consumed every last morsel of his chicken, leaving just the bones intact. Nothing was wasted.

When we got home, my wife introduced him to his first experience of western TV by continuing her binge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. If you’re lucky enough to have missed the experience, it’s a bit like The Apprentice, only with more drag queens and glitter.

End of the road: Musa got into Britain in the back of a lorry, the route these migrants in Calais attempted in 2015
End of the road: Musa got into Britain in the back of a lorry, the route these migrants in Calais attempted in 2015

Quite what someone from one of the most strictly devout Islamic countries must have thought about a cast of outrageously attired men lip-synching to secure their place in the final, I couldn’t tell you. But he sat through it patiently and, as time passed, was happy to watch whatever we were wading through at the time. There was one exception: he only made it through the first six songs of Eurovision.

At the time of Musa’s arrival, life was pretty much all over the place for my wife and me. Both of us were currently out of work. Having quit business journalism, I was waiting for a promised job in PR to materialise (it never did). With two small children to look after and now a house guest to help out, it was a stressful time. But having someone new in our lives actually provided some relief. From the start, Musa got on with the kids. He has a young nephew in Iran, so he was happy to play with them, learn their favourite games and television programmes and help out with the daily grind of family life. Within a few weeks of moving in we were happy enough to have him babysit.

I was acutely aware that Musa would have an awful story of how he ended up in Britain, and I was always in two minds about how much to pry. When I announced on Twitter that we were hosting a refugee, most people were supportive, but a few raised familiar questions. Why is he here? Why didn’t he just stay in Europe?

I admit I was curious about that too, and during a quiet day when the rest of the family were out, I took him to Pop Brixton for sourdough pizza. There, I asked him to tell me his story. From what he explained, Musa, the son of a farmer who had got a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, had been preparing for university in Iran when he and a group of his friends started going to secret Christian prayer meetings. After a few weeks, someone had informed on them and the group was raided by the police. Musa managed to escape, but when he got home to his father, he was told to head for the UK. That night, he packed up his belongings and was driven to the border. Why Britain? His uncle had been here for more than a decade and he was following his brother, who had sought asylum here after he, too, had fallen foul of the Iranian regime in a dispute over their father’s farmland.

A people smuggler got Musa into Turkey, across which he travelled hidden in a lorry before taking a small boat across the Aegean to Greece. In Hungary, he was stopped, fingerprinted and released before jumping two more trucks to get to Belgium. He slept rough there for four months, attempting each night to hide on a truck bound for Britain. Eventually, a local family took pity on him and gave him a room. They left a key under the mat and told him that if he didn’t use it, they would know he had gone. One night in September 2016, he finally managed to sneak into a container (which, he later realised after a trip to Ikea, had been full of its flat-pack furniture). He spent his 22nd birthday inside that container. Three days later, with no food and little water, he arrived in Hull and turned himself in to the authorities.

For the next six months, while Musa waited for his interview with the Home Office, he was put up in a hostel in Rotherham. As an asylum seeker, he was not allowed to work. Then, finally, the day came when a five-hour interview in Leeds would be enough to ensure he could stay. His older brother, on the other hand, had already had his first application rejected. He is preparing a new one at the moment. At least, while he waits, they get to see each other regularly.

It’s a story we have become familiar with over the past few years, but, hearing it in the first person, I couldn’t begin to imagine the suffering Musa must have gone through. I wanted to suggest he seek some professional help to deal with the psychological trauma, but at this point he wasn’t even registered with a GP.

In fact, registering with any kind of public body would prove the next nightmare in his long journey. He was keen to begin integrating with his newly adopted country, but obstacles were constantly put in his way. For example, in order to receive benefits, he needed to have a British bank account. In order to have a British bank account, he needed proof of address.

For seven hours one frustrating day, the two of us traipsed from one bank to another, trying to open an account. HSBC, Santander, Barclays, Nationwide and NatWest all said no, even with me there to vouch for him. One bank insisted on a passport, even though we made it clear Musa had fled Iran without one. Eventually, Lloyds came good and he finally had an account. But the whole experience made me think that it’s no wonder refugees fall through the cracks and end up homeless. The system is set up in such a way that even I, an English-speaking native, struggled to get to grips with what was required. What chance has someone who needs the account to sign up for English classes?

After that came an equally demanding afternoon deciphering an application form to register with a GP. And finally our house guest was able to sign up for English classes five days a week at the nearby college and begin his education.

Making it clear that he wanted to go to university as quickly as possible to study dentistry, Musa started looking for suitable courses. And here, I’ll admit, we had our first real clash. No matter how much we explained that it would be highly unlikely he could start a medical course in the UK, he was still determined to try — setting his sights on King’s College London.

Perhaps it was naivety, perhaps it was stubbornness, but clearly this intelligent, scholarship-winning young man thought he could pick up where he had left off in Iran. It took a trip to the university open day — with our son Leo in tow — to meet the professors for him to accept the reality of his situation. They explained, as we had, that he would need to pass a series of tests first and improve his English substantially.

Musa was similarly stubborn about trying to find a job . He found himself being offered work at fast-food joints that involved long hours, cash in hand, less than the minimum wage and unpaid “training days”. I wrestled with this. On the one hand, he was being taken advantage of and these employers were breaking the law. On the other, even if it was only £5 an hour, it was the cold hard cash that he desperately wanted.

Today Musa is working for Starbucks as part of the company’s recent policy to employ 10,000 refugees across the world. He was amazed when they told him he’d actually be paid to turn up to training.

Until then, he spent his weekends flyering for a West End nightclub. Working from 8pm until 2am, he saw everything the city had to offer, and couldn’t believe just how drunk some people could get. One night he told us how a young woman had passed out near the club. Watching people ignoring her as she lay on the pavement, he spent 45 minutes helping her wake up and waited while she called a taxi and then slowly staggered home.

In fact, his way with women would also provide endless tales of entertainment. Musa is a handsome man and he always received plenty of attention. Once, having fallen into conversation with a couple of women on a night out in Brixton, he was invited to join them at a nearby club, where, once inside, he described how he took off his shirt to reveal just a vest, and found several more women wanting to dance.

With all this attention, though, also came some casual racism. One time, another couple of women asked Musa to join them in a bar. Over drinks, they got talking. One of them said: “Where are you from? You look Italian or Spanish.” When he explained that he was from Iran, the women physically recoiled. Soon after, they made their excuses and left.

Finally, there was the woman from his college Musa fancied. The two made plans for a date, only for her to tell him that she was a lesbian and not interested in anything more than friendship. Homosexuality is illegal in Iran and clearly something of an alien concept. Musa came home puzzled. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Why wouldn’t she like boys?”

This wasn’t the only cultural difference he found perplexing. On our first trip to Brixton he remarked on how many black people there are — having rarely seen any in Iran. He was never shocked, but fascinated by the sight of religions, races and creeds mixing so freely.

For our family it has been a joy to watch him discovering his new world. Frequently he would come home with tales of his encounters, such as the time he saw a launch party taking place in a new building near us. He wandered in and started chatting to people, not realising it was invite-only. He used his charm on the hostess and, when he offered to leave, they insisted he stay and enjoy himself.

He never let any prejudices he may have rise to the surface. The closest I saw was his view that he felt beggars were lazy and just trying to make “easy money”. He told me once that he follows the advice of his father: “There are good people and bad people everywhere, but you can’t label everyone one or the other.”

I tend to agree. Letting fear override all emotions and placing labels on people means we never get a chance to discover new experiences. For us, there have been ups and downs hosting a refugee, but overall it has been a pleasure. We’ve had the bureaucratic hurdles, which were sometimes made harder by Musa’s stubbornness. And it’s hard not to get emotionally involved when he shows signs of pain and sadness. But he’s our house guest, not our son. He feels like a son in the sense that we are watching him grow up, but I don’t feel obliged to solve all his problems. Generally, he gets on with life. He works hard. He doesn’t take liberties and he always asks if he needs something. In the past few weeks, we have formally employed him as our au pair.

Before I sat down to write this, I asked Musa what he thought of London. He said he loves the vibrancy, he enjoys how the city has everything for everyone — whatever your background or interests. But he also said he found it too busy, pointing out that it can feel a lonely place. I can see how he misses his family. And I can see his frustration when he faces another layer of grinding bureaucracy. He is currently trying to get the jobcentre to stop giving him jobseeker’s allowance because he is a full-time student, but he can’t until he proves he’s a student. How’s that for bureaucracy?

I can see that he is picking up English as quickly as he can, while also making mistakes along the way — like the time he convinced us his family had a talking pet bear. He actually meant a parrot.

Despite the adversities he’s faced, I can see that he has the potential to make a successful life for himself here, and perhaps to be truly happy again. I’m glad my family and I could help him along the way.

Note from the author: “Musa” has read this article and is happy with it

November 12th, 2017|