I – What I learnt from the refugee who came to stay

July 7, 2019 6:10 pm

One of our fabulous hosts, novelist Rosalind Stopps, wrote a beautiful piece about hosting for the I newspaper earlier this month.

As you might expect, Rosalind’s article is both thoughtful and moving – covering her reasons for hosting and the magical experiences that it brought her.

You can read the full account of her time with K, a guest from Kurdistan who loved her dogs and was mystified by vegetarianism, here, or scroll down to find it reproduced below.

Like a lot of other people, I have watched the crisis of displaced people growing across the world. It’s difficult to imagine how bad things are for people to leave everything behind and undertake perilous journeys, so dangerous that thousands die on the way.

When I read about a group of people in the UK called Refugees at Home, who match refugees and asylum seekers who have nowhere to go with people who have a spare room, I was interested. Interested but worried. What about my family, my grandchildren? Would it be safe? What about my writing? On the other hand, I have always worked with and written about people in difficult circumstances and this was a chance to give something back.

As I child I’d read about Anne Frank

The decision took me a while. As a child I’d read about Anne Frank, and the bravery of the family who allowed the Franks to stay in their attic. I asked my mother if we would have taken them in, and her answer was something like: “I don’t think you need to worry about things like that, dear”. I did worry, however, and now I had a spare room.

The rest of the family were easy to persuade. They were all grown up and used to people coming and going. Last April, Refugees at Home introduced us to K, a young Kurdish man who was totally alone in the UK. He had a small rucksack and nothing else, and he had been sleeping rough. K’s family were all in Kurdistan, and he missed them a great deal.

Rosalind Stopps with her two dogs - when K calls, he always asks after them
Rosalind Stopps with her two dogs – when K calls, he always asks after them

During his stay, I “met” his mother on FaceTime, and with no language in common she managed to communicate that she was very grateful, and that she was worried about him. Months later, K still calls me “mum”.

K had been traumatised by various things that had happened to him, and far from being a terrorist (as some acquaintances had suggested he might be) he was terrified of Isis, and most of the time reluctant to leave the house. He slept a great deal, and could be reluctant to participate in family life. Does that sound like any teenagers you know? We decided that possibly teenage years come later if it’s not safe to live them at the time.

“The presence in the house of someone who made a 2,000-mile journey to safety was humbling”

He cooked Kurdish meals for us and found vegetarians hilarious. We went to the cinema to see one of the most miserable films I have ever seen, but it was in his own language, so he loved it. He adored our two dogs, and even now when he phones from his new city, he asks first about them.

K moved to another family after about four months, but he kept in touch and came to cook dinner for us quite often. He came back again for a stay with us towards the end of the year. His second appeal had been turned down, and he became increasingly scared of being sent back to what he thought was certain death.

Early this year, while we were away, K managed to reach another country, where he thinks he may have a better chance of finding a permanent safe place. He keeps in touch, but we worry about him a lot.

His presence reminded me of how lucky we are

I learnt a great deal from having K in my life. The presence in the house of someone who made a 2,000-mile journey to safety was humbling, and a constant reminder of how lucky we are. We learned that refugees are not “other” or different but exactly like us.

I’ve always hoped my stories would be read as explorations of human dignity in those who, for whatever reason, lack a shared language. In my novel Hello, My Name is May I write about a mute stroke victim. In my next book, there’s a young girl trafficked within the UK.

I’d advise anyone to be a host with Refugees at Home. The charity places students, doctors, women with tiny babies, all from different walks of life and different parts of the world but with one thing in common – they have no choices left. Looking back, sharing my home with K was easy. After all, if it was a member of your family who was destitute, alone and scared, would you not hope that someone would offer a welcome?