In my previous blog, I told you the story of the refugee, Mohammed, who came to stay with us over Christmas, but what I didn’t say was that, within seven days, he had found himself a full-time job in a service industry. He was delighted and so were we, that he had been so successful. However it meant that he had to leave us and move in with another family somewhere closer, and that made us all very sad.
In seven days we had really grown to love him. He had told us his story and we had told him ours. We had laughed and cried together and he filled our house with his great energy and enthusiasm.
He promised to stay in touch, but it was six weeks before we saw him again. And the reason is this: his life has taken off.
Though still in the same old clothes, he looks better fed and more relaxed than at Christmas. With the help of volunteer teachers, he is now studying for three GCSEs and because he has covered much of the ground before in his own country, he is being fast- tracked with a view to doing A-Levels next year; he wants to go to university and study medicine or something like it.
We talked far into the night and he told me that, though in theory he could look for a room of his own now, he worries about being alone and would rather stay with a family and contribute to his up-keep financially. In his culture people live communally and help each other. ‘I don’t know what I will do by myself. Who will I talk to? What will I have to talk about? Nothing.’ And he crosses his arms and looks glum. ‘I need to work out what my way of living will be, what the rules are; I don’t even know what the money here is worth.’
He demonstrated this confusion over boundaries when, in a moment of wild exuberance on a bike ride, he started whooping and freewheeling with no hands in a series of zig-zags in the middle of the road as a van speeded up behind him and threatened to knock him off his bike.
I screamed, the van past safely and I told him firmly that he had to stay on the left, which he did more or less, from then on. It was just one way in which he and others in his situation, have lost their boundaries: being outside their cultural homes, crossing all the borders in Europe, breaking rules in order to survive. When you have clung to the axles of a lorry for four hours because there was no other way to reach safety, passing through a forbidden sign and climbing the steps of a stately home to get a photo of the ornamental garden (which he also did) must seem like nothing.
Now, in a new country, he must learn a new culture with new rules and it’s a painful process. The only way he can do it, is with the help of other people.
‘I think community is very important,’ he says, and despite being desperately busy working and studying, Mohammed still volunteers several nights a week, teaching refugee children and helping to run a youth club. ‘In my country it is not a choice whether you help other people, it is an obligation. If I know English and you don’t, then I must teach you.’
I had to explain that in England, community has really broken down in many places. Extended families rarely exist as they do in many other countries and while in the past, the state has stepped in to plug the gap, now with so many cuts, many people have no one to help them when things go wrong.
As all of us struggle to understand how to live in our socially impoverished world where neighbours don’t know or care about each other, let alone care about beggars on the street, I realised that Mohammed and other refugees have a lot to teach us, about how to care for each other.