We agonised over the decision to have a refugee stay in our house. What would we have to give up? Would we be able to trust them? Out of sense of guilt at the desperate plight of so many refugees as well as a desire to help, we signed up with some trepidation.
Just before Christmas we got the call: could we offer emergency respite for someone over the Christmas break? We said ‘yes’.
The night before our guest was due to come, we went to a carol service in our predominantly middle class village, where a neighbour told me at great length about her stress at moving to a bigger house locally. It took her five days of solid work to move all her stuff, and her family absolutely couldn’t throw away any of their books, so now they needed to build more bookshelves.
However they did have a Christmas tree up to their vaulted ceiling and anticipated a great holiday.
Next day, our refugee arrived looking anxious. He was dishevelled from sleeping rough, with one tiny bag of belongings and the clothes he stood up in. He was very polite and grateful for everything we offered him.
I expected him to stay in his room, but instead he came downstairs and made a big effort to get to know each one of us. He told us about his longing for education as his had been disrupted by war. He asked us to sit close to him as he showed us puzzles and told us jokes.
‘I could stay in my room,’ he explained in his broken English, ‘but that will be a missed opportunity and I want learn everything I can.’
Over the following days, he gradually told us his story:
He escaped the threat of death in his own country at a moment’s notice through the use of people smugglers, for whom a relative paid, to facilitate his journey. ‘You cannot cross borders without them because security is strong and you will get shot. You do what they say. They say stand, you stand. They says sit, you sit. If you do not, you put their lives in danger and they shoot you.’
The journey was terrible. ‘I am so happy now, because nothing can ever be that bad again,’ he said. ‘Even when I was sleeping on the street, I knew that I was better off than at home.’
He walked five days without food or water in great heat across two borders. ‘I love my sisters but they could not have done the journey. It was too hard and they would be raped everywhere. Better they die at home. I saw terrible things.’
Finally he was put in a lorry with many other people including children. They had to crouch beneath a container in the lorry for five days without food and water. They could not move or make a sound, even to cough, because if they were found they would be shot. Some people died in that lorry and because of the great heat, and the smell was terrible.
When they reached the sea, those who had survived, staggered out, including the children.
They paid more money to the traffickers who put them on a little rubber boat and cast them out to sea. ‘If no-one had the courage to steer that boat, we would have drowned.’
Fortunately, someone did take charge and they arrived in Italy. ‘We were so lucky. So many have died. In Europe you think how many refugees come to your countries, but you don’t realise that for every ten people who start that journey, only two survive. Everywhere I went, on every part of my journey, some people died – walking through the desert, in the lorry, in the camps…’
From Italy, he walked across Europe, often with nothing to eat or drink. He befriended people who were with him one day and gone the next, until finally he arrived in Calais.
There he lived in The Jungle – the makeshift refugee camp where refugees live among rats in the mud and squalor, in shacks they build themselves out of whatever they can find – until one day, he managed to jump a lorry. Clinging to the axles, he arrived in England, where he sought asylum and gained refugee status.
What saved his life, he said, was the strict religious discipline imposed on him during childhood. Rising at four am to chant, cold water showers if he slept in the wrong position, grim food, fasting and so on – made him able to endure hardships that others could not, and to always, always persevere.
He told this story with so much humour and lightness, that it was almost possible to miss the absolute horror. When he finished, we were all very quiet. I think we were all humbled; I know I was.
It made me appreciate the comfort of having a home and each other and enough to eat. But most of all, it made me appreciate this man.
Despite everything he had been through, he brought so much warmth into our house this Christmas. We laughed and talked and played games. And when he left, I cried. He has become part of our family.
Far from having to give things up, he has really enriched our lives. And that is something I really did not expect.