Jan 10, 2016

Me and My Syrian Refugee Lodger

He has no home and only the clothes he stands up in. She has a spare room. This is what happened when Yasser and Helen moved in together, as seen through both their eyes…
By Helen Pidd and Yasser Al Jassem / theguardian.com
Me and My Syrian Refugee Lodger

You are not going to like me saying this,” my dad said, “but you need to get a lock on your bedroom door and a lock on your bathroom door. Men can get very frisky when they are away from their wives.”

I rolled my eyes, hung up and panicked. I’d rung my parents to tell them that Yasser, a Syrian refugee, was coming to live with me while he arranged for his wife and baby to join him in Britain. I was a little nervous about the arrangement, but of all the many things worrying me – would he disapprove of my single heathen lifestyle? Could I carry on having bacon butties at the weekend? Should I edit my drinks cupboard? – the possibility of getting molested by my lodger had yet to occur to me.

I first had lunch with Yasser one day in August, after a mutual friend in Turkey told me he had arrived in Manchester and had no mates. She didn’t tell me he was Syrian, or how he had reached our rainy island. So I was gobsmacked when, in very broken English, he told me of his 37-day odyssey across land and sea. He had sailed across the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat in the dead of night, even though he can’t swim; walked from Greece to Macedonia, and crossed Europe until he reached the Jungle in Calais, where he jumped on trucks for six nights before making it to England hidden in the back of a lorry. After 17 hours packed between boxes of toys, he banged on the door. The truck driver was furious: he would face a £2,000 fine were the border police to discover his human cargo. Yasser scarpered. He wasn’t sure he was even in England until a car passed him driving on the left. He walked to the nearest petrol station and asked them to call the police. His new life had begun.

I wondered how I could help him. He was living on £5 a day given to him by Serco, the outsourcing company contracted by the Home Office to process asylum applications. While Yasser waited, he couldn’t take paid work and was living in a Serco house off the Curry Mile with five other asylum seekers: Syrians, Eritreans, a guy from Sudan. I asked if he fancied coming round to help me strip wallpaper on the bank holiday weekend. He agreed, but then I had to go and cover the world gravy wrestling championships in Bacup (try explaining that one to someone whose first language isn’t English), so left him to it.

When I got back, he had almost finished. We had an awkward meal together, then I tried to give him some money. Yasser looked appalled. “No, no,” he said. “I don’t want money. I want friends.”

Two days later, three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. The mood in Britain changed. Suddenly the sort of newspapers who usually run stories about immigrants eating swans started showing compassion. David Cameron agreed to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees – and I offered my spare room to Yasser.

He was slow to accept, but before long, he was granted asylum and a five-year visa. We celebrated with a sickly cake he bought from a Pakistani baker on the Curry Mile (three days of his daily allowance). He showed me the letter confirming his refugee status: he had 28 days before he would be evicted from the Serco house, and less than a month to get a national insurance number, sign on at the jobcentre and find somewhere new to live. A tall order for a Brit, let alone a Syrian with ropey English and no money for a deposit.

A few days before his eviction, Yasser texted, asking if he could stay until his wife and baby arrived. He had been to see a housing officer and was told that, as a single 34-year-old man with no dependent children living in the UK, he was low priority. His housing benefit of around £280 a month would cover a room in a shared house with a private landlord (no chance of that, without a deposit) or a place in a homeless hostel, where he was likely to share a room with alcoholics and drug addicts.

I picked him up from the Serco house a few days later. All he had was a scratty duvet and pillow in a carrier bag, and a small rucksack. When he unpacked, I saw how little he owned: one jumper, one shirt, a pair of jeans, two vests, two pairs of underpants; it was what he had been wearing when he hid in the truck, plus what he had been given since his arrival.

Guardian writer Helen Pidd at home in Manchester with her Syrian lodger, Yasser Al Jassem
 Helen and Yasser eat their separate breakfasts. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

I thought having Yasser to stay would be a kind of atonement for mistakes I have made in my life, but his presence has made me feel guilty. Guilty for what I have, for the easy life I lead, for complaining about trivial things. One day I got in a tizz about how to fit a new curtain rail in my bay window. “In my country, people worry about whether a barrel bomb will hit their house. In England, you are worried about your curtains,” Yasser said, laughing at his own joke. “We all have our problems.”

We have laughed a lot, but cohabitation is not without its niggles. The language barrier is probably the biggest issue (praise be for Google Translate), plus the fact that he doesn’t have any money and so is home a lot. I also find his obsession with war, however understandable, wearing. I don’t like seeing pictures of dead bodies, and have had to initiate a “no war at the dinner table” policy.

Slightly frustrating, too, is his lack of urgency in getting a job. Yasser is no skiver: he volunteers every day as an office manager at a charity for Syrians in Manchester and is very keen to work, just not in any old job. A trained Arabic teacher, he wants to teach, but is unqualified to work in UK schools. I went to the jobcentre with him to meet his “work coach”; she warned him he’d be sanctioned if he didn’t start applying for a lot more jobs, through a baffling government website that even I find impossible to navigate. He will also lose his benefits if he keeps putting in for jobs he has no chance of getting, she said. (One evening I had to stop him applying to be social media manager for the Sunday Sport.) But the penny seems to have dropped that he will have to work his way up from the bottom again. Really, he wants to spend at least three months on an intensive English course so that he is better equipped for the job market, but his coach insists that work must come first.

Yasser’s resilience astounds me. Ten minutes before the photographer arrived to take pictures for this article, he received a WhatsApp message from his wife, saying the people smugglers had arrived to take her and their 16-month-old baby across the border from Syria to Turkey. He heard nothing again until 3 the next morning, to say they had been walking for nine hours in the dark and were now being held in a house; she didn’t know where. Another 48 hours of silence passed before she texted to say they had arrived in Gaziantep in Turkey. As I write, Yasser is arranging a DNA test to prove paternity, so that the Home Office cannot refuse a family reunion visa.

What does he make of my bourgeois life? He does not appreciate the middle-class obsession with sanded floorboards, when we could all afford wall-to-wall carpets. He cannot believe I own a cook book holder. Cook books themselves he finds hilarious; the women in Yasser’s life have always cooked for him (he is an excellent washer-upper) and his early forays into gastronomy appalled and amused me in equal measure. One morning he asked me how to turn on the oven. I showed him, asking what he wanted to warm up. “Safari eggs,” he said. No amount of miming or Google Translate could make me understand. It was something he’d bought the previous night, he said, rummaging through the bin for the packaging of what turned out to be “savoury eggs” – scotch eggs. “Two things you need to know about these eggs, Yasser,” I said. “One, we eat them cold. Two, they contain pork and you don’t eat pork.”

Helen Pidd’s Syrian lodger Yasser at his first Christmas lunch with Helen’s family
 ‘Christmas dinner was a treat’: Yasser at Helen’s parents’ house. Photograph: courtesy of Helen Pidd

Yasser usually eats only halal meat, which posed a problem when Christmas came round and he joined me at my parents’ place near Morecambe in Lancashire. The Muslim population there is close to zero, and my mother was struggling to source a halal turkey. I explained this to Yasser. He thought about it and said that, because my parents are Christians and Christmas is a Christian holiday, their turkey will be holy; halal basically means holy, so he could have it. But he drew the line at pigs in blankets; Mum did him a Linda McCartney sausage.

I invited Yasser out of duty, but it ended up being a joy. Throughout our childhood, my parents had infuriated my sister and me by inviting what we rudely referred to as “waifs and strays” to join us for Christmas dinner. Random Chinese students from my dad’s department at the university, junior doctors my mum was supervising, an eccentric lady from church called Valerie who was too busy hoarding to wash. Now it was my turn. Mum invited a Ukrainian family she had met through her walking group. It was an eclectic gathering but a lovely one, dominated by activities that required little or no English. Mum made me play Walking In The Air on the piano – “You get worse each year,” she said (thanks, Mum) – before we all watched The Snowman and then played giant Jenga before tackling a Where’s Wally? jigsaw.

Yasser is very keen to assimilate. Early on he noticed that people in Manchester say “hiya” and call each other “love”, and started slipping both into his text messages. I joked he’d be calling me “our kid” by Christmas; instead he is developing a fabulous northern accent. We watch rubbish TV together. Once, during Don’t Tell The Bride, Yasser said he couldn’t believe that the bride was so obviously pregnant as she walked down the aisle. Apparently, no one has sex before marriage in Syria. I do not tell him when I go on dates.

Despite our cultural differences, he is keen to contribute to civic life. When he saw the floods in northern England on TV on Boxing Day, he organised a group of Syrians to help with the clear-up and made international news.

They say it takes a whole village to raise a child; I think it takes a whole community to integrate a refugee. All of my friends have chipped in, whether it’s just talking to Yasser at parties, teaching him English, or fixing him up a bike and showing him how to ride it safely. Sheila from over the road has offered further English classes, and a barrister neither of us has met has bought Yasser a bed and mattress for when he eventually has his own home.

In the meantime, he can stay with me, in my terrace house in Manchester with its silly wooden floors, and no lock on the bathroom or bedroom doors. Helen Pidd

Helen Pidd and her lodger Yasser Al Jassem in Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron Halloween outfits.
 Helen and Yasser in Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron Halloween outfits. Photograph: courtesy of Helen Pidd

‘Living with a woman is not common in Syria’: me and my British landlady

I was a bit anxious when I first moved in – Helen is an accomplished, hard-working English woman, who has her own way of doing things. We come from very different backgrounds but we get along fine. She was so courteous asking me to stay. I think she raised it three times before I accepted – I wasn’t sure if she was just being polite. The idea of living with an English woman was strange, but I needed somewhere to stay and it would be a great opportunity to learn about British culture and practise the language. That would make things easier for my wife and daughter when they come.

The first thing I thought a bit strange was when Helen told me what time she was leaving the next morning and said she’d need to use the bathroom at a certain time before that. In Syria, bathroom usage is never regulated. But I was glad she was being clear, so I could be as sensitive as possible.

Another thing that was unusual was the cookery books Helen has in her kitchen. In Syria your mum tells you how to cook, not a book. I also noticed people here wear their outdoor outfits even when they’re home. Why would anyone want to be in jeans when they don’t have to? The first couple of weeks were a bit strange for both of us, I think. Like the first few minutes in a football match, where both teams are a bit cautious of each other.

Living with a woman is not very common in Syria. I had female friends and we’d go out, but living together was never a possibility. Here, people have fewer social restrictions: I have met two of Helen’s friends who are women and married to each other, with children. This was new to me.

Soon after I moved in, Helen threw a Halloween party – my first. She dressed up in a fake white beard, with black rings round her eyes. “I’m Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour party,” she said. “Then I should be David Cameron,” I replied. I didn’t really mean it, but Helen liked the idea. I borrowed a suit and shaved my beard. She taught me some catchphrases about hard-working families, low tax something and housing benefits. The idea of a Syrian refugee dressed up as David Cameron was very amusing for other people. People drank so much at the party. I couldn’t believe the recycling bin the next day!

I had a good time and things began to be less awkward. Every one of Helen’s friends offered to help me if need be. Some of them offered to help me with my English. You hear things about British people; that although they might smile at you, they never show their true feelings. This hasn’t been true for me. Although I come from a completely different culture, I found something very familiar. People are loving, thoughtful and compassionate, both here in Britain and back in Syria.

Helen invited me to spend my first Christmas at her parents’ in Morecambe. They live in the most beautiful part of England I’ve seen. The house was high up and you could see the sea. It was amazing; I spent an entire night looking outside the window.

Although Helen isn’t a churchgoer, she went with her parents as she said it was important for them. I went along. Helen beckoned to me so I would know when to sit down and when to stand.

Christmas dinner was a treat. The turkey was so good. And I received some gifts. Helen gave me a book by Dan Rhodes called Anthropology – it’s full of interesting stories and good practice for my English. It was such a thoughtful gift. The day was truly joyous. I had tears in my eyes.

Helen’s parents’ hospitality and kindness made me think about family. I wondered why Helen doesn’t visit them more often. There is no warmer feeling than being with family. I guess it’s one of those things you only appreciate after they’re gone.

Yasser Al Jassem. Translated by Mowaffaq Safad

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