Have you got a spare room? It doesn’t need to be very big. Or very beautiful. A bed or a sofa bed would do. A small space in the corner of your life for someone who needs it.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:34-36
Over the last 48 hrs or so there has been an explosion. An explosion of awareness. Of desire to do ‘something’ to help. Getting that something right is really important. Everyone seems to be trying to fill vans with ‘stuff’ and get it to Calais, maybe further afield to Greece, Italy, Turkey… Including me. That’s great. It shows that we care, we want to respond to human suffering, human need. And from what I hear from those on the ground in Calais, ‘stuff’ is still welcome – we’re not doing a bad thing. But as the volunteers at Calais camps find themselves swamped with (sometimes unsorted and unhelpful) donations, I can’t help but wonder if this is the absolute best ‘something’ we can give.
Below follows a bit about my experience of hosting asylum seekers in our home. I’ve included a bit of an FAQ at the bottom in case you’re in a hurry. This is not a story about the heroic Riches family and how they scoop refugees off the street and look after them. This is about the ladies that have stayed with us, and the immense blessing they have been to us. The laughs we’ve had, all we’ve learned, seeing my 18 month old being read a story in Somali… It’s not always easy – there are cross-cultural differences galore, there are times when you just want it to be only your family in the house, when another adult seems to take up too much space. But look at the need. And think about whether you can make the sacrifice. It’s harder than bundling up your old clothes and putting them on a van headed somewhere where they might get to people who need them. But true sacrifice is what is asked of us. And true sacrifice is where the blessing lies.
In 2009 my husband and I opened our home to our first asylum-seeker guest through the wonderful organisation The Boaz Trust. She was called I and she came from the Congo. She spoke mainly French. Why did we do it? Because we knew that our city was full of literally tens of thousands of ‘failed’ asylum seekers with no recourse to public funds, nowhere to stay, and no way of returning to their home country. In many cases they were (are) not actually allowed to be returned to their country of origin as they’re deemed too unsafe by the foreign office. But not unsafe enough to warrant asylum here… Go figure. Anyway, that’s another blog post for another day.
So there we were. With a random African woman living in our house. With all her stuff. Singing French songs at the top of her voice. Cooking goat in my kitchen. It was odd to start off with, I won’t lie. She didn’t get in our way. All of the guests we have had over the years have tended to keep to themselves, unless we have specifically drawn them out. We invited her to join us for the occasional meal, but mainly she ate her own meals in her own time. She was out a lot of the time. But sometimes she would sit with me, having a coffee, and chatting in Frenglish. She would throw her head back and laugh. I remember one morning trying to engage her in a serious conversation about healthcare in the Congo… with my International Health and Development hat on, I asked her some serious questions about how things worked. Including asking her why she thought people in Africa had so many kids. I expected her to say that they needed them to look after the old people, to work to earn money for the family… She gave a wide smile and said that she thought it was because there was nothing to do but have sex when you didn’t have a job. Unexpected. But that’s one of the things I love about meeting people from other cultures.
I will tell the truth, sometimes my guests have irritated me. One lady called G who came from Nigeria insisted on doing the washing up in our teeny tiny kitchen. We were eating with some guests in the next room. I had asked her not to do it as the dishes were literally stacked to the ceiling as I’d cooked something ridiculously ambitious. As we relaxed with our wine, I heard a shriek from the kitchen and went running to find she had smashed one of my wedding gifts – a Le Creuset ramekin. One of a set of 6. To this day I only have 5 ramekins – never having been able to justify the extortionate cost of buying 2 (and also a bit anal about the thought of owning 7… still an odd number). I look at them and smile, remembering her. I was so mad at the time though, I’m not going to lie. Why hadn’t she just listened to me? Why didn’t she do what I asked? And now I know – because she just wanted to help. We were helping her, she probably felt indebted and awkward about it. She was probably looking for something to do to bless us in return. And that’s what my broken designer ramekin stands for.
And then there was A. From Somalia. The other ladies stayed with us before children entered our lives. But A came later. She moved into Noah’s room when it became apparent that after 10 months, he was still not up for moving out of our bed. His room seemed wasted and empty. Enter A. She was in her early twenties, and her story was atrocious. A mother of four babies – one had died shortly after birth. She had come from a village where militiamen regularly arrived, gang-raped the women (including her), fought with the men… and left again. But they knew that they’d come back. One day when they came, intense fighting broke out. She was separated from her husband and three children. She never found them again. She searched for them, but her life was in danger and she ended up in the UK. As she played with Noah, laughing and smiling, I struggled to comprehend the hurt that must be inside her. I couldn’t even imagine.
Are you ready to help someone like A? To give her the stability of a roof over her head, people who care about how she is and want to help her?
There’s a million excuses we could give about why we can’t do it… Here are a couple of things you might be thinking.
- My house isn’t big enough – really? Do you realise how little space many of these people are used to? is it dry and warm? Sometimes that’s all it takes to be better than the alternative.
- What if they steal/damage my stuff? – get to know them, this fear will disappear. Why would they jeopardize their only safe place to stay? And what do you have that you’d miss if it was gone that wasn’t worth the risk of helping someone in need? As they say, you can’t take it with you when you go… As for breakages, see above.
- What about my kids? What better way for them to learn about other cultures, learning to serve and sacrifice, learning another language even. Baby Noah being read books and sung songs in Somali by A is one of my treasured memories.
- What if I go away for the weekend? – Boaz can usually find an alternative host for a few nights if you’re not happy for your guest to stay in your house.
- Do I have to feed them, because I’m not sure I can afford it? – not necessarily., but it really helps. They don’t have a lot as they don’t have access to benefits and aren’t allowed to work. Some get weekly food parcels (which aren’t great). If you really can’t afford to make an extra portion then ask around – I’m sure someone who is not as brave as you in taking someone into their home will happily crowd fund a few hot dinners for your guest.
- I need my spare room back for the weekend as I have guests coming – as above in number 4, arrangements might be able to be made for your asylum-seeker guest. If not, could your guests stay elsewhere for the weekend? Travelodge?- it could be their contribution to your effort. Or with your friends?
Feel free to get in touch if you want to ask anything further. Get in touch with The Boaz Trust if I’ve convinced you.
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt
– Deuteronomy 10:19