‘ Would he disapprove of my single pagan lifestyle ?’: 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 insured through both their eyes

You are not going to like me saying this, my daddy 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. Id 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 fretting me would he disapprove of my single gentile lifestyle? Could I carry on having bacon butties at the weekend? Should I edit my drinkings cupboard? the possibility of get 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 didnt 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 ocean. He had sailed across the Mediterranean in an inflatable barge in the dead of night, even though he cant swimming; walked from Greece to Macedonia, and intersected Europe until he reached the Jungle in Calais, where he jumped on trucks for six nights before building it to England hidden in the back of a lorry. After 17 hours packed between boxes of playthings, he banged on the door. The truck driver was furious: he would face a PS2, 000 fine were the border police to discover his human cargo. Yasser scarpered. He wasnt sure he was even in England until a automobile 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 PS5 a day given to him by Serco, the outsourcing company contracted by the Home office to process asylum applications. While Yasser waited, he couldnt take paid run 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 isnt English ), so left him to it.

When I got back, he had almost finished. We had an awkward snack together, then I tried to give him some fund. Yasser looked appalled. No , no, he said. I dont want fund. I want friends.

Two days later, three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Greece. The mood in Britain changed. Abruptly the sort of newspapers who usually run stories about immigrants eating swans started depicting 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 corroborating 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 fund 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 PS280 a month would cover a room in a shared house with a private landowner( 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.


Helen and Yasser feed their separate breakfasts. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

I supposed having Yasser to stay would be a kind of atonement for missteps I have built in my life, but his presence has built 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 drapery 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 roadblock is probably the biggest issue( praise be for Google Translate ), plus the fact that he doesnt have any fund and so is home a lot. I also find his preoccupation with war, however understandable, wearing. I dont like insuring pictures of dead bodies, and have had to initiate a no war at the dinner table policy.

Slightly frustrating, too, is his lack of importance in get a task. Yasser is no skiver: he volunteers every day as an office director at a charity for Syrians in Manchester and is very keen to run, merely not in any old task. A trained Arabic teacher, he wants to teach, but is unqualified to work in UK schools. I went to the jobcentre with him to fulfill his run coach; she cautioned him hed be sanctioned if he didnt start applying for a lot more tasks, 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 get, she said.( One evening I had to stop him applying to be social media director for the Sunday Sport .) But the penny seems to have dropped that he will have to work his style up from the bottom again. Truly, he wants to spend at least three months on an intensive English course so that he is better equipped for the labour markets, but his coach insists that work must come first.

Yassers resilience astounds me. Ten minutes before the photographer have come to take scenes 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 didnt know where. Another 48 hours of stillnes passed before she texted to say they had arrived in Gaziantep in Turkey. As I write, Yasser is arranging a Dna test to demonstrate paternity, so that the Home office cannot refuse a family reunion visa.

What does he attain of my bourgeois life? He does not appreciate the middle-class preoccupation with sanded floorboards, when we could all afford wall-to-wall carpets. He cannot believe I own a cook book holder. Cook volumes themselves he observes hilarious; the women in Yassers 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 demonstrated him, asking what he wanted to warm up. Safari eggs, he said. No sum of miming or Google Translate could attain me understand. It was something hed 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 dont eat pork.


Christmas dinner was a treat: Yasser at Helens parents house. Photograph: politenes 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 depicted the line at animals in blankets; Mum did him a Linda McCartney sausage.

I invited Yasser out of duty, but it aimed up being a exhilaration. 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 papas department at the university, junior physicians my mum was supervising, an eccentric lady from church called Valerie who was too busy hoarding to clean. Now it was my turning. Mum invited a Ukrainian household she had satisfied through her walking group. It was an eclectic assemble but a lovely one, dominated by activities that required little or no English. Mum built 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 Wheres Wally? jigsaw.

Yasser is very keen to assimilate. Early on he noticed that people in Manchester say hiya and call one another love, and started slipping both into his text messages. I joked hed be calling me our kid by Christmas; instead he is developing a fabulous northern accent. We watch rubbish Tv together. Once, during Dont Tell The Bride, Yasser said he couldnt 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 culture 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 built international news.

They say it takes a whole village to create a child; I think it takes a whole community to integrate the status of refugees. All of my friends have chipped in, whether its just talking to Yasser at parties, teaching him English, or fixing him up a bike and depicting him how to ride it safely. Sheila from over the road has offered further English class, and a barrister neither of us has satisfied 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 and Yasser in Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron Halloween outfits. Photograph: politenes 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 achieved, hard-working English woman, who has her own style of doing things. We come from very different backgrounds but we get on with fine. She was so courteous asking me to stay. I suppose she raised it three times before I accepted I wasnt sure if she was just being polite. The idea of living with an English woman was strange, but I required somewhere to stay and it would be a great opportunity to learn about British culture and practise the language. That would attain things easier for my spouse and daughter when they come.

The first thing I supposed a bit strange was when Helen told me what time she was leaving the next morning and said shed need to use the bathroom at a certain time before that. In Syria, bathroom usage is never governed. 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 theyre home. Why would anyone want to be in jeans when they dont have to? The first couple of weeks were a bit strange for both of us, I suppose. 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 wed used to go, but living together was never a prospect. Here, people have fewer social limiteds: I have met two of Helens friends who are women and even married, 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. Im Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour party, she said. Then I should be David Cameron, I responded. I didnt truly entail 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 couldnt believe the recycling bin the next day!

I had a good time and things began to be less awkward. Every one of Helens 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 demonstrate their true feelings. This hasnt 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 Ive insured. The house was high up and you could see the sea. It was astonishing; I spent an entire night appearing outside the window.

Although Helen isnt a churchgoer, she went with her parents as she said it was important for them. I ran 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 find some gifts. Helen gave me a book by Dan Rhodes called Anthropology its 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.

Helens parents hospitality and kindness built me think about household. I wondered why Helen doesnt visit them more often. There is no warmer feeling than being with household. I guess its one of those things you only appreciate after theyre gone.
Yasser Al Jassem. Translated by Mowaffaq Safadi

Read more: www.theguardian.com


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here