Skip to comments.Lynn Barber: I Took an Asylum Seeker Into my Home. It Didnít End Well
Posted on 07/21/2017 1:00:41 PM PDT by nickcarraway
This is a story in two parts, without a happy ending, or indeed an ending of any sort. I thought it only fair to warn you.
If you remember, the summer of 2015 brought almost daily horror stories of refugees being drowned at sea or suffocating in lorries while seeking asylum in Europe. The climax was the picture of a dead Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, though for some reason I was more haunted by a photograph of a Syrian mother trying to hold her baby above the waves. She was my personal tipping point, the moment when I decided I must do something. Not just the usual, comfortable something must be done feeling that might induce me to sign a petition or write to my MP, but a much more urgent, anxiety-inducing demand that I, personally, must do what I could to help. But what? I was 71, far from fit, not much use on rescue boats or even soup kitchens. But at least I have a big house.
So I wrote to my local council (Islington, in north London) offering to take in a Syrian family. It never replied. (Someone told me later that I wouldnt be allowed to take a family because I smoke.) I thought there must be a website where you could sign up to take refugees, but I couldnt find it. I was still puzzling what to do when I happened to meet an artist called Mike Snelle in an east London bar. He said hed been out in the Calais Jungle camp helping to build shelters for migrants. He said conditions were horrendous, and bound to get worse. I asked what happened to refugees who did manage to cross the Channel, and he said they are mostly put in detention centres, unless they can find someone to take them. Ill take one, I said, and that was that.
A few weeks later, Mike rang to say hed met a Sudanese migrant, Mohammed, who had just arrived under a lorry, and perhaps I would take him? I asked Mike to bring him round so I could inspect him. He seemed shy but very polite, and spoke good English. He explained that he had registered with the Home Office on arrival and got the vital ID card that makes him an official asylum seeker. It said that he was not allowed to find employment; instead, he got a weekly £35 living allowance while waiting for his asylum hearing. I assumed this would be a matter of weeks but I was later told it can take years! Anyway, I told him he was welcome to stay, and that Mike should ring when he was ready to move in.
Mike rang a few days later bad timing because I was about to go on holiday but I said bring him round, but pick up some food on the way. They arrived laden with shopping bags containing a weird selection of loo rolls, kitchen rolls, drums of cooking oil and sacks of lentils. I took them up to my daughters old room and they immediately spotted an ancient computer in the corner and started tinkering with it. They asked for my hub code, password, batteries for the mouse and in no time at all got it working. Mike asked me to show Mohammed how to use the burglar alarm and then he disappeared into the night.
So I am alone in the house with a man I have barely met who now has my front-door key, burglar alarm code and complete access to my computer. Mohammed seems happy to stay in his room fiddling with the old computer, so I leave him to it, but later he comes down and asks if he can cook me dinner. No thanks, I tell him, Ive eaten. With great formality, he announces that he plans to treat me like his mother. Hmm. Not sure I want to be treated like a Sudanese mother I suspect it means a lot of cooking, cleaning and washing so I tell him to treat me like what I am his landlady and basically keep out of my way.
Next morning Dorota, my cleaner, is coming and I have to warn her there is a man staying in the spare room. Im nervous about how shell take it. Dorota is Polish and has been my cleaner for 10 years, and I love her dearly. But she has once or twice made remarks about foreigners that do not bode well. At first she seems thrilled by the idea of a man in the spare room she is always telling me I should get a boyfriend but I quickly disabuse her. He is a Sudanese asylum seeker. Hes asleep now, but youll meet him later. His name is Mohammed. Later, she knocks at my study door. What did you say his name was? Mohammed. Where does he come from? Sudan. Where is that? North Africa. Ah! She goes away shaking her head. Eventually Mohammed gets up, and I take him downstairs to meet Dorota an anxious moment, but I stand over them while they exchange wary hellos.
Heartbreaking: the photograph of a dead three-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, that shook the world in 2015 Heartbreaking: the photograph of a dead three-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, that shook the world in 2015 AP Mohammed announces that he is going to Edgware Road to buy food so he can cook me a Sudanese dinner. How nice, I say, but why does he have to go to Edgware Road? There are halal shops just down the hill in Archway. But no, he says Edgware Road is best. Who knew? Ive barely shopped anywhere except Waitrose. So he goes off shopping and I go off interviewing and, when I return, I find him in the kitchen stirring a saucepan. And there are even more stacks of supplies sacks of onions, beans, tomatoes, racks of egg boxes and my small kitchen, normally so bare, now looks like the catering tent for a rock festival.
I lay the table for two, but Mohammed says he doesnt need a knife and fork, he eats with his fingers. Given that the food is quite sloppy, this seems difficult, but anyway he manages, neatly scooping up the mushy stuff with bread. This is waika, he announces, the Sudanese national dish, made from minced lamb, onions, tomatoes, with some sort of hot chilli sauce on the side and mish yoghurt with fenugreek. It is absolutely delicious. I could eat it every day, and presumably will have to because he has made enough to feed an army.
While we are eating, an old friend drops by, bringing quinces from his garden, so I invite him to join us for supper. He is shocked to find Mohammed here apparently I forgot to tell him. He asks Mohammed how he got to England and for the first time he recounts his epic journey. He was studying oil engineering at Khartoum University when he got in trouble (unspecified) and was advised to leave Sudan quickly. That was last April. His uncle paid people smugglers to take him by truck across the desert to Libya, a five-day journey, and then by sea to Italy. The boatman was supposed to have navigation equipment but didnt, so they were bobbing about in the sea for several hours before a Red Cross plane spotted them and sent a boat to guide them to the Italian shore. He thinks they landed in Calabria. The Italian police detained them for a couple of days, but then sent them on their way, without fingerprinting them, and they took a train to Ventimiglia, Nice, Paris and eventually Calais, where he joined the Jungle.
He was there for five months, walking five miles to the docks every day, trying to board a lorry. Once or twice he succeeded, but was then spotted and thrown off. Usually there were at least two police cars blocking the ramp to the ferry. But one day he went and there were no police because there was a riot going on in the train tunnel so he found an empty lorry where he could cling inside the wheel arch, and a short while later heard the ferry hooting and was on his way to Dover. But he had to remain hidden, and once they had reached England the lorry drove for almost an hour he almost died of cold before stopping at a petrol station. When the driver went to pay, Mohammed jumped down and hid behind some trees; the driver never knew he had carried a passenger. Then, when the lorry left, he went to the petrol station and was overjoyed to find that the man in charge was Bangladeshi, a fellow Muslim. Mohammed explained he was a refugee and gave the shopkeeper the one contact number he had the brother of a friend he made in the Jungle, who lived in Acton, west London. The brother told the shopkeeper to order a taxi and said he would pay for it on arrival. Luckily, the brother knew that Mohammed had to go to a police station to register with the Home Office on arrival, so once he reached Acton he did that, then went down with pneumonia and spent days in hospital.
He says he wants to treat me like his mother. Hmm. Not sure. I suspect it means a lot of cooking, cleaning and washing
My friend is stunned. When Mohammed goes to wash up (fancy that! A man who cooks and washes up), he gives me a heavy talking-to about how I am taking my life in my hands. Well, too bad. I have to trust Mohammed because I have no alternative and I am leaving for Morocco tomorrow.
While I was in Morocco, word evidently spread among my friends, because afterwards they all kept dropping round to inspect Mohammed. They all liked him, but still thought I was mad. Mohammed in turn brought his friends, a wonderfully jolly woman from Orpington called Liz, who did voluntary work in the Jungle, and then the fabulous Felix, who works for Mike Snelle. This arose because I got an email from BT saying Id already used my entire months broadband allowance in a week. I assumed this was because Mohammed was on Facebook or Skype the whole time, so I told him and he said hed get Felix round. Within five minutes Felix was on the phone to BT and sorted out an unlimited broadband package. I had to write a letter for the Home Office saying that I was giving Mohammed free accommodation but no financial support. (This was so that he could get his £35-a-week allowance.) A few days later I had a very sinister phone call asking if I had a Mr Mohammed A living with me. Yes. Why is he living with you? Because hes an asylum seeker and I have a spare room. Is he a relation? Dont be ridiculous, I snort in best dowager duchess tones, hes Sudanese! This seems to do the trick.
Rosie (elder daughter) came up from Brighton to stay the night because she was going to a party in London. I warned her she would have to sleep in the book room and expected all the usual complaints about how the dust triggers her allergies, but for once she was fine. So she came round and Mohammed cooked waika and they got on brilliantly. He told her much more about his family than he ever told me that he is one of l8 siblings because his father married four times, and also that he is married. His wife is studying pharmacology in Khartoum and can get a work visa to come to Britain as soon as she qualifies, because the UK is short of pharmacists. Anyway, I was relieved that Rosie gave Mohammed her wholehearted seal of approval.
You First World women are all the same. You are heartless, he said. Was it heartless of me to take him in for six months? But soon afterwards came the Big Row. Mohammed had annoyed me a few times by asking me to turn on the central heating and I complied at first, but then told him it was the warmest autumn on record and I hated having the house too hot. Next evening he came down to make coffee and, after hed gone back upstairs, I noticed that the sitting room was getting warmer and found that hed switched the heating on. I was incandescent. Hed done it sneakily. So I stormed up to his room and shouted: You turned the heating on without asking me. How dare you! He said his feet were cold. Well, put some more socks on, I raged. I can see youre upset, he said and tried to put his arm round me, but I brushed him off and had another good rant: This is my house, I keep it at my preferred temperature, and if you dont like it you can f*** off back to Calais. I think this was the moment he finally realised I was not his mother, nor ever likely to be. He looked close to tears. Later, he slipped a sweet note under my bedroom door:
Dear Lynns. Im really sorry for what happend its completely my mistake but I was in a lot of thinking make me missed sleep for tow night. I came to your house as a son for you and to be honest you make me feel that and touched. Ill never ever forget that when you look after me and share talk with all the love and fun.
Please accept my apolgize to you as a son for you because even I left here Ill come to see you because you do for me a lot and I have to stand with you.
Sorry and I feel shame too.
Which of course made me feel guilty, especially when it occurred to me that maybe he didnt have any warm clothes. So I started asking friends for cast-offs, and a few days later my friend Jean arrived dragging three enormous bin bags. She had asked the fellow members of her tennis club in Highgate to give clothes to an asylum seeker and this was the result. I told Mohammed to take the bags to his room. That evening he shimmered downstairs in a pale lilac cashmere sweater. Where did you get that? It was in Jeans bags. I looked at the label Paul Smith. What else was in the bags? He showed me a grey overcoat that looked barely worn Collezione Armani! This was the first time I realised the enormous pulling power of middle-class liberal guilt.
I think I need to talk about this now: the reactions of other people and especially my friends. They all keep telling me Im a saint, which is disconcerting enough, but often there is a strong undertow of You, of all people, taking in a refugee! The unmissable implication is that they have never known me do anything altruistic in my life. I find this hurtful, but also probably fair. I have always been quite generous with money, but never with my time, never with my convenience. And my record in having people to stay is startlingly bad. I once told a close friend that her daughter could live with me for her first year at art school in London. But I took against the girl almost from day one when she asked me where I kept my Tupperware. I dont have Tupperware, I told her furiously. I am not a Tupperware sort of person. She rang her mother in tears and found alternative accommodation within the week.
So no, I am not naturally hospitable and I am not altruistic. And yet having Mohammed to stay does not feel like being saintly on the contrary it feels like a thoroughly good wheeze that has come at just the right time in my life. I was getting bored with my own comfort and worrying that I was becoming, like my parents, a slave to routine. I needed a bit of a shake-up. Also, there was some mild guilt that I was living alone in such a big house, given the terrible plight of young people who could barely afford to rent a flat, let alone ever hope to buy one. So giving a room to Mohammed seemed like a neat solution
OK. Deep breath. Part two.
I wrote the above last March, when Mohammed had been living with me for about six months. All the time he was here, my friends kept saying I must write about him, and I said I would, but not until his asylum case was settled. Then in March we heard that his asylum hearing was coming up in a fortnight, so I thought Id write the article and get it all ready to go for when we heard the result. I wanted to show Sunday Times readers that you dont have to be a saint to take in a refugee, you just have to have a spare room.
Preparing the article for publication meant, first, showing it to my daughters, always my sharpest critics, and they did indeed make a few cuts. Then I sent it to Mike Snelle and asked him to show it to Mohammed. I thought it was better for Mike to show it, because I felt that Mohammed would be reluctant to raise any objections with me. Mike said the piece was fine but Mohammed was deeply upset and shaken. Mike couldnt find out why. So I suggested he get Felix to read it and discuss it with Mohammed and find out what he objected to. But even Felix professed himself baffled. This all took a few days, during which I noticed Mohammed was avoiding me. One evening I finally caught him on the stairs and said: I need to talk to you. I gather you were upset by my article and I wish you would explain why.
At first he just kept shaking his head and moaning, but then he burst out furiously: I am not a refugee! What! What are you doing here then? Why are you living in my house? I am a political leader! My family are very rich! We could buy you up like that. Do you want money? Is that why you write this filth? I get you money. You First World women are all the same, you are heartless. You have no feelings. You Christians are all racists. And more, and more, increasingly incoherent, rambling, bewildering, but also frightening because he seemed to feel such deep hatred towards me. Eventually he said with great rhetorical flourish: I can no longer live in this house.
No, I said, you cant, and started walking him to the front door. He asked if he could go up to his room to collect some things and I said yes, but I was thinking if he didnt leave quickly Id get my brother-in-law and nephew round I was really quite frightened by this time. Not that I feared a physical attack, but I thought he was mad. Anyway he did leave, with a rucksack, and I told him to send Felix round for the rest of his stuff. Stupidly, I didnt ask for his front-door key and lay awake all night in case he came back. He didnt, but Liz from Orpington rang the next day and asked if she could come and collect his things, and Mohammed came with her and presented me with a bunch of garage flowers. Liz was very apologetic and they spent half an hour packing up his room, then they left. So that was the end of Mohammed. But still with no real explanation. A few days later I got an email from Liz saying Mohammeds asylum had been granted with permission to stay for five years and did I want to come to the celebrations? No. I was glad that Mohammed got his asylum, but I felt too bruised to ever want to see him again.
I felt such a fool. I hated having to tell Dorota. Shed been dropping hints all along that Mohammed was a bad lot he broke the tumble dryer, he never cleaned the washing machine, one day he was going to the front door just as the post arrived and instead of picking up the letters he walked all over them. Shed told me these things, but I put all her criticisms down to racism. But other friends, too, were a bit quick with the schadenfreude and telling me they thought Id been insane to trust him.
This issue of trust is one that has particular resonance for me. For two years from the age of 16 I had an affair with a conman (recorded in the film and memoir An Education), which damaged me, I felt, by giving me a lasting distrust of other people. After being so badly duped, my watchword was always: dont take anyones word for it. Dont believe what they say, but watch what they do. Dont commit to liking anyone until you know them really well. This attitude probably served me well as an interviewer, but I felt it damaged me as a human being. I didnt like being so distrustful, but I couldnt help it. So I was pleasantly surprised even joyous when I found it so easy to trust Mohammed. He could, as many of my friends warned me, have stolen any of my possessions, but he never did. He was trustworthy in that respect. But on the other hand he lived with me for six months while, it seemed now, hating me.
Although the ending was sour, there were six months before when I very much enjoyed having him around
A few weeks later my computer was on the blink, so I thought Id try the old computer in Mohammeds room. Felix, of course, got it working in seconds. He found a file of Mohammeds photographs and started scrolling through them, then he suddenly stopped and closed it down. Of course, as soon as hed gone, I started browsing through and was shocked by what I found. There were pictures of Mohammed with Liz and her daughters, and pictures of Arab women I assumed were his family but also naked pictures of women with enormous boobs and one or two of a couple making love. But what pulled me up sharply were many pictures of Mohammed and a group of friends sightseeing in Paris one showed the Eiffel Tower and in various swimming pools. His journey across Europe looked more like a holiday jaunt than a desperate flight to asylum. But then there were a few pictures of the Jungle, and then many almost-identical pictures of an English motorway taken through the windscreen of a car. Presumably this was his ride from the garage in Kent to Acton, but how odd to think of him shivering, wet he would soon go down with pneumonia taking all these dull photos of an English road.
Of course I tried asking Felix why he thought Mohammed was so upset by my article. He thought pride came into it, but he also said that Mohammed was far more paranoid and peculiar than Id realised. He thought people were tracking him on Facebook and sometimes closing in on him. Thats why it suited him to have a bolthole in north London rather than staying with Liz and her daughters in Orpington. Had he hated me all along? No, said Felix, he was very fond of me it was just the article that triggered his paranoia. But some of the things he said were really unforgivable You First World women are so heartless. Was it heartless of me to take him in for six months? There was a problem, I believe, with my being a woman. He kept wanting to cast me as his mother, but I flatly refused to play. Motherliness is not my greatest talent, as my daughters would no doubt tell you, and it certainly doesnt extend to outsiders. So whenever Mohammed came to me, as he often did, complaining of a sore throat or gummed-up ears or kidney pain, I would tell him yet again to go to my GP. He never did. He preferred to Skype his mother in Khartoum (she always recommended parsley tea and he consumed most of my parsley patch) or to take himself to A&E. It annoyed me that he went to A&E more times in the six months he lived with me than I had been in my whole life, and I gave him a lecture about not abusing the NHS.
In retrospect I can see there were loads of warning signs. I should have listened to Dorotas many complaints about him; I should have listened when my daughter told me to be careful. There had been an odd incident early on, a few days after he arrived, when he asked if there was a park nearby. I said yes indeed, Waterlow Park and Hampstead Heath, both beautiful places to walk. But it was nighttime and raining. Why did he want to go to a park now? Because, he said, he needed to buy some dope and the people in Calais told him you could always find someone selling it in parks. Oh no, I told him, no dope, or certainly not in the house. Anyway, how could he afford dope when he was supposedly living on £35 a week? But once, when my daughter came to stay, she told me that the top landing reeked of skunk.
I should have thought far more about the question of money it was really glaringly obvious that he wasnt living on £35 a week. I assumed that Mike or maybe Liz gave him a handout and once or twice I lent him a tenner. But I remember being puzzled at Christmas when he said he wanted to buy his mother some comfortable shoes like mine (Haflingers) because she always had sore feet. What a good son, I thought. But also how could he afford them? I warned him they cost £60, but he didnt seem bothered and went off to Covent Garden to buy them. I now realise that his rich family in Sudan must have been funding him and I suspect his frequent trips to Edgware Road were somehow money-related. Another clue (there were so many): when I asked what job he hoped to get when his asylum was granted, he never seemed to have given it a thought.
And of course I should have asked much, much more about why he had to leave Sudan. Mike said at the beginning that Mohammed found it upsetting to talk about so I didnt even try. Later, when I did try, he said it was political and I left it at that. To be fair, he did, several times, try to explain the Sudanese political situation, but I never let him get very far. I understood the first bit where he said that Sudan was basically five countries that had been lumped together for ease of colonial administration. But then he would go on to say that as well as understanding the political and geographical divisions, I also had to understand the different tribal loyalties, at which point my eyes would begin to glaze and I would suddenly remember that I had to make an urgent phone call.
When he left, I found his wardrobe stuffed, literally stuffed, with all the clothes Jeans tennis club had donated. He had taken a few prize pieces the Armani coat, the Paul Smith sweater but the rest was all there. For some reason this made me more furious than anything else. I felt such a fool, and 10 times more a fool for enlisting the generosity of friends. And what could I do with all this stuff? If I returned it to the tennis club then wed all feel foolish. So I bundled it into bin bags and drove up to the Oxfam shop in Highgate, but then I thought, no, its too near, someone might recognise their clothes, so I drove on and on, up to Finchley, hating Mohammed every inch of the way.
In retrospect, I was so stupid, but also so arrogant. All my friends, and most of all my beloved Dorota, kept warning me not to trust him, but I just thought: Oh, theyre all racists, whereas I am this paragon of liberalism. And I liked the idea that I was being daring while they were being so cautious. Most of all I loved the idea that I had learnt to trust people again, after being damaged all those years ago by my conman. I suppose, now, I will spend the rest of my life being wary and distrustful.
I hesitated a very long time before writing this article. I worry that it will give succour to all the told-you-so racists, who will see it as a warning against taking in asylum seekers. It shouldnt. I was unlucky with Mohammed, but I was also very stupid. There are plenty of precautions one can take, checks one can make; it was only my arrogance that stopped me making them. And, although the ending was sour, there were six months before when I very much enjoyed having Mohammed round the house. I miss our evening chats in the kitchen, I miss the bubbling pot of waika on the stove. Ive had almost a year to lick my wounds and now I think Im ready to take another asylum seeker. Ill let you know how it goes.
Previous article on Lynn Barber: As her new book, An Education, is published, Lynn Barber reveals why she has publicly shamed her elderly parents for pushing their teenage daughter into the arms of a middle-aged con man.
Lynne Barber: I’m an idiot. It never ends well.
Don’t take in scorpions.
The stupidity (or gullibility) of some people is simply astounding.
She got what she deserved and lucky she did not get more.
I don't care.
Her bed, she can lie in it.
> I was unlucky with Mohammed... <
Not really. Unlucky is being at a craps table, and rolling a losing snake eyes, three times in a row. Unlucky is taking a shortcut on a trip, and finding the road closed.
This woman was not unlucky. She got what could be expected.
Ummm... it would be a "told you so" from anyome with half a brain...
Proud told-you-so racist here - Lynn is an assclown of the first order and potential Darwin Award winner.
Wow! And she wants ANOTHER one in her home? She’s lucky she wasn’t raped or beheaded.
Political Correctness to the Nth degree!
What a fool.
The power of liberal guilt.
Just call them racist, and they will do anything.
I have a similar story.
My music teacher and mentor was a divorced woman who had a large house near the big universities in the Boston Area. Teaching music lessons will not make one rich, so she (being very liberal) contacted an agency that housed foreign exchange students as they went to Boston Schools to learn English. These were affluent people, who could afford to send their children abroad for their education, and the students were vetted by the agency, so it was pretty certain that my friend’s boarders would be classy, well-behaved people.
Most of them were. As these people stayed with my friend during the various semesters, they were charming, fun, bright-faced students who treated my friend with the utmost respect and affection as the money came in without any issues. It was win/win, and good for American relations as well.
Then, a new student arrived. he was 16, a member of the Saudi royal family (which isn’t hard), and of course, a Muslim.
He began to order my friend around, demanding special food, was rude to her guests, etc. The last straw was when she was awakened from a deep sleep with him on top of her, attempting to rape her as she slept. When she pushed him away, screaming at him, he was incredulous.
“What is your problem?” he yelled. “You are just a woman, and I have NEEDS”.
A 911 call had him removed from the premises, and, needless to say, she discontinued that alternate stream of income.
This was WAY before 9/11/01.
What a great idea! She's lucky her head is still attached. Empty but attached.
is that it ???
I feel cheated...
I thought she was going to be raped and murdered and looted and her house burnt down...
these moslem “refugees” love to burn down their dwelling place...
she should be locked up in a loony bin for her own sake...
This lady must be a close relation to Angela Merkel. Sorry but post menopausal women are a bit demented and strange.
That comment brought the picture of another European invader to mind. During WWII our troops were wading ashore carrying their weapons above the waves. The weapons are different this time.
My sympathy is with Mohammed. He had to board with a guilt ladened old white liberal women. What if he had a retired successful ex businessman who was conservative and freedom loving and Christian in the trues sense of the word?
May I respectfully suggest Ms. Lynn Barber use a brassiere lest she trip and kill herself.
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