Six years ago, during the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, I read about the charity Homes For Syrians and made a slightly impulsive decision to sign us up. “I’ve offered our spare room” I told my surprised husband Will later that day, “it probably won’t happen”. Loujean arrived a few months later.
We felt wildly unqualified to host her. We were newly married, we gave to charity but had never really volunteered and neither of us spoke a word of Arabic. Really, the only thing going for us was our spare room. Loujean’s six-month stay began as awkwardly as you might expect - ours is not a big house and the initial language barrier meant lots of hand gestures - but after a few weeks we settled into a domestic rhythm.
There were cultural exchanges of food (she taught me how to make tabbouleh, I got her into Wotsits) and we found surprise common ground in the 1994 Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. It would be months before she would talk in any depth about the war. When she finally did it felt like an emotional dam had burst.
It would be months before she would talk in any depth about the war
Loujean is still in my life now, and I’m honoured to be her ‘British sister.’ Like that of every refugee, her story is unique, but I learned a few things from her stay which might be useful if you are preparing to host.
Hold off on the questions. Perhaps because Brits have a pathological obsession with asking how the journey was, more than once I watched well-meaning friends ask Loujean how she travelled here, as if she had nipped down the M6. Asking a refugee this question is inviting them to recount one of the most traumatic experiences of their life.
Instead, begin with practical support. Make a list of useful information on your home and area - from the wifi code and how the telly works to the nearest shops, transport links and information on local support groups. Once your guest is settled, and it feels right to do so, tell them you are there if they do need to talk, but don’t press the issue if they don’t.
Find little ways to make them feel welcome, like comfort foods from their home country, or a basket of spare toiletries in their room. Will drove Loujean to Shepherds Bush to buy okra and vine leaves from a specialist shop so she could cook dishes her granny had taught her to make. Sharing food and watching TV together became our weekly bonding exercise, but just as important were the nights when we gave each other space. (I would suggest learning a few words of your guest’s native language too but my attempts to speak Arabic made Loujean laugh so hard she cried. Know your limits.)
Don’t make assumptions. When I first wrote about having Loujean to stay I got an angry message from a man telling me she couldn’t possibly be a refugee because she had a large wheely suitcase. This is obviously ridiculous, but it’s important to check any preconceived notions you might have of how a displaced person ‘should’ operate. Finding a job will be the priority for some; others will need quiet and rest. Don’t expect endless displays of gratitude - the last thing a person who has lost everything needs is to feel indebted to you. And don’t, for god’s sake, suggest your guest gets a job picking fruit.
Lastly, don’t worry if you feel unqualified. No-one expects you to be a bureaucratic expert or trauma counsellor, there are organisations tooled up to help refugees with the practical and emotional aspects of their new reality. Lean on them.
Years later, Loujean would tell me the most valuable thing we did was to make her feel safe. Ultimately, your job as a host is to provide a handhold for someone who just weeks ago was living a peaceful life in their home country, never once imagining they would soon be dependent on the kindness of a stranger living thousands of miles away.