The kindness of strangers: the challenges and rewards of opening your home to refugees by Alison Phipps

18 June 2017

By Alison Phipps

IN my arms is a three-week-old baby. Her mother, who is from sub-Saharan Africa, has been evicted from the temporary London accommodation where she’d been placed after receiving refugee status, as she was found to have a well-founded fear of persecution. And now, mother and baby have come to stay in my Glasgow home.

The mother is a tough cookie, always laughing, sharp and with a generous heart. We met for the first time in the precarious context of Sudan during the war, where she had taken temporary refuge while on the run from an oppressive regime in a neighbouring country. I was a visitor from the UK, where my life is lived alongside refugees and this had brought me to Khartoum.

She became my friend, but when we first met, she was my host. When I arrived at her home in Sudan, after a long overnight journey and a lengthy process at the border, I was proudly shown around. In this small apartment, there were five young children aged one to seven; two mothers, one father, several uncles and a set of grandparents. There was a huge double bed, bedecked with extraordinary covers in orange and brown and red and gold, and – in a side room – two small single beds. The double bed was for me and my husband. Everyone else slept in shifts, with at least three to a single bed. None of my protestations could shift my hosts from the honour they felt their traditions of hospitality required them to offer to me as a guest. When these did give way, I’d become like family.

I am often asked what it’s like hosting refugees in my own home. A decade before Positive Action in Housing began their “room for refugees” scheme, my husband and I had volunteered with the organisation to have destitute people who needed temporary accommodation to stay with us in our three-bedroom Glasgow home. The questions people ask are always the same – a set of largely middle class concerns: how worried were you about taking strangers into your home, how did you deal with security matters? Did you talk to the neighbours about it? What was it like not having your own space under your control? Did you worry things would get stolen? Did you get irritated by the longer-term guests? Did you feel safe? What about food, allergies? What about infectious diseases?

They are the kind of questions asked by those of us with the luxury of a home of our own which does not feel provisional or under threat. They show how accustomed we have become in a short space of human history, to having our own bedrooms, beds, bathrooms, lots of space, a door we close and lock, no need to share our food, or our previously communal rooms, with others – friends or strangers. But this is in reality a new state of affairs, and it is extremely odd to many of those we have hosted. It’s not how most of the world is ordered at a domestic level, in neighbourhoods, or even, to be frank, at a state level.

When I arrived in Sudan for the first time, I was nervous. I felt awkward and a bit worried about how I’d cope with the food, and how my husband would manage in the extreme heat. I wondered whether we would be safe in their house, if our papers would be safe, if we’d have our own space.

Thinking about it now I realise that I never thought about how my hosts felt receiving my husband and I into their temporary home. They were already exiled, in a dangerous country, waiting for a chance to move on to a place and country of safety. I am sure the whole family in Sudan was nervous, meeting us for the first time.

The adorning of the huge double bed says something of this – the care taken to make it just perfect, a place of honour and opulent generosity. As a first meal was served it was clear the best food had been prepared; my host had been to have her hair dressed and plaited beautifully and everyone, despite the lack of a shared language, was commenting on her hair and touching it. Shyly the children tried to touch mine too. They were fascinated by its texture.

They were reprimanded, but soon realised I didn’t mind. Communication was physical – we had few words in common, though thanks to the kids I was quickly taught some words, especially for food and for the strange features of my hair and nose and eyes and chin and skin, as they explored my face. It was certainly the first time the family had ever hosted white people. Normally the white people stayed in hotels or enclaves.

We all shared a bathroom, flushing the toilet with a bucket. The temperatures were up at 40 degrees and there was a lot of concern for cooling us down. Water was served to us constantly, with salted popcorn and sugary sweets. The rates of dehydration meant it was just what was required.

To go out, I had to be dressed by the women. It was important that I didn’t stand out and could walk with them down the streets looking ordinary – so I wore long black or white gowns and covered my hair with a scarf. In a hot climate and with frequent sandstorms, this was the most comfortable of clothing. I was taken to the Western style mall, where I was encouraged to take off my scarf and enjoy the air conditioning.

The day after our arrival, a man turned up who the family clearly knew and asked for our passports so he could do our registration with the police as visitors. This was how the family dealt with their anxieties about their security and ours in their home. We handed over the documents, visas, passports and the money we’d been told would be necessary.

A few years later, here I am hosting my former host. She is terrified. Her experience of eviction (illegal eviction) has been dreadful, not least as orders were given by her landlords to “starve her and her baby out of her rented flat”. My concerns are all about her wellbeing and that of her baby and my fears are of what else the state, with its horrendous privatised apparatus, will do next to the most vulnerable people amongst us. I want to make sure she has medical attention and is registered homeless so she might find a place to stay with her baby. Not for a minute do I worry about my safety, or food, or space. And it’s only the second time we have met.

When my husband and I first began hosting, in 2006, we did think a bit about how to do it well. We thought about food and how to give people space, and decided we’d never ask people to tell us their stories, unless they specifically wanted to. We’ve hosted lot of people for short periods and about five or six for around five months to up to eight years. And then there was Rima, who came to us eight years through the Positive Action in Housing scheme eight years ago and is now our foster daughter. Even though we have a spare room, we have often ended up with several people on floors or air-beds when the need was urgent.

As for security, the only such fears we have ever had, concerned the activities of our own UK state. People who lived with us have been taken into detention and threatened with deportation; we’ve visited them in Dungavel, where they hosted us over gritty hot chocolate from the vending machine in the dreary visiting room. And while none have ever actually been deported, all bear the scars of the futile and ridiculous experience of detention. This is the state at its perhaps most pathetic, wasting its money locking up people who are a danger to no-one for the sake of saving face in front of the tabloid press.

The violations of our own home came not from taking in strangers and becoming friends or acquaintances, sharing in making a place a home together, but from the way the UK now puts the state border right through the middle of our homes and our hearts. For the millions of EU citizens who have honoured us by choosing to make this country their home and who now face the threat of a highly uncertain status and future, this is the new reality and it merely parallels that of the asylum seekers and refugees who we have hosted ourselves.

I don’t know if I really like hosting. It’s an effort. I am sure it would be easier not to have guests round at all. We’d not have to make nice dinners, or change beds, or think about sharing bathrooms. We strongly believe that homes should be places of safety and when violence breaches the sanctity of the home, deep social taboos are broken. But a home no-one visits is a terrible thing, just as a country with no visitors, no migrants, is wed to monotony, isolation and ultimately, its own death.

I visit many homes, and many people visit mine, sometimes just for a chat and a warm drink, other times for high days and holy days. Last Christmas Day, a group of refugees offered to come to my home and cook a traditional Christmas lunch for me, in my own kitchen. By the end of that wonderful day, I had no idea who was the host and who was the guest.

In Greek, the word “Xenia” is used interchangeably for both host and guest. And that is the point: in the end, we should not be able to differentiate, such is the reciprocity that involved in the real integration of lives. Recently, the baby I held in my arms at the beginning of this piece, was running around screeching with delight on her second birthday and I was in her home, being treated to bright blue birthday cake.

When the subject of hosting refugees is raised, everyone wants photographs to publish, new family scenes of white and black together. Yes, I do have lots of photographs we’ve taken and shared of our times together, with the many refugees who have been my hosts, and for whom I’ve been a guest. I’d love to live in a world where sharing all those pictures with readers is a safe thing to do, but it isn’t and, just as I’ve given a fragment of stories here, I can share only a few images with you as readers. So most of the smiles which accompany my daily life, will have to stay hidden until our society and state is a place where they can be celebrated without fear of reprisals.

The UK takes a tiny percentage of refugees for resettlement and a tiny, insignificant number of asylum seekers. To get into the country is well nigh impossible. We may still claim that we will offer a home to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution, but that is not what we do in practice. In practice, claiming the right to a home, a sanctuary, to asylum here is an excruciating process involving destitution, detention, threats of deportation, a culture of disbelief in Home Office interviews … Imagine all that, in a language you don’t understand, while you are in a state of shock, bewilderment, perhaps processing the horrors of war, family separation and bereavement.

Hospitality, said the philosopher Jacques Derrida, is culture itself. The antidote to fear of the other or fear of offering or receiving hospitality is not condemnation of the fear of the other. It is not calling people out as racist and wrong, nor is it appeasement. Rather, it is the non-violent direct action which is found in every act of kindness, every small conversation and moment of greeting with someone else.

In every attempt at reciprocity in hospitality, new homes are fostered, capacious enough for us to look forward to futures where our homes, intimately and nationally, will be visited by others and where welcome is worked at and made anew. This is especially true when it gives us pause, and means we have to work at it. We only know the strength of our own home, our communities and our nations when they are put to the test. We face the test of hospitality on a grand scale in 2017. Humanity has faced this test before. Sometimes it has failed, sometimes great creative beauty has been made through hospitality. World Refugee Day, on June 20, reminds us of the precious articles signed to ensure everyone has a right to claim refuge and to a home.

Alison Phipps is UNESCO Professor for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow @alison_phipps.

At the Solas Festival in Perth from June 23-25, she will give a talk and is curating discussions exploring the role language and arts play in societal integration, and the creative processes at work in intercultural encounters. The Sunday Herald is the Solas Festival’s media partner


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