Back from holiday, back to earth.

On the train from Basel I met 10 young Syrians (boys and men aged 16-50) – some “fresh” from the war, all who had survived a death defying boat trip and the long walk across Europe. All they seemed to own between them was a couple of smart phones and a broken carrier bag of a few things, because they had to throw out all their stuff when their boat was sinking. They looked so sad and tired, but very happy to chat. We conversed via one good English speaker among them and after refusing about 5 offers of food and drink they eventually took us up on the offer of coffee. Having not slept for at least 3 days and with another probably long night ahead of them, they needed it. We had a few more laughs and I even got to touch a scar from a bullet wound (personal first). I told them they are heroes and he said no, we are not, we are cowards, we left our country, we should have stayed there to die. Hard to know how to reply to that one. When they left the train they were all very grateful and thanked us for the coffee and company.

A few hours later, just before midnight we reached Berlin Central station where a group of about 20 people on the platform – men, women, teenagers, young children and a babe in arms – caught my eye. Not the usual Saturday night partygoers, that’s for sure, but no luggage either. They were trying to get help from the security people but obviously the message/answer wasn’t getting through. I offered to translate (EN/DE before anyone thinks I have learned Afghan!!) and they said they had just arrived from Afghanistan and wanted to go to the camp. I helped with the answer and directions, welcoming them to Berlin and again got lots of thanks. I can’t stop thinking about the mother with her baby – happily smiling and grateful, just for a few words.

Both times I wasn’t sure about stepping in to help (interfere!), but in both instances I am glad I did. I think people who have been through what they have just experienced need to know they are seen. They need to know they are still human! And quite possibly (almost definitely) need assistance or help whether in the form of a smile, kind word, coffee or translation. I guess at least here in Berlin and other parts of Germany helping refugees will now be part of everyday life for us. So we best all reread the Good Samaritan for inspiration and put our best feet forward 🙂

For Berliners who do have time to help in a more formal/regular way you can register on https://volunteer-planner.org/helpdesk/

What???? A refugee?!?

Alyssa from Nigeria – Part Three

Text messages reacting to our news about refugee hosting

Text messages reacting to our news about refugee hosting

After receiving the call at the end of May 2015 from Flüchtlinge Wilkommen (refugees welcome) asking whether we were still in the market for refugee-hosting, I needed a day to think about it. It felt best to be completely sure that my husband and I both agreed our somewhat spontaneous decision made a few months earlier, was still valid. For a fleeting moment, I did consider not actually telling him, so that he would come home from work one day and get a bit of a surprise. But I kept my weird sense of humour in check just this once – most definitely the more advisable option!

WA serious cropJust two days after the call I met Alyssa for the first time. She came to view our flat with a lovely social worker from SOLWODI, a charity supporting trafficked women and we spent an hour or so together. Alyssa seemed very quiet and shy whilst I babbled on nervously. All the time I was trying to think of what sort of questions I should be asking, or appropriate house rules to introduce. Instead, I randomly showed them the newly built-in wardrobe we’d just had fitted. Alyssa’s enthusiasm for the wardrobe was unremarkable, however she didn’t seem to be put off and it was quickly agreed that she would move in the next day.

Carrying all her belongings in a large plastic shopping bag I showed her to her room – she seemed very happy to see the small bunch of flowers I had put there. She then slept whilst I tried to carry on as normal with my tasks in the living room, but it is quite distracting knowing there is someone quite unknown in the guest room! After a few hours she woke up and I offered a trip to the supermarket to buy essentials like a toothbrush, as she possessed no toiletries at all. We then walked up to the top of the Kreuzberg and took our first selfie together. I tried to hold from back asking too many questions but I am a very nosy person so I soon discovered a bit about our guest. Before long she was no longer the shy awkward person I had first met and I stopped being nervous. Among other things, she told me she left school at 11 because there was no money to pay for secondary education and that she had never worked. Even with an education she believes it is a corrupt system and impossible to find work unless you are the right side of the system. I believe she wanted something better for herself and this meant specifically to experience life in Europe which means, according to the recent note from UNHCR, Alyssa is possibly officially a migrant, not a refugee. But this reminded me of my own status, I am a migrant too. Albeit often known as an “expat” due to my privileged background. But how can we have the same status on paper when everything else is so completely different? And why did she have to nearly kill herself several times to visit Europe and I can just hop on a plane to visit Africa? And I could even kill a lion whilst I am at it. Maybe in the interests of fairness I should abstain from visiting places where citizens have less rights than me to travel to other countries, otherwise it is totally unfair. However in the case of British passport holders we can travel visa free to pretty much ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD – this blog outlines passport power of most countries and is another example of privilege that I didn’t even realise I had.

But we don’t need to travel to exotic places anymore – which is great news for our carbon footprint – as we can experience the world in our own living room and we fully intend to! Everyday I learned something new and there will be more to follow about some of the many very cool things we experienced as hosts. Thanks to Alyssa’s positive attitude and great insight into people, we were able to talk openly and in fact we quickly became friends. I actually really miss her. But as I say, more about that in Part Four (coming soon!).

View of sunset from Alyssa's room

View of sunset from Alyssa’s room

The decision to host

Princess Alyssa of Nigeria – Part Two

A good place to begin is always the beginning, but when was this? How did we become the sort of people who let a complete stranger live with us in our small flat?

Nannie Oma and sister in River Oder, KĂźstrin 1930

Nannie Oma and sister in River Oder, KĂźstrin 1930

Was history turning the cogs of fate already in 1945, when my grandmother was displaced along with 11 million Germans living to the east of the Oder-Nieße Line? Did hearing stories of my Nannie Oma‘s escape from the advancing Red Army make me sympathetic to the plight of modern day refugees? Maybe this is also what motivated Conservative MP Martin Patzelt to host refugees, as he was born and lives just 30km from where my Grandmother grew up.

Or should we fast forward almost exactly 70 years to our arrival in Vienna in May, for the Eurovision Song Contest. (My apologies, I had to get that in somewhere, I swear more Eurovision is what this world needs. Aherm, Globovision?). Upon our early arrival via the overnight sleeper from Berlin – yes we hug trees as well as refugees – we checked into the swanky Hilton Hotel. Even treehuggers need luxury sometimes, and in our room big enough for 15 people to practice their dance routine, we turned on the local news and saw a report about the tents being erected in Austria to “house” the refugees.  Something just didn‘t seem right.

However I seem to remember that the actual decision to allow a complete stranger from another continent to stay in our guest room was made several months before, in around March 2015. Looking back at the news from that time, I see there were several headlines about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, as well as reports of the refugees arriving onLampedusa.

Above all I was motivated into action by two photos. One from Syria where thousands of Syrians queue in front of a backdrop that could have been superimposed from any one of a number of tacky post-apocalyptic movies.

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Photo: AFP/Getty Images

And another photo of a 4 year old boy, somehow temporarily separated from his family on the long walk across the desert. There was a fair bit of hu-ha surrounding this when it turned out he was only „temporarily“ separated but I feel that was a handy distraction from the fact that HE IS A FOUR YEAR OLD WALKING ACROSS A DESERT

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Photo:Andrew Harper UNHCR Twitter @And_Harper

Despite being regular donors to UNHCR and having given several suitcases of clothes to the local refugee homes it just didn’t feel like enough. So when I stumbled across the Flüchtlinge Wilkommen (refugees welcome) concept it seemed like exactly the right thing to do. So we signed up and it was whilst still suffering from severe post-Eurovision blues that we got the call asking if Alyssa could come to stay.  And this is where the real story of our time with Princess Alyssa of Nigeria begins. Part 3 to follow shortly!

*Name changed

Twitter: @beriyani

The latest en vogue, or should I say „in Mode“

Princess Alyssa of Nigeria – Part One

I read yesterday that an MP made the news because he has two African refugees living in the penthouse flat of his villa. Dear Martin Patzelt, someone should inform you that taking in refugees is so three months ago (Dahling!). We already did it, at the end of May. We didn’t have a spare flat to give away though, instead our refugees stayed together with us in a 69 sq. m. two-bed apartment.

Prenatal scan of our tiny refugee

One really tiny refugee

OK, OK admittedly we hosted only one pregnant refugee – therefore one of our refugees was very much smaller than one of Martin‘s. But thankfully, or maybe unfortunately, this isn’t a competition about refugee hosting, although if it were, we might have a chance of sorting out this problem. So just to be clear, despite my teasing, I think Martin Patzelt is a hero, what a fantastic thing to do. I decided to find out a bit more about him and to my surprise discovered he is a Conservative MP in the German CDU party. Maybe I am being mean, but can anyone imagine a Conservative MP in the UK hosting refugees in their own home? I can see the Daily Mail headline now! But Martin Patzelt is not alone in wanting to help refugees. Hundreds of other people in Germany are taking refugees into their homes**. Meanwhile, sadly, the top immigration headline in the UK yesterday was about the proposed new measures requiring landlords to evict „illegal“ immigrants currently being piloted in Birmingham.

BBC news headline

Immigrants Bill: Landlords “must evict” illegal immigrants

One of the many reasons I love Germany is that pretty much the entire system appears to be to the „left“ of the UK, apart from the direction of traffic and the neo-Nazis of course. But then we live with the „helpful“ reminder of how damaging crazy right wing fascists can be if they get into power. The people I know in Germany benefit from a system and culture that to British ears sometimes sounds like full-on socialism. I have noticed hundreds of small subtle differences that add-up to making life in Germany and certainly in Berlin, a whole lot easier for most people. Not all of course. And certainly not forever, as times-are-a-changing. But all these good socialist-type benefits occur under a Conservative Prime Minister, admittedly one who presides over the current Conservative/Labour coalition government. Maybe if Cameron actually adhered to the values he espoused previously, the UK too would be a much fairer, healthier, less fearful and stressed nation. But this is a story about how we came to provide a temporary home to Alyssa. This story is about Alyssa who had to leave school at 11 because there was no money to pay for her education, not David, who attended Eton and Oxford. All the same, I know who I would rather share my flat with!

*Name changed

**Be great to know if this UK project has been successful, or if any others of its kind exist in the UK. Please comment below!