“Doing a bit of dancing”

Princess Alyssa of Nigeria – Part Four

A few months ago I had a crazy few days. In fact I had my 15 minutes of fame – at least in the Middle East! It all started with an interview with CNN about my experience hosting Alyssa (when I mentioned we’d “do a bit of dancing!”) and being a member of Syrian cycling club. And then Huffington Post quoted me in their article “airbandb for refugees”. But most nerve-wracking and exciting of all, I was whisked to a studio at the Brandenburg Gate for a live interview with Alhurra TV (bigger than Al Jazeera, according to my dad!)

But this isn’t all about me!? Getting back to the real star, Princess Alyssa, why was it such a great experience?

Action for Happiness campaign's first 5 keys to happiness spelling GREAT

Action for Happiness campaign’s first 5 keys to happiness spelling GREAT

I mentioned in Part 3: What? a refugee!, that I learned new things every day. But what exactly can be learned from a homeless, pregnant Nigerian who left school at 11 with little more than just 55 cents and the clothes on her back to her name? Well many things actually, of course. The biggest was her extraordinary capacity to be happy and content which reminds me of the “Action for Happiness” campaign. A group of psychologists created the “GREAT DREAM” framework to communicate what we can do to increase our levels of happiness. Looking at the elements of “G.R.E.A.T.” it is clear to see how Alyssa managed it.

Alyssa gave all her money to a homeless man on the train

Alyssa gave all her money to a homeless man on the train

The G is for giving. One example sticks out above the rest. We were on the underground when a homeless man started his speech. Alyssa asked me to translate what he was saying, so I did. As the man walked through the carriage of people she reached into her pocket and out came 55 cents. Of course this was all the money she possessed. I am not a religious person but went to Church of England schools and lately some of the long-forgotten biblical stories from all those years ago have been popping into my head. I mentioned the Good Samaritan in my blog about meeting of Syrian refugees on the train home from Italy in September. This time I am reminded not only of The poor widow’s offering, where a woman was ridiculed for giving so little, but also something about the “trappings of earthly possessions”. After years of falling asleep in school assemblies I finally experienced in reality, the meaning behind some of these parables. Through Alyssa I got a real glimpse of pure unadulterated life as it can be lived –  completely free of all the materialistic stuff that gets in the way. Not only that, but by giving away her last 55 cents it shows how much faith she has in humanity, she must believe that someone will in turn help her out. How lovely to have so much faith in fellow humans.

To witness things like this first hand is worth more than a lifetime of Sunday school. My recommendation to anyone wanting to help their kids (or indeed themselves) to truly understand what that bearded man in sandals was on about could do no better than host a refugee!  Or you can always invite someone for Christmas, as Berlin’s Catholic Bishop has recommended.

Alyssa cooking

When we finally found a meal we all liked (ie no gizzard or cow stomach) Alyssa cooked some amazing food

If you aren’t sure how to find a guest I recommend you either sign up with “start-with-a-friend” or simply do a shift on volunteer-planner.org in one of the many camps across Germany (at least 100 in Berlin alone). I personally guarantee you will meet at least one person or family you fall in love with enough to share with them the magic of Christmas.  Reminding me of a saying that goes something like “when you have more than you need, then it is time to extend your kitchen table…..” 

Giving (G) and relating (R) are intertwined and I see many of the new friends I made this year are very good at both. When you lose everything you know, including family and support networks, you have to learn to rely on and trust complete strangers, whilst at the same time be relied upon by others. The ease in which Alyssa fitted into our home and our lives so quickly can only be attributed to her ability to build relationships.

The E is for Exercise and although we never quite managed to get it together to go jogging in the mornings, we did do an awful lot of walking around Berlin trying to find the all-essential yet elusive ingredient of Nigerian cooking: “semo” flour. Whilst carrying very large, very heavy, yams. I am sure that counts as a work-out but if not, then there were many evenings when we’d indeed “do a bit of dancing”. I attempted to African dance on more than one occasion, much to Mark’s amusement. (Yes, there are videos and no, I will definitely NOT be posting them online!) But if belly-laughing counts as exercise then we certainly ticked this box, well and truly.

A is for Appreciating, everyday Alyssa seemed to find something new to enthuse about, usually a friend or friendly interaction with a new acquaintance.

Alyssa told me about her journey from Turkey by blow-up dingy

Alyssa told me about her journey from Turkey by blow-up dingy

Trying new things (T) – When you travel to a different continent on your own you can’t help but have new experiences every day – especially if you come via the unofficial route. It was on a trip to Wannsee Beach when Alyssa told me how she actually got to Europe. Pointing at a small kiddies blow-up dingy she told me she had travelled during the middle of the night from Turkey to Greece in something very similar, but with 20 people in it.  I found this super scary especially because when we paddled into the shallow Wannsee water she admitted she couldn’t swim and was too scared to go in any further. She was one of the lucky ones whose boat didn’t capsize on the treacherous route to Europe. In 2014 3,500 people died or went missing at sea.

We never did find any gizzards....

We never did find any gizzards….

As well as Alyssa, we too were also trying new things every day – you only had to look at our shopping list (In the Bioladen: “wie sagt man ‘Gizzard’, auf Deutsch?”), or see our You Tube history full of “Nollywood” movies and Nigerian sitcoms. Not to mention learning “Nigerian” – I even had to translate a few times at the emergency hospital visit (another story – very stressful!). However we never quite managed enough Nigerian to be able to understand everything on our Skype calls back to the entire family in Nigeria. But that was certainly an experience we hadn’t had before.

A fish in the kitchen sink - one example of many surprises we came home to.

A fish in the kitchen sink – one example of many surprises we came home to.

I love my life and my home very much, but maybe we had settled down a bit into the daily routines and tiredness from work, the never-ending list of admin stuff to do…  and then Alyssa came into our lives. Granted we had our moments but they were quickly resolved and put behind us. And whilst Alyssa was with us the idea for another venture was born. Alyssa wanted to learn to ride a bike. Unfortunately she was swept away by the authorities to another area of Germany before she had the chance to really learn. But when she returns to Berlin, together with Baby Desmond (he is gorgeous), then she will of course be an honorary member of Cycling Lessons for Ladies in Berlin.

Alyssa tries out cycling for the first time and the idea for #BIKEYGEES is born

Alyssa tries out cycling for the first time and the idea for Cycling Lessons for Ladies in Berlin is born

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, Küstrin 1930

Nannie Oma and sister in River Oder, Küstrin 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