Journeying with refugees
To mark Refugee Week (June 14-20) we hear from the Revd Martin Reynolds, a retired vicar in Newport and a former Care Forum Wales award winner, who has welcomed a refugee family of six to share his home.
This morning sees all the Habibi family at the dentist. Just one small filling for Rahim, 17, who seems to live on sweets and crisps. Both older boys are going on a driving course my husband found at the sports village. They’re excited.
We failed to find a functioning residential summer school for them yesterday. They aren’t so enthusiastic, looking at online versions later, Rahim already has a C at English GCSE after a year’s study. Amir, nearly 16, struggles more, as he had next to no schooling in Afghanistan.
Sashi, three, and her father Dinesh arrive at 10am. The little Habibis - Asenat also three, and Jack, 18 months, rush to meet her, screaming a half-term welcome. Sashi and her doctor mum are from Pondicherry in India. We met at the school gate in March, the first contact they had had outside work since they came in September. They too are now sharing our home.
The Habibis live in the part of the house we converted for my mother’s use 20 years ago. They have overflowed into our side since lockdown, with the older boys needing quiet for Zoom school lessons. We are converting the garage into four bedsits for the future. The architect is due tomorrow for final discussion.
We also have two men with complex needs living here. Andrew, 33, has been with us part-time since he was four, full-time since he joined our family at 14. He has struggled with the complete loss of normal life since lockdown. For an individual who finds a minor variation in his life difficult, it’s torment.
This same isolation is felt all the time by most refugees - they live in a lockdown that for many lasts several years. No permission to work, no real home and often no family.
Habibi Dad, Karim has just put up Andrew’s yellow tent in the garden, Andrew is calmer as a result. Nooria, Karim’s wife, passes her day as she always has, in prayer, child care, cleaning and cooking. When we dance for her children she laughs a lot.
For more than 10 years I gave my time to help French-speaking refugees here in Newport. It started by accident, sitting in a street cafe and being approached for money by a francophone West African. When I met Karim in a charity shop eight years ago he was in a very dark place. He had left his family to escape persecution and certain death in Iran where they then lived. He felt they’d never be reunited, he was suicidal. His family had also escaped to the relative safety of Nooria’s relatives in Kabul and they too were struggling. We have shared in his journey over the past eight years.
Karim first came to help with my mother’s care, and he was also amazing with Andrew. He moved in with us and when Mum died five years ago, he became a Carer for Adults with Complex Needs and was just outstanding, winning a nomination as ‘Wales Carer of the Year’ for his loving care for an individual with drug and alcohol issues he lived alongside for a year.
Then two Christmases ago - after a constant battle costing tens of thousands of pounds - his family arrived. Two of our bishops and others helped in the grim process that makes family reunions a true nightmare. Refugees face such mountainous, and often callous, challenges.
Our family meals last year saw 13 sitting down when lockdown hit. Most recently we’re often more - Christian, Moslem, Hindu, gay, straight, black, white, refugees, asylum seekers and Welsh speakers - elders and infants. Aromas of curry and roast beef mingle. It would seem like a lesson in diversity, 17-year-old Rahim tells us laughing.
When my doctor asked last week why we live like this, it seemed like a strange question.
When refugees arrive in our country, in our town, we Christians have a duty to reach out and welcome them as brothers and sisters. Not a choice, but an obligation. What concerns me is that the British mentality is profoundly more comfortable with re-homing a dog than it is with a child with special needs or a refugee.
Unrepeatable stories of casual violence, murder and mayhem still sometimes haunt my dreams. These people gathered around my table saw it, felt it, smelt it - we can only offer love and pray for healing.
Recently I read a conservative Christian theologian arguing vociferously that when Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped the murderous intentions of Herod their King and fled to Egypt, they were NOT refugees. To me it seemed an expression of a desperate need not to identify Jesus with people escaping persecution. A betrayal of the Holy Innocents and a scandal to our faith.
Today has already been a joy. The babies have given my husband a light in his eyes I could not conjure - we hope that by extending our house and making it more adaptable, even more will come and that joy will increase.
Martin’s experiences with refugees inspired him to write the following poem: