‘You can’t eat toilet paper’: Life in lockdown with refugees at home

Writer Peter Hanington opened his home to refugees. He describes a twist that none of them saw coming – life together under lockdown

You can tell a lot about a person from what they choose to stockpile during a pandemic.

Back in March, with a lockdown on the horizon and things looking sticky, me and my wife were fortunate enough to be hosting two Syrian refugees – Ayman and Ibrahim  who were living in the rooms left spare when our children moved out.

I say fortunate – it obviously hasn’t always felt that way, not for us, nor for them, but we’ll get to the tricky stuff later. For now just be assured that if all about you are losing their heads as Rudyard likes to say  its dead handy having a Syrian or two in the house.

If you’ve watched your country explode and then travelled from Damascus to London in the worst way imaginable, surviving the Calais camps for months on end along the way, then a short queue outside Marks & Spencer is unlikely to faze you. 

A determination to both better themselves and to give back to the country that has given them asylum is typical of the refugees we’ve met

After an impromptu house meeting we decided that without wanting to add to the general panic, it made sense to buy some extra supplies of the bare essentials in case of… well , just in case. So we set forth. 

While my wife and I were tearing around north London increasingly fixated on toilet roll, the Syrian lads had different priorities. A few hours later, back at home, we spread our stockpiled bounty out on the kitchen floor: six rolls of assorted, poorquality loo paper, some tea bags and a box of paracetamol provided by us and a large supermarket pallet full of chickpeas from the boys. We stared in disbelief at each other’s purchases.

Ayman spoke first: 

“You collected toilet paper?” 

“Yeah. We could only get six but I can try again tomorrow.” 

“Why?” 

I was momentarily stumped. 

“Well, everyone else was doing it and…” 

“You can’t eat toilet paper.” 

“No….” this was both unquestionably true and also a bit annoying. 

“…but you can’t wipe your backside with a jar of chickpeas either…” 

He shrugged. 

“You can cook these in many different ways. Also there’s hummus.”

And there was hummus. Lots of hummus. And it was good.

First time he made it I remember being slightly put out that it had taken a global pandemic for Ayman to share his family’s famous homemade hummus recipe with us. He’d been with us nearly a year already.

What’s more, we’d hosted other Syrians before him – maybe not all of them knew how to make a good hummus? Not every Brit can make a good curry, I guess. 

We’ve been hosting refugees for four years now. We decided to do it because it was something we could do. We live in a big house in a part of London with a park and woodlands, pubs and a decent high street. In short, we’re very lucky, and once it became clear that both our children were heading to Glasgow for study and work it seemed like time to share some of that good luck with people who had enjoyed very little. 

My wife took the lead, contacting Refugees at Home  a charity that essentially provides a matchmaking service, connecting refugees who urgently need temporary accommodation with families or individuals who are willing to host them.

The minimum requirement is that you can offer a room in your house and one shelf in the fridge where your guest can store their food. In practice of course you end up sharing much more than that. 

It is a leap of faith and daunting right from the initial visit. For this, a representative from the charity comes to talk you through the process and to check out the room where the person will be sleeping and more importantly the household who are offering to host.

It’s a rigorous and professional fact-finding operation (jokes about the Spanish Inquisition are tolerated if not encouraged) but once the Refugees at Home rep explains just how vulnerable some of the people they’re working with are it becomes clear why they need to take the care they do. 

After we’d been okayed to host, things happened quickly. Demand for spare rooms exceeds supply, especially in London, and we were introduced to our first potential house mate just a couple of weeks later.

Post lockdown, our Spotify Family Mix is now an interesting mash-up of Kate Bush, Sabah Fakhri, Burna Boy, Saif Nabeel and Bob Dylan

Our first guest was a young Syrian called Mohammed, who stayed with us for a year. Our second, a Ugandan called Robert who’d fallen foul of the authorities in his own country and been forced to flee, losing contact with his wife and children in the process. He stayed for a similar period.  

Refugees at Home mainly focus on shortterm solutions to an urgent housing need but sometimes  if the guest and the host get along and both sides are happy  then longer stays are possible. All our refugee guests have stayed for longer than was originally planned but none have outstayed their welcome.  

That’s not to say that it’s always easy. Getting used to living with a stranger, each party adjusting to the other’s quirks and habits, is not straightforward.  

You get on each other’s nerves now and again – there are awkward silences and occasional standoffs, but in our experience, as long as you can keep channels of communication open and everyone treats each other with respect then these problems can be overcome. At other times, direct action is the only solution – for example insisting someone (no names, no blame) puts their fan heater up in the loft as opposed to running it all night, all year round. 

One of our guys was somehow managing to hold down two jobs  working day shifts into night shifts, six days a week to save money to rent a flat. When someone is working that hard it can feel a little churlish to complain when they leave their dishes piled up in the sink, but we realised early on that its better to articulate any issues and annoyances than to let them fester.  

By the way, that sort of Stakhanovite work ethic was not the exception but more the rule among the refugees we’ve hosted. A determination to both better themselves and to give back to the country that has given them asylum is typical of the refugees we’ve met, whether they’re from Syria, Uganda, Afghanistan, Eritrea or elsewhere. 

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Lockdown provided a whole new set of challenges. Ayman’s work as a cameraman and film editor (a budding career that he’d built for himself in just a couple of years) dried up, as corporate events and weddings were cancelled.

At the same time, the local Shelter charity shop where Ibrahim had been volunteering also shut its doors – the work had been a good, purposeful distraction while he waited for his asylum claim to progress and he missed it. He was no longer able to see his friends in person so his socialising moved online, with marathon multiplayer gaming sessions. We had to crowbar him from his room some mornings and insist that he got some fresh air. A friend’s daughter, the brilliant Rosa, offered to give him daily online English lessons and this made a huge difference. 

Our 20-year old daughter came back from Glasgow to lock down with us and helped lift spirits. We cooked for each other (Ayman would whip up the aforementioned hummus while Ibrahim turned out to be an all-rounder and now has ambitions to be a chef) and we ate together more often than previously, played card games, did 1,000-piece jigsaws and hosted an online quiz. 

We introduced each other to new writers and to new music (post lockdown our Spotify Family Mix is now an interesting mash-up of Kate Bush, Sabah Fakhri, Burna Boy, Saif Nabeel and Bob Dylan). Both lads opened up more than they had previously about the ordeals they had gone through in order to reach the United Kingdom. I’d talked to Ayman and to other young men we had hosted and met through Refugees at Home about their journeys across Africa and Europe as part of the research for my book, A Single Source, but in lockdown I heard more and came to realise that, if anything, I had underplayed the horror. 

We took turns shopping and divvied up the chores, both young men were desperate to get back to work as soon as it was possible and before long Ayman found a job delivering groceries. He gave his mobile to any older, more vulnerable customers who wanted it and ended up buying and delivering for these people at short notice and all hours of the day and night. He moved to east London where he could be closer to his friend, Hassan, who had also switched jobs and worked as a hospital cleaner on a Covid ward throughout the height of the pandemic. 

Refugees at Home has hit the headlines in recent weeks, thanks to Gary Lineker’s decision to host. This is a welcome development for the charity, which as a result has seen a jump in the number of people offering to sign up. Its also good news for the refugee in question and I hope and predict for the Lineker family.

However, its caused a little disquiet in our happy household. Questions have been asked by the football-obsessed Ibrahim about Gary and his house: Where is it? What’s the set-up? Does he pay for the full Sky and BT Sports package all year round?

I’ve answered these questions as patiently and honestly as possible, apart from the question about when Gary turns the thermostat on. Does he always wait until December before heating his house? If you’re reading this, Gary, and Ibrahim asks, then the answer is yes. 

Read the full story in this week’s copy of The Big Issue. Peter Hanington is a BBC journalist and the author of A Single Source (Two Roads, £8.99) He tweets at @HaningtonPhan