Creative Non-fiction by Miki Lentin
Stranger, ‘a person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar’.
There’s a stranger living in my house.
Rashid Omar-Sharifi, a twenty-eight-year-old Iranian refugee arrived at my front door in north London one year ago. He left his black full-length puffer coat on, even when he ate, gripping it tightly, the zip broken. The tattered holdall he came with remained unpacked for the first few days of his stay, sitting against the wall in his room. One of our house rules is that guests should remove their shoes and leave them on the mat after entering to protect the recently varnished oak floor. He smiles when I ask him to do this. I think he understands, but he doesn’t, always insisting on wearing his beige chunky work boots that scatter rectangles of dried mud across the house. He’d formally shake my hand every time he saw me. It took him some weeks to stop calling me mister; it took me a few days to be able to properly look him in the eye.
Rashid and I received a standing ovation from my Jewish community following a presentation I gave at a meeting about the refugee crisis and the issues facing refugees in Britain. Standing at the front of the school hall, members of the congregation offered their hands in congratulation, and patted my back before moving to a table laden with bagels, crisps and apple cake which were being devoured by the children. The Rabbi kissed me on both cheeks and then bombarded me with questions. How did he get to the UK? What was his journey like? Was he on one of those boats you see in the news? What about the rest of his family? Why did he come? The heat from the strong lights and the surrounding crowd, eager to listen to my answers, made me feel lightheaded. We left the event early, making an excuse that one of my daughters was feeling unwell.
This is everything I know about Rashid. He’s comes from Tehran, the capital of Iran. He has one brother, Farhad who is twenty-one, a fifteen-year-old sister, mother and father, whose names I can’t remember. It’s unclear to me if Rashid and Farhad left Iran together, but Rashid travelled 2,500 kilometres by truck from Tehran across the Iranian – Turkish border to Izmir in Turkey on the Aegean Sea. From there, he took an overnight boat to Thessaloniki in Greece. Yes, it was one of those small fishing boats and he told me he was very scared. Once in Greece he stayed in an asylum seekers’ camp. After a few weeks, the smugglers sold him a stolen Bulgarian passport. He managed to get through Greek passport control, and travelled by plane from Athens to Barcelona, and then onwards to London Gatwick, where he claimed asylum. He was taken by coach to an asylum hostel in Liverpool where he was reunited with a British volunteer he met in Greece, who then helped him apply for refugee status.
Rashid’s father works in construction, his mother doesn’t work, and his sister goes to school. There are daily power cuts in Tehran, especially in the heat of summer. Farhad is still stuck in Greece and every time he tries to leave on a fake passport, he is arrested and imprisoned for a month. I found Rashid through Refugees at Home, a charity that finds short-term accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers. My family and I wanted to do something, and despite that niggling British feeling that we were showing off by hosting a refugee, he ended up in our modern house in Muswell Hill, the perfect liberal middle-class accessory.
Rashid used to drive a motorcycle in Tehran and would like to become a Deliveroo driver in London. He only ever wanted to come to “UK”, as he calls it. He thinks UK is a free country. He tells me that gay people are hanged in Iran, and if you are caught drinking alcohol, you are imprisoned for six months and given eighty lashes. He hates the Ayatollah and does not want to go home.
Refuge, ‘a place or situation providing safety or shelter’.
Rashid has been living in my daughter’s yellow-carpeted room. She agreed to vacate her den and bunk-up with her sister. He sleeps on the small white single bed from Ikea which has a thin mattress and a blue and white striped covered duvet and pillow. Over the past year he has meticulously peeled hundreds of My Little Pony stickers off the bedroom walls. Ultraviolet stars and planets that are glued to the ceiling and shine in the dark, remain. The blackout blind that covers the full-length window with a sunny seaside scene of sandcastles, beach balls, seagulls, boats and starfish stayed fully closed. I didn’t get around to fixing the pulley cord, as if I was hiding him. Every morning just before nine, he leaves to go to work in the pub around the corner. The manager of the pub was reluctant to take him on at first, “More trouble than it’s worth, he doesn’t speak a word of English”. I convinced him that Rashid was a hard worker, knowing that he needed to earn his own money and improve his English. He spends twelve hours a day washing dishes, scrubbing pots and making side orders of chips, salad and vegetables.
Sometimes, I write stories about Rashid when he’s out at work or downstairs in his room, knowing full well that I’m exploiting his situation for my creative gain. Maybe I should stop when he’s at home, but I continue, as if I want him to be in my study next to me. He comes home at eleven at night, six days a week, dark rings under his eyes, quietly opening the gate and front door so as not to disturb my family and I, and returns to his single bed.
Previous lodgers have come and gone. The flirtatious alcoholic depressive who got into trouble with the police, the quiet Korean traveller studying English, and the Malaysian child-psychology student, who disliked children and spoke to me seriously about how much television my own watch. Having another man in the house changes things. The smell of a man is in stark contrast to my wife and daughters. I find myself tidying away his sweaty trainers and crusty socks that he leaves strewn around, regularly cleaning the downstairs toilet and washing dishes left sticky in the kitchen sink overnight, gathering fruit flies. Another mouth to feed, another person to manage and clean up after, an addition to the utility bills, extra responsibility.
Rashid’s few belongings take up little space in his room. There’s a friendship scarf from a Europa League football match we went to last year hanging on the wall, half red for Arsenal, half blue for the forgettable Romanian side they were playing. The cavernous stadium wasn’t full. Chants and songs echoed in the wind from one side to the other. The mid-week cheap ticket fans who made the effort to attend, huddled close together in heavy coats, scarves and gloves holding cups of tea, as a light snow blizzard drifted under the blazing floodlights. The match was boring, ending 6-0 to Arsenal. Other fans left early, after sixty or seventy minutes to beat the traffic. Despite my repeated suggestions to do the same, go and grab a pizza and get out of the cold, he was clear that he wanted to stay until the final whistle.
In Rashid’s room, a red folder sits on a small white desk that I built for my daughter. Photocopied pages of A4 paper poke out, and I sometimes hear him reading phrases in English, “Please, can I have some sugar?”, “Can you tell me the time, please?”, “What is your name?” Orange was the first word I taught him, as we peeled oranges after dinner one evening, mouthing the word slowly together so he would get the pronunciation. Fruit and vegetables were helpful for colours, coins for numbers and the plants in the garden for nature. Every evening a few new objects would appear on the dinner table and we’d play a memory game. The first few weeks were promising. I took my time to write things down and helped him practise slowly and patiently.
Rashid progressed quickly to different types of food, crockery and cutlery, time, colours and clothes. Simple questions and answers were soon a daily occurrence. Did he sleep well? Was he warm enough? What time was it? Was he attending his English lessons at the local college? Work got busy and the reading for my Masters piled up. I often came home late and when we did talk about his English course, he said he didn’t like his teacher. His course is free, I tell myself, and I know it’s hard learning a new language but I’m frustrated that after so many lessons we can’t have a conversation. If he can’t even do that, how will he be able to fend for himself? After a year of lessons his use of grammar is non-existent, and he finds it hard to remember words. Following an instruction is not a problem, but his response is to smile, rather than speak, an air of defeat in his eyes.
There is a white bookcase in Rashid’s room with three shelves that I assembled on a rainy night before he arrived. As with all flat-pack furniture, there are always one or two small pieces missing, so I substituted with left over screws and bolts from my overflowing toolbox. None of the shelves quite fit, as if they’ve been squeezed tightly into a space they don’t belong. He doesn’t have any books, apart from his red English lessons folder.
Also on the bookcase is an orange tub of Fudge, a soft emollient hair cream that feels like sticky wet dough. The barber around the corner I introduced Rashid to, got to know him well. They talked about their lives in Iran as he was shaved, snipped, and oiled. He’d return from the barbers smiling, happy that his hair looked the part. Shaved tight with a one blade on both sides and a small tuft on top, a bit curly, slightly feminine. Over the year, he lost weight and stood tall as a man of twenty-eight should. His skin is a shade of pale apricot and he has light stubble that he shaves every day with an old Remington Steele electric razor, donated at a charity collection.
Good with his hands, I’m pleased that he helps with small DIY jobs around the house and enjoys helping in the garden. He tells me that his mother also has a garden with cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and jasmine, like ours. Skilfully he cuts the fruits at just the right point on the stem, weeds meticulously, waters the soil and brushes away the white jasmine flowers that have fallen on the ground. I observe him working quietly, like a spectator, questioning if I should allow him to do this manual labour. That’s not what he’s here for. I let him continue as he rubs a few of the jasmine petals in his hands and breathes in their sweet summer smell while singing to himself in Farsi.
When not working, he joins us at dinner. I think he’s happy to try the variety of food I serve. Japanese, Italian or Indian. I use Google Translate to explain what it is that we are eating. Once, he nearly choked on a roll of salmon and avocado sushi. As I banged him hard on the back, he coughed up the sushi in one long piece, the seaweed not chewed. He didn’t flinch but cried a little. Long thick spaghetti Bolognese is his favourite. Pasta covered with rich tomato sauce and small round chunks of meat that he sprinkles with mounds of Parmesan cheese and chilli and scoops up effortlessly with a fork and spoon. When he finishes, I watch aghast as he joins my kids in licking his plate, something I deplore. I stop myself from admonishing him like a child.
On top of the bookcase in Rashid’s room is a cheap silver picture frame. It holds a printout of a selfie of him and a friend at a show at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting close together like a loving couple out on date night. That was six months ago. They don’t see each other much anymore. Apart from me and the pub security guard Mohammed, Rashid doesn’t have any friends.
The charity information leaflet suggests that as a host you introduce your guest to your family and friends. Every couple of weeks a group of my friends meet for drinks in the local pub over craft beers and stone baked pizza, middle-aged men out-doing each other with tales of their kids and struggles with home life and work. I have often thought of inviting Rashid and introducing him but decided against it. After handshakes, embarrassing name pronunciations that would get laughs and a few cheers, the conversation amongst my friends would settle down. I’d be left sitting quietly next to him at the end of the table, sipping our drinks and peeling slices of pizza off wooden boards. Every so often, I’d try and hear if my friends were talking about me, aware that they toned down their voices when I returned from the toilet.
Hanging in Rashid’s cupboard are his few clothes. There’s a white t-shirt with a faded picture of Ziggy Stardust. When he wears it out, people I introduce him to asked him if he likes David Bowie. How cool, they must have thought, that a refugee would like David Bowie, the great artist that sang about space men, aliens and heroes in skintight plastic costumes and flashy makeup. His response is always the same. “Five pounds, Liverpool, asylum hostel”. That usually shuts them up. His ironed Arsenal jersey and Puma hoodie, which I bought for him in JD Sports, also hangs neatly in his wardrobe. He loves washing his clothes, finally getting to grips with using the washing machine. Realising I’m being overly critical, it irritates me that he loads it with so few items each time and doesn’t let his clothes hang flat on the drying rack. They end up crumpled and crusty like sodden newspaper that has been left to dry.
Host, ‘a person who receives or entertains other people as guests.’
The advice recommended doing things together. We once went swimming in the local public pool. The tight changing cubicle smelt of chlorine and feet and we changed awkwardly, our towels wrapped around our waists, careful not expose our naked bodies to each other. The water was baby bath warm and Rashid stood at the shallow end next to the metal steps, fiddling with my spare swimming trunks that gripped tightly onto his broad waist. I beckoned him to swim alongside me, perhaps have a race, but looked away embarrassed as he immersed himself in the water as if he was in a bath, washing his underarms.
The annual local YMCA ten-kilometre run came around and I suggested to Rashid that we train together and raise money for Refugees at Home. It would be a good way to get fit and for him to feel part of the community. The local paper could take a photo of a host and his refugee guest crossing the finish line together, arm in arm, medals draped around our necks, holding free sugary doughnuts aloft. We trained once, maybe twice, pounding around the block in old tennis shoes. I ended up going on holiday the weekend of the race anyway.
Rashid sometimes comes out with us to gatherings of hosts with our refugees. He looks well, with his new haircut, sports hoodie and Primark trainers. We gorge ourselves on food and wine on heavy plates and thin stemmed glasses, picking at moist sweet and sour chicken drumsticks, slices of crispy bruschetta with cherry tomatoes and garlic, mini quiches with roasted vegetables, halloumi and rosemary kebabs and the inevitable baklava. The hosts stand around talking about local politics, planning applications, Labour party antisemitism, and school places, laughing at the preposterousness of it all, these politicians, what do they know? He stands alongside me, one hand in a pocket of his jeans and the other, picking his teeth with a tooth pick. I try to explain Brexit.
“Come on, you must have heard of Brexit. Brexit! Don’t they teach that at ESOL classes? It’s historic. I think we’ll end up leaving the EU, and then it will be a whole lot worse for all of us. After all, we’re all immigrants”, I say. The rest of the group agrees.
He smiles, puts his plate down and goes to watch cartoons with my daughters on the wide-screen TV. They generously make space for him on the sofa. He laughs as Tom and Jerry chase each other into tiny holes and flinches, just slightly, when Scooby Doo jumps into the arms of Shaggy when scared.
Barclays bank was crowded the morning we arrived to change the address of Rashid’s bank account. It should have been a simple procedure, a quick discussion with the cashier to update his contact details from the asylum seeker hostel in Liverpool to our house. The cashier looked at his refugee card and a previous bank statement, and left us waiting for the bank manager, the two of us swiping apps on our mobiles. We were ushered into a side room and given glasses of water in soft see-through plastic cups. The bank manager calmly explained that in order to change Rashid’s address, it had to be done manually as the automatic computer system did not recognise the status of a refugee card with leave to remain in the UK. It’s a simple procedure but could take some time.
“Can you wait and help?” I was asked by the bank manager.
“Yes”, I said, “but I really need to know how long it will take, as I’m expected at work in the next hour.”
“Not long”, was the response.
Rashid sat and quietly drew a picture of a small garden with trees, flowers, birds and a sun on a yellow post-it note. The bank manager returned and asked for Rashid’s mobile phone number. He entered it on an iPad. It was declined. I explained to Rashid that it had to be the same number he had when he opened the account. Again, it was declined.
“Last chance”, the bank manager said, “if it fails this time, the account will be closed.”
The pub manager had called me to say that they needed Rashid’s updated bank account details as they couldn’t pay him in cash anymore. He had explained this to Rashid some weeks ago. I pinged another email to my PA saying that I’d now be at work after lunch and took off my scratchy scarf and heavy coat.
“Why did you change your mobile number?” I asked abruptly, but Rashid just smiled, so I knew he didn’t understand. There was no way I could engage with his sad and tentative smile. He continued to be a stranger to me. I would never really understand what he went through to get here and what he really thought of this, this petty bureaucracy that was blocking his right to do a simple, everyday task. I continued to be a stranger to him.
The bank manager asked again, “Does he understand that this is his last chance?”
“Yes,” I replied hurriedly, “yes”.
“Oh, old phone number,” Rashid eventually understood, scrolled through WhatsApp and punched a number into the iPad. Luckily it was accepted. I ran to catch a bus to work and left him standing outside Barclays, alone.
On the weekends when Rashid is at home, I invite him to watch a film with us on the projector. The big screen fascinates him. He waves his hand in front of the projector to catch his shadow or makes a shape of an animal with his fingers in the strong light. He joins us one evening towards the end of watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian, just as Brian is being crucified and singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Classic British humour, I told him, as my family and I sang along, dancing and holding our arms in the air pretending that we were being nailed to the cross, forgetting that he had converted to Christianity from Islam to help support his case for asylum.
Martial arts movies are his favourite, especially Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master. He knows each fight move by heart. Perhaps it was the only film he owned and had watched it hundreds of times. Like a Samurai warrior, he swings his arms confidently around the open plan lounge in front of the screen, shadow fighting, wielding swords and chains as Chan kills enemy after enemy. At the end of the film Rashid gets down on his knees and raises his arms into the air as if he’d won the final battle. I applaud his performance. He bows at us and goes back to his room downstairs.
Like all of us he enjoys new things, the latest fashion and gadgets. I don’t know why he needed a new iPhone though, spending £250 buying a refurbished model on eBay. The one he had seemed perfectly good to me. Was this really a good way of spending his hard-earned cash that he was supposed to be saving up, so he could rent his own place one day? I tried to sell his old phone, but it was worthless, so I put it into the recycling alongside empty food packets and paper, in the vain hope that someone might find it useful. Together we downloaded a variety of apps onto his new mobile to help him practice his English. Simple word searches, quizzes about time and food, card games and Harry Potter books.
“No”, he said, pointing at my phone, jutting his chin towards me and showing me the apps that I use to watch sport. It was the first time he spoke angrily to me. The English speaking apps update and are charged automatically to my account, but I doubt he used them. Walking past the open door of his room most nights, I heard him watching Iranian TV, following the exploits of Persepolis, his football team in Tehran on YouTube, or speaking to his mother or brother in Farsi, his red folder gathering dust on the bookcase.
A few weeks before Rashid left my house, he decided that he wanted to quit working in the pub and become a security guard. Mohammed had told him that the money was better, the hours more stable and the work easier. Becoming a security guard was difficult, I said, you need better English. What if something happens and you need to call the police? I couldn’t imagine Rashid sitting at the reception desk of a ghostly office block at night, watching for intruders on CCTV in a badly fitted suit, high visibility vest and cap. His room was empty for a few days, the light off and door wide open. After the third day, I started to worry, eventually sending him a text to ask where he was and if he was OK.
“Security course”, came the response. He was staying with a new friend in south London. I didn’t respond.
Do-gooder, ‘a naive idealist who supports philanthropic or humanitarian causes or reforms.’
The question came up over a paella and bottles of red wine in a Spanish restaurant. I recounted the parts of Rashid’s story that I knew.
“Is that it?” someone asked, “why are you doing this?”
I didn’t know what else to say. I coughed, a light trickle of sweat appeared on my forehead. Was I being judged? Did they think I was showing off?
“Because he needs our help, like many others do”, I said, “and we have a spare room, and it’s not much bother, and have you not read the newspapers and seen the homeless refugees living in tents on the streets, there’s a couple in the local park, and the crisis is only getting worse, and you also have a spare bedroom, so why don’t you offer your room or throw one of your kids out of their rooms and make them bunk up to give the room to a refugee?” I stopped.
The conversation paused as screens from mobile phones illuminated my friends’ faces. I nibbled some of the crusty bits of rice left stuck to the sides of the paella dish and finished the dregs of my red wine.
Rashid left my house a few days ago. I learnt one word of Farsi this past year. Good – Khoob.
Definitions from oxforddictionaries.com and thefreedictionary.com
This piece was shortlisted for The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 16 – The Climate Issue