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franciscan - January 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002

Befriending the Refugee

In the corner seat at the back of the bus, sat the befriender. The bus was full, the day and the bus were hot, the passengers were returning to the city from an excursion to a stately home. For the handful of befrienders this was all very familiar – the grass and the parkland, the evidence (faded) of splendour, wealth, privilege, discrimination. For those who a year ago had been living in Kosovo, Chile, Iran, Afghanistan the only feature which may have been meaningful was the dungeon, tucked away in a corner.

Next to the hot befriender at the back of the bus was a mother, on her lap a small baby, and beyond her a Chilean couple. Kneeling on the seat immediately in front so as to face the baby was a boy of 12 or so, perhaps the baby’s brother. The temperature, the lack of oxygen, tiredness, hunger, other discomforts – life was telling on the baby who in spite of the mother’s efforts registered a long, loud protest. The boy ahead peeped between the seats, smiled, and tickled the baby’s nose. There was a brief interval, and the complaint resumed. The mother turned the baby over to face the befriender. Now the befriender – unmarried, over 70, ex-schoolteacher – had a very poor self-image in the matter of relating to small children; somehow they never seemed to respond. This confrontation unnerved him. He managed to produce a smile, extended a cautious finger, touched the baby’s nose, and waited. What would happen? Redoubled protests? Cold indifference? A scowl? None of those – the baby smiled broadly.

For that instant, the befriender knew that the title meant something. Communication had occurred. The bus reached journey’s end, the passengers dispersed, the befriender found his way home – a changed befriender from the one who had set out that morning, for he had sat (metaphorically) at the feet of the baby. He had learnt from the baby what he had failed to learn from the training provided by the organization, or from the experience of visiting a family over a period of months.

The organization did its best for its 40 befrienders by way of education. There was an induction course, and a police check. Befrienders attended lectures which attempted to instruct them in the complexities of the relevant legislation, the agencies (statutory and otherwise) set up to deal with and to help asylum seekers, and the practical dilemmas in which they often find themselves. The befriender, after all, is a befriender in the senses of advocate and adviser – not just a well meaning but useless chum.

Furthermore, the organisation was headed by dedicated full timers with a manifest belief in the work as a Christian ministry, with years of experience in it, and something more best described as an infectious enthusiasm. So the organization provided both information and role models, in which befrienders were invited, by implication, to believe and trust.

After the introduction, came the experience. A very young married couple from an Islamic country and with two little boys - a 4 year old and a baby – had been housed (as having Indefinite Leave to Remain) in a council flat. This was in a needy estate on the edge of the city where the presence of asylum seekers attracted hostility which took threatening and distressing forms – food thrown at windows, refusal on the part of neighbours to speak, damage to the car. The befriender, whose experience was related earlier, with a female colleague, was allotted to this family, and a preliminary introduction took place with the coordinator who had made the first contact.

There followed, at irregular intervals over four months, a series of Sunday afternoon visits which in some respects proved a test of trust in the organization. It was impossible to be certain that what was said was what was meant, or, that was said and meant, was understood. Befrienders have to learn to use basic English, slowly. Opportunities abound for misunderstanding, not to say blank incomprehension, always masked by smiles. The family was unfailingly welcoming, lavishly hospitable, and willing to share current problems. The befrienders felt that their experience was one of being befriended, of being unquestioningly welcome in the family circle even when this included Dad’s parents on a visit from home, and the young unmarried brother. Here was a family from a middle class, entrepreneurial background whose commercial contacts with the West had resulted in imprisonment by the regime and eventual acceptance in Britain as genuine asylum seekers.

Mum and Dad took it in turns to go to English lessons in the car, while the children were virtually prisoners in a top floor three-bedroomed flat surrounded by hostile neighbours. The befrienders wrote the letters of application for rehousing, helped with the interpretation of gas bills and benefit rules, listened to the problems, played with the little boy, always remembered to take their shoes off when entering the house. The man avoided any physical contact with mum and shook hands with dad, the woman kissed mum and smiled at dad. All the time, effort and energy were directed at penetrating the barriers set up by cultural and linguistic differences, and establishing trust and friendship. The experience was not one of condescending charity, for, in many ways, the befrienders were the recipients. The high ground of the rich was denied them – they had to abandon the notion of the refugee as destitute and come to terms with the refugee as having resources, two computers in the flat, TV, car – yet nonetheless refugees and in need of a neighbourly welcome. The befrienders were left without a sense of having in any way satisfied that need, as after the sixth visit the family moved away from the area; they had family in another city.

So trust was tested, unforeseen circumstances had snatched the refugees from the attentions of the befrienders who were left with a real sense of loss - and of hope. The hope was for a better deal for the family, and for another family to befriend with a chance to build a more stable relationship than that which had been terminated so abruptly.

What of the baby in the bus? What had come to the befriender with the baby’s smile? Here was a moment in which the differences of language and culture counted for nothing, a moment of unmediated communication – a meeting. The befriender was reminded that faith, hope and love abide – and the greatest of them? In its pre-verbal, pre-Christian, pre-Islamic way, the baby had the answer to that question.

Is that all? In the task of befriending the refugee all that is needed as the essential additive to the training, the knowledge and the opportunity – is love? Can we ask, where does this love come from, if it is to build a bridge between the befriender (in a position of security and power, with a network of family and friends, a place in society) and the refugee whose resources (beyond possibly a spouse and children) are nil, and has in addition a recent history of trauma, and separation from home and culture? For empathy to occur, the befriender needs to search for the person experiencing loss, separation, exile, failure whom he or she inevitably is or was, and let the love come from that person.

He upon whom the baby smiled in the bus remembered the small boy he once was, weeping in the lavatory at boarding school for home and parents – remembered further that consolation came to him from a member of staff who was himself a lonely refugee from Hitler’s Germany. That gentle, good man was the one who had the power to bring a smile through the tears. f



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