The Australian published a story last week written by a 71-year-old woman named Lynn Barber who lives in London. Barber was influenced by seeing pictures of refugees struggling to make it to Europe and one day she decided she had to do something about it. She happened to know an artist (Mike) who had worked at a refugee camp in France and told him that, if he knew of a refugee who needed a home, she would take that person in. A few weeks later, Mike called and brought Mohammed over. And just like that, Barber found herself alone with a stranger in her house.
Nothing terrible happens. Mohammed doesn’t steal. He isn’t threatening. He even cooks Barber dinner a number of times. Despite this, all of Barber’s friends keep telling her she’s crazy. She doesn’t know anything about this person. Who is he? Why did he leave his home? On the few occasions when the topic does come up he gives vague answers about his motives but has a memorable story about his travel across Europe:
He was studying oil engineering at Khartoum University when he “got in trouble” (unspecified) and was advised to leave Sudan quickly. That was last April. His uncle paid people smugglers to take him by truck across the desert to Libya, a five-day journey, and then by sea to Italy. The boatman had no navigation equipment so they were bobbing about in the Mediterranean for several hours before a Red Cross plane spotted them and sent a boat to guide them to the Italian shore. The police detained them for a couple of days, then sent them on their way; they took a train to Ventimiglia, Nice, Paris and eventually Calais, where he joined the so-called Jungle, an informal migrant camp.
He was there for five months, walking eight kilometres to the docks every day, trying to board a semi-trailer. One day he found an empty truck where he could cling inside the wheel arch, and a short while later heard the ferry hooting and was on his way to Dover. But he had to remain hidden, and when they reached England the truck drove for almost an hour — he almost died of cold — before stopping at a petrol station. When the driver went to pay, Mohammed jumped down and hid behind some trees; the driver never knew he had carried a passenger.
Six months later, Barber decides to write an article about her experience having a refugee as a houseguest. Her goal, she admits, is to convince others it’s a risk worth taking. She sends the completed article to Mike, the person who brought Mohammed to her door, and assumes he will share it with Mohammed. And suddenly, Mohammed won’t talk to her anymore. She finally confronts him, asking if something in the article offended him:
At first he just kept shaking his head and moaning, but then he burst out furiously: “I am not a refugee!” What! What are you doing here then? Why are you living in my house? “I am a political leader! My family are very rich! We could buy you up like that. Do you want money? Is that why you write this filth? I get you money. You First World women are all the same, you are heartless. You have no feelings. You Christians are all racists.” And more and more increasingly incoherent rambling — it was bewildering but also frightening because he seemed to feel such deep hatred towards me. Eventually he said with great rhetorical flourish: “I can no longer live in this house.
And just like that, Barber walked him to the door. Weeks go by and Barber’s computer is having problems. She goes to get the old computer she had been letting Mohammed use and finds a cache of porn and personal photos which suggest his story about struggling through Europe weren’t quite accurate. “What pulled me up sharply were many pictures of Mohammed and a group of friends sightseeing in Paris and in various pools. His journey across Europe looked more like a holiday jaunt than a desperate flight to asylum,” Barber writes.
In retrospect, Barber realizes she really knew nothing about the person she was living with for six months. In the end, he wasn’t violent and he didn’t steal anything, he just hated her for being a heartless, Christian racist. But it could have been anyone. She took a big risk. And despite all that, Barber says now that another six months have passed she is ready to consider inviting another refugee to stay with her.