How becoming a refugee host forged a friendship for life
My name's Jack and I was shocked when I heard about the protest that turned violent outside a hotel where asylum seekers were living in Knowsley, near Liverpool, on 10 February. I can only imagine the stress and fear it caused as I have some insight into the refugee story having shared my home with an Iranian refugee for eighteen months.
Before he moved in, we'd already met a couple of times. I remember being at a church event with a bonfire and music and some of us were dancing. It was quite funny because my idea of Iranian culture up until then was that it was all very polite and courteous, but the guy I'd later share my house with came up to me and said, "Your dancing is like Mr. Bean," and I thought, "Okay, he's someone I can get on with!" Little did I know he would become a friend and play an important role on my wedding day.
For me, hosting a refugee was very much part of my journey as a Christian. I think God had been preparing my heart for some time. When I lived in York in 2014 there was a lot of media attention on refugees coming to the UK with people expressing widely different viewpoints. The issue of how we should respond to refugees was talked about from the front at our church, and why it's so important in terms of welcoming the stranger and appreciating other cultures - and that really resonated with me.
There was a big protest in the city centre with people of all kinds of worldviews taking part and we had a prayer meeting in a church just around the corner. It felt really significant to be doing that as part of the Christian community. In one sense, we're all refugees travelling through a strange land and seeking somewhere that is home, and I believe we need to recognise the image of God in each person. I think the biblical promise at the end of the Bible where it talks about all nations gathering together to worship God is really important, so I felt 'welcoming the stranger' into my home was something God wanted me to do.
I had quite a relaxed approach to sharing my home. Some people say you should keep areas off-limits so your guest just has their bedroom and access to a bathroom and the kitchen, but it was important to me that anyone living with me could use any part of the house.
We did the same things any friends sharing a house do, like going to the cinema. We both really like comedies and share the same sense of humour so we spent a lot of time teasing each other. It's been interesting sharing our different cultures and cooking food from our respective countries. I've really enjoyed eating Iranian food, especially tahchin, though I was less keen on a drink made with sour yoghurt that he persuaded me to try at an Iranian restaurant in Liverpool!
I think when you share your home with a refugee, it's really important to remember that it's not just about acclimatising them to the culture of the host country; you also need to celebrate their culture. Before living with me, he visited a youth group I volunteered with to share his story and I wanted to bring something that reflected his Iranian culture so I made some Iranian cakes. I remember he became quite emotional and said, "This is exactly how my grandmother bakes her cakes."
Some people think you can host refugees and compartmentalise it, but we got involved in each other's lives. He spent Christmas with my family and we went on a trip to visit my grandparents in the Lake District. I supported him through some of his vocational decisions like his decision to go to university, and he supported me when I got engaged by doing an engagement photoshoot for us. In the end, I made the decision to ask him to be an usher at our wedding as it was important to me that he was a part of our wedding day.
Having a refugee to live with me and hearing his story has made me think about how I'd feel if I had to leave my home and family, and how hard it must be to start over in a strange country. It's made me even more passionate about helping refugees and it's something I would urge everyone to consider. As well as hosting a refugee in my home, me and my wife are currently renting out a property to provide longer-term accommodation for a family. Both options are really valuable as they provide stability for people who have often had difficult and dangerous journeys to reach the UK.
If you're thinking of hosting in your home, I really recommend it as you learn so much from each other. You may find, like me, that it becomes far more than just living side by side – the guy I shared my home with is now one of my closest friends.
Welcome Homes is an initiative of Welcome Churches. For more information about the project go to welcome-homes.org