When Lucy Pavia and her husband offered Loujean Alsaman, a refugee from Syria, a room in their home, none of them knew what to expect. But over the six months they spent together, the women forged a close, sisterly bond
It was when girls started disappearing that my family decided it wasnt safe for me to stay in Syria any longer. They would be stopped by police at roadblocks and wouldnt return home. Damascus, where I was born and grew up, is one of the safest cities in Syria but the situation there is still very dangerous. I remember the sound of shells exploding at night and the electricity flashing on and off. At the time I was 20 and studying English literature at the University of Damascus. I really didnt want to leave. My grandparents had brought me up, and before making the journey to the UK, the furthest my family had allowed me to travel alone was to the shops.
The journey was difficult I still find the experience very hard to talk about. I crossed so many countries to get here. I heard about a charity offering space in UK homes to refugees through a friend some time after I arrived. Initially I found the idea of living with strangers embarrassing. Why should someone I had never met be made to feel responsible for me? As a woman who had come here without any family, I worried about the safety of living with strangers, but I also thought my culture could be an issue too. I am Muslim and do not drink would they be offended if they offered me wine and I couldnt accept it? Would they find it strange if they saw me praying?
But then I met Lucy and [her husband] Will and I stopped worrying. We were introduced by the charity by email at first, then we arranged to meet at a cafe near their home in south London. We sat for an hour and I told them about my situation and the country I had grown up in. They seemed kind and open-minded. I moved in a few days later. Although I had studied English, living with people who spoke it as a first language was very different. Some of their words and expressions I still find funny, like ridiculous and thats so weird. I gradually learned that in the UK Im fine actually means no thanks. If someone says that in Syria we think theyre just being polite and carry on piling their plate up with food.
My dream was to complete my studies at a UK university, but to apply for a place I would need to get a high score in a language exam that international students must pass to show they have good English. Even though he was tired, Will would sit with me every evening after work and help me study, or go through the essays I had written that day.
We would watch TV together with the subtitles on, so I could pick up the words. I told Lucy how much the show Pride and Prejudice reminded me of the culture in Syria now, the way a lady is introduced by her family to male suitors. I told her all Syrian mothers were a bit like Mrs Bennet, obsessed with marrying off their daughters.
Sometimes we would go out to meet Will and Lucys friends. One time we went to a bar for someones birthday and I felt like I was in one of the American movies I had watched in Damascus. I discovered how much British people love their dogs, too. Lucy and Wills neighbours have a jack russell called Piper, who would sneak through the fence to say hello. I didnt mind her too much because shes small like a cat.
After we had got to know each other better, Lucy let me borrow clothes from her wardrobe. It was fun to wear dresses in the day like British women do in Syria we only wear them on special occasions. British women are very natural and I learned from Lucy that its OK to leave the house without any makeup on; in Damascus I would never dream of going out with a bare face.
It wasnt always easy. Even though Ifelt safe with Lucy and Will, I couldnt forget the war, losing sleep worrying about friends and family in Syria. I might be safe, but what about them? Sometimes it was hard to explain how this felt. At the darkest times I wondered whether I should have taken the risk and stayed in Damascus. I felt emotional smelling the jasmine in Will and Lucys garden because it reminded me of the streets back home. Granny and I would pick the flowers first thing in the morning to fill the house with their scent. I havent seen her for three years and I miss her so much.
Now I see Lucy and Will as my British brother and sister. When I was still living in Damascus, my mother opened up her house to refugees who had travelled to the city after their village was bombed. We were talking on the phone recently and she said to me: Perhaps because we opened our home, God blessed you by bringing you to live with Lucy and Will.
When I think of Loujean I cant help picturing her huge fuchsia suitcase. On the evening she moved in with us, she wheeled it over the doorstep of our house and straight into the kitchen, where she immediately began pulling out carefully wrapped bags of food she had bought that day: rice, chopped lamb, okra, pomegranate syrup, each item appearing one after the other, Mary Poppins-style, from the bag. From then on, at least once a week, she would cook one of the recipes her granny had taught her growing up in Damascus, reloading pyramids of rice on to our plates until we had to tell her,firmly, that we were full. Her life had changed unimaginably in the last few years and I would come to understand how important these weekly dinners were to her, a little way of conjuring home.