I gave a room in my house to a refugee now shes like my sister

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

Loujean

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.

Lucy

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.

Loujean,
Loujean, left, and Will and Lucy. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

On that first night, Will and I lay in bed listening to her unpack in the bedroom next door and wondered what on earth we were doing. I had found out about Homes For Syrians one of a number of charities matching spare bedrooms in UK homes to refugees in need four months earlier and suggested to Will that we register. The charity was quite new when we signed up, and the founder, Richard, told us it might be a while before someone came to stay. Part of me thought it might never happen. Perhaps a little part of me even hoped it wouldnt. But then in early January, we got an email introducing us to a 22-year-old from Damascus called Loujean.

Homes For Syrians doesnt offer rooms on a permanent basis. The recommended period for hosting someone is between one and six months, enough time to give someone a base and a chance to begin integrating in a country they never expected to end up in. We were newly married and had never done anything like this before, so we tentatively suggested six weeks. In the end, Loujean was with us for six months.

The first week was a bit weird. Loujean spoke some English and we spoke no Arabic so there were a lot of silly hand gestures and weird staccato sentences (Coffee for you? Towels here). I had imagined a lot of things before she arrived, but I hadnt expected us to find each other so funny. As her English improved, I discovered her sense of humour she found it particularly funny when I tried to speak Arabic to her and her love of Wotsits. Opening a kitchen cupboard could spark a mini avalanche of the little blue packets all over the floor. She liked to eat a pack or two after dinner, like a cheese course.

You have a lot of makeup, but you dont seem to wear it. Why is this? she once asked me with genuine curiosity, gesturing to the plastic box of products I kept stashed under the bathroom sink. I let her go to town on my untouched eyeshadow palletes aswell as on my wardrobe. I have never met a person so committed to dressing up for any and every event. Recently we were messaging each other and she apologised to tell me shed have to go, as she needed to get ready for a birthday party that night. Itwas 3pm.

But getting to know her better was a double-edged sword, as it made hearing what she had been through all the more painful. There were moments when I would have to take myself off to the bedroom, turn the radio on and have a cry. For the most part she was a ridiculously upbeat person to live with, but sometimes news of a bombing at home would hit her hard and shed be completely inconsolable. Those were the times when I felt the most useless. On her birthday, a few weeks before she moved out, we had some fish and chips and a Celine Dion power ballad session in the kitchen. Before we wentto bed, she told me that was the first time in two years shed got through an evening without thinking about the war.

It is now a year since she moved out. Last summer, she passed her exam and shes studying law at university. One day, she hopes to be a human rights lawyer like Amal Clooney. Ive told her when shes living in Lake Como that Will and I expect to be her first guests.

homesforsyrians.uk

Lucy Pavia is the entertainment editor at Marie Claire

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/13/i-gave-a-room-in-my-house-to-a-refugee-now-shes-like-my-sister

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