IT IS now common knowledge that when the UN decided to cut funds by more than half to maintain the refugee camps in the Middle East, they were apparently unable to foresee the consequences.
The projected saving of more than half has now resulted in costs amounting to three or four times the supposed saving. With little hope of a decent existence, the refugees took off for Europe. Hundreds of thousands have come. The politicians talk; the taxpayers groan. Without volunteers, there would have been little chance of helping at all. But the challenge is not really about giving: it is about how to give.
My wife, Romana, and I get our names listed as offering accommodation. Our idea is to have a neat little family: one husband, one wife, one child. We are informed that personal wishes are not part of the deal — something that, we are bound to admit, is fair. And, about four weeks later, a man from a refugee agency knocks at our door.
He has brought with him a young woman and two children from Afghanistan. The woman is an attractive 32-year-old. The little boy, aged seven, is delicately serious. The little girl, aged three, is a bundle of determination on two legs. Their father is still lost in a crowd of ten thousand being ousted from of Hungary, we find, to be then ushered without ceremony through Croatia and Slovenia.
After four days, we get a call to say that he is on his way to us, and his arrival is par for the course: nobody knows anything until it happens. He brings a ten-year-old boy with him. Romana and I have visions of collusion. We feel put upon (a feeling that we are to regret). Our house is not that big, and already our ideal three persons have become four, and then five.
It turns out that the ten-year-old boy had become separated from his parents a full month previously; our man had taken care of him as they trudged the last hundred miles to the Austrian border. Endless phone calls finally locate the boy’s parents, at a camp near Klagenfurt, in Carinthia. A trip is made, and the family is reunited.
Our guest family integrates with amazing speed.
Shaima, Nazar, and their son around the table at the Braziers’ house
Romana switches into top gear, and gets all of her network of lady-friends into the deal. Stuff arrives daily. In fact, there are soon more clothes than any family could reasonably need. We hear one funny story that our neighbour, Inga, has informed her husband, Franz, that he needs a new anorak. This is news to Franz, but our man from Afghanistan gets rigged out for the winter. The flow of cakes accelerates. Toys arrive for the children, and I run around, putting up shelves and rails to hang things on.
Romana takes on the paperwork, and, within a week, the young boy, Milad, is attending school, going in without a word of German. The little girl, Setahesh, is soon attending kindergarten. Their father, Nazar, and mother, Shaima, are amazed at how things can change so quickly.
They have asylum-request cards, but acceptance is by no means guaranteed. The cards bear their names and dates of birth. The family name is given incorrectly. Dates of birth are often unknown and guessed at. Many of those getting registered say, “1 January”, and then add an approximate year. The paperwork seems somehow pointless, but people do get government support.
This family are Shia Ismaili Muslims, of which Romana and I have not the slightest knowledge. But it is enough to know that the Ismailis are persecuted by the Taliban and Daesh. The horror stories about life in Afghanistan are sobering indeed. Everyday life at our house is reduced to pure logic, where possible. Cultural differences are largely ignored. Shaima had a toothache, and I am quick to point out that the pain is definitely the same the world over.
We slowly instil the idea that there is little fun to be had at our house, but from here they can build their lives. As mildly passive persons, we tend to shy away from mental complexity. Nevertheless, having criticised cultural differences, we admit that Shaima is a sensational cook who, to my delight, uses tons of spice. Her meat is placed in the oven in onion water, which makes it wonderfully tender. Our meals become sublime.
What soon becomes evident is that we, Romana Madar (mother), and Lawrence Padar (father), have achieved the status of family chiefs. Seldom have we experienced such deference, and seldom have we felt so grand.
Aware that families in Afghanistan are almost tribal, and run strictly on hierarchal lines, we seea distinct danger of Romana’s becoming a sort of ersatz tribal grandmother. I get the feeling that I should be exercising gravitas. Our own children, who are all grown up, keep a wary watch. They have, anyway, always considered us to be a bit daft.
Since Romana and I are retired, we are all thrown together each day. Shaima speaks a little broken English, and Nazar a bit of simple German. Finding a Qur’an on our shelves must have been baffling, not to mention my suddenly muttering “Allah” when I bang a knee. We have come to terms, and get along well. Although we are Christians, our openness to Islam has helped.
We have adopted an inshallah (God willing) attitude. Trusting in God, in life, in anticipation. “By the way,” Romana says one night, “did you know that Shaima is pregnant?” I sigh, stroking an imaginary beard.
In the end, before the baby is due, the family are relocated to their own flat. It is up-to-date: the kitchen is the envy of many an Austrian lady. Food and clothes still arrive at their door in a steady stream.
One thing is sure: their instinct, their obvious need for a better life, has given them a chance to move forward.
As they leave, I am unable to resist a fatherly admonition: “Don’t make any mistakes, and separate the glass and paper and plastic rubbish” (Austrians are meticulous in this respect). “Right now, you are accepted. Don’t mess it up with some kind of superficial cultural issue. That way you will be ‘foreigners’ again.”
Real integration means that people no longer notice a difference. The souls of everyone in this world are essentially the same.
Lawrence Brazier is a translator and freelance journalist.
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