‘Would he disapprove of my single heathen lifestyle?’: me and my Syrian refugee lodger

Helen and Yasser eat their separate breakfasts. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Helen and Yasser eat their separate breakfasts. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

“You are not going to like me saying this,” my dad said, “but you need to get a lock on your bedroom door and a lock on your bathroom door. Men can get very frisky when they are away from their wives.”

I rolled my eyes, hung up and panicked. I’d rung my parents to tell them that Yasser, a Syrian refugee, was coming to live with me while he arranged for his wife and baby to join him in Britain. I was a little nervous about the arrangement, but of all the many things worrying me – would he disapprove of my single heathen lifestyle? Could I carry on having bacon butties at the weekend? Should I edit my drinks cupboard? – the possibility of getting molested by my lodger had yet to occur to me.

I first had lunch with Yasser one day in August, after a mutual friend in Turkey told me he had arrived in Manchester and had no mates. She didn’t tell me he was Syrian, or how he had reached our rainy island. So I was gobsmacked when, in very broken English, he told me of his 37-day odyssey across land and sea. He had sailed across the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat in the dead of night, even though he can’t swim; walked from Greece to Macedonia, and crossed Europe until he reached the Jungle in Calais, where he jumped on trucks for six nights before making it to England hidden in the back of a lorry. After 17 hours packed between boxes of toys, he banged on the door. The truck driver was furious: he would face a £2,000 fine were the border police to discover his human cargo. Yasser scarpered. He wasn’t sure he was even in England until a car passed him driving on the left. He walked to the nearest petrol station and asked them to call the police. His new life had begun.

I wondered how I could help him. He was living on £5 a day given to him by Serco, the outsourcing company contracted by the Home Office to process asylum applications. While Yasser waited, he couldn’t take paid work and was living in a Serco house off the Curry Mile with five other asylum seekers: Syrians, Eritreans, a guy from Sudan. I asked if he fancied coming round to help me strip wallpaper on the bank holiday weekend. He agreed, but then I had to go and cover the world gravy wrestling championships in Bacup (try explaining that one to someone whose first language isn’t English), so left him to it.

When I got back, he had almost finished. We had an awkward meal together, then I tried to give him some money. Yasser looked appalled. “No, no,” he said. “I don’t want money. I want friends.”

He had been to see a housing officer and was told that, as a single man with no children in the UK, he was low priority
Two days later, three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. The mood in Britain changed. Suddenly the sort of newspapers who usually run stories about immigrants eating swans started showing compassion. David Cameron agreed to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees – and I offered my spare room to Yasser.

He was slow to accept, but before long, he was granted asylum and a five-year visa. We celebrated with a sickly cake he bought from a Pakistani baker on the Curry Mile (three days of his daily allowance). He showed me the letter confirming his refugee status: he had 28 days before he would be evicted from the Serco house, and less than a month to get a national insurance number, sign on at the jobcentre and find somewhere new to live. A tall order for a Brit, let alone a Syrian with ropey English and no money for a deposit.

A few days before his eviction, Yasser texted, asking if he could stay until his wife and baby arrived. He had been to see a housing officer and was told that, as a single 34-year-old man with no dependent children living in the UK, he was low priority. His housing benefit of around £280 a month would cover a room in a shared house with a private landlord (no chance of that, without a deposit) or a place in a homeless hostel, where he was likely to share a room with alcoholics and drug addicts.

I picked him up from the Serco house a few days later. All he had was a scratty duvet and pillow in a carrier bag, and a small rucksack. When he unpacked, I saw how little he owned: one jumper, one shirt, a pair of jeans, two vests, two pairs of underpants; it was what he had been wearing when he hid in the truck, plus what he had been given since his arrival.