Never Have I Fled


“I’ve left many homes. I’ve lived in five countries in the past ten years … But never have I fled.”

Home_01There was a sweet middle-aged Tibetan woman in my Monday evening English class. She wore lengths of fabric wrapped around her as a skirt and thick woollen socks under her sandals to ward of the cold wet Belgian winter.

Her English was almost non-existent. We worked our way slowly, oh so slowly, through a few basic words. It didn’t really matter. She was going to need Flemish, or maybe French, more than English anyway. Most of my students only joined my weekly class for something to do, to break the monotony of life in a residential centre for asylum seekers. She’d always smile, my small Eastern student, whether she understood or not. But when she finally grasped something for the first time it’d grow a little wider and her eyes would sparkle.

I’d bump into her sometimes in the park outside our flat, close to her temporary accommodation. We’d smile and laugh at each other, in the absence of any mutually understood words. We’d point at shopping bags and show each other what we’d bought, or point up at the sky, grimace at the clouds or laugh at the sunshine.

One day, a second Tibetan woman arrived in the centre, one with reasonably good English. I asked to meet up with them and we went and sat by the fountain in the park, drinking fanta and eating the muffins I’d baked. Finally, with someone to translate, I got to hear my friend’s story, about the long and arduous journey she’d taken away from her home, about the husband who was still many thousands of miles away in a refugee camp in India. In broken sentences with slow translations, she gave me a small insight into the life she’d left behind.

A new couple began coming to my classes: a young Afghan man, his young bride and their bouncy, affectionate six-year-old daughter. They sat close to each other every class, studiously copying down all the writing on the blackboard, laughing over the tricky pronunciations.

I looked forward to seeing them each week, watched the young woman growing each month as her pregnancy progressed. The day after their second daughter was born, I drove to the hospital to visit them. There, as I rocked their sweet baby in my arms, they told me about their flight from their home. They spoke of border crossings through the mountains, of their vehicle being shot at as they left with their young daughter, of crowded boat trips across a choppy Mediterranean sea.

I heard many more stories. Stories of husbands and children left behind. Stories of war and persecution. Stories of conversions and then death-threats from family and neighbours. Stories of personhood denied and self-worth questioned. Stories of poverty so desperate that desperate measures were called for. Stories of homes that would never again be glimpsed.

I’ve left many homes. I’ve lived in five countries in the past ten years. Expat life has become the new normal for me and I’m used to adapting, used to making a space for myself wherever I land.

But never have I fled. Never have I left with fear and hope such a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Creating a new home in those circumstances requires a courage and a strength I hope I will never need to have.

In Brussels, I found my place helping my refugee friends find theirs. I found my inspiration in a God of love who said “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of her. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love her like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34)

I found my role in saying:

Welcome Home.

You’ve had a long and hard journey to get here, and the adjustment is rarely easy.

But we’re happy you’re here. We will be your friends, your community.

We will share what we have with you.

We will share in your celebrations and in your mourning.

We will include you in our lives and love you like our own.