On a Tuesday evening in the summer of 2017, a French colleague and I were working together at an AirBnb in Brixton, south London, when she received a text message from a Syrian friend she had not seen in more than a year. Not since before he had crossed the English Channel from France to the UK, and successfully claimed asylum. Did we want to come to a party? he asked.
A couple of hours later, we met up at a tube station in North London before heading to an Edwardian-style townhouse on a quiet residential street. Inside, we were introduced to a group of friends, and friends of friends, who represented something of a cross-section of the phrase “citizens of the world”.
The group included a classical singer, a ventriloquist who entertained us with snippets from her repertoire, and a former refugee camp volunteer who was now planning a road-trip to Scandanavia in a reconditioned van. In addition to my colleague’s friend, who had been a political science student back home and hoped to resume his studies in the UK, there was a second Syrian man who had also received asylum, and an Iraqi man, who was still going through the asylum process. The second Syrian, who worked in theatre, had such fluent English that as a party trick he was able to mimic something of a well-to-do accent. “How do I get an English accent?” someone joked in response.
Yet the mood in the house was not as convivial as I had expected. Rather than the easy-going familiarity you might expect to find, there was a certain quiet tension in the air, and concerned expressions on the faces of some of the guests. In the kitchen, the dining table was adorned not with party food and bottles of wine, but with stacks of handwritten notes and an official looking immigration document that our host, the singer, was referring to, as she typed away on her MacBook.
As it turned out, the Iraqi man had just received a letter from the Home Office, informing him that his application for asylum (officially termed “leave to remain”) had been refused. With the help of his friends, he was in the process of reviewing the letter – and the reasons for refusal – with a view to lodging an appeal. One of his friends explained the back story to me: while the Iraqi man did have a lawyer, the language barrier and the limitations of the legal aid system made it difficult to get through all the relevant points during the time allotted for meetings. Therefore, she explained, it was important to help him review the background material beforehand – hence the handwritten notes and the laptop.
Once the legal stuff was finished, our host apologised for the party-that-wasn’t and offered up some refreshments: red wine in beer glasses for the drinkers; Coca-Cola in enamel mugs for the non-drinkers. Then the smokers trooped outside to get their fix, while I accepted a helping of some cold risotto, before falling into conversation with my colleague’s friend. We discussed international politics – his degree subject – and his difficulties in getting his Syrian coursework accredited by a British university. He wanted to finish his degree at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), but he had been told to apply for a first year place, which meant that he would have to start his degree all over again.
Then we talked about Syria. More specifically, about Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. “Do you know about our Bashar?” he asked, flicking through images on Google of the London ophthalmologist-turned-warlord on his mobile phone. I told him I did. So we discussed what seemed like the obvious question: did Assad still have his trademark moustache – the one that added a hard edge to his otherwise unremarkable features? He checked his phone and held up the screen to show a recent picture of Assad. “He shaved it off,” he said.
Just before midnight, as the party wound down, we walked back to the tube station together – he was also heading to Brixton, where he had found a room through the homestay service Refugees at Home. We had hoped to make the last train, but we just missed it, so we caught a night bus instead which meandered back across the city, past various landmarks known around the world.
Later, I thought about how different the evening had been when compared to some of the stories that I had read in the British media, describing the grimness of life for refugees and asylum seekers after arriving in the UK – particularly for those who have been accommodated in parts of the North, far away from the typically more affluent and international south-east. Was it the social and cultural “melting pot” of London that made the difference, or were there other factors involved beyond simple geography and regional variations in culture? And what of the integration challenges that might be faced by a middle-class Syrian with a university education, as compared to, say, a young Sudanese person who had grown up in a rural setting? I hoped to find out.