A home away from home: a volunteer’s story of welcoming refugees
Dr Patti Gardiner is a volunteer doctor at Freedom from Torture, where she helps torture survivors understand their medical problems as well as preparing medical evidence of their torture for asylum cases. She shares her experience welcoming refugees into her home, when she first became a supporter through our Holiday Scheme many years ago.
Blog by Dr Patti Gardner
About fifteen years ago, my husband and I joined Freedom from Torture’s holiday scheme. We had wanted to help by lending our skills as doctors. But being parents with teenagers and working full-time as GPs we barely had any time. I thought, “Well, maybe I can't use my medical skills at this stage, but I'm a mum, and like looking after people, so surely we could have somebody come to the house and make them feel welcome?” Looking back now, I can say, hand on heart, that it has been one of the most profoundly enriching experiences of my life.
The first person to come and stay with us was a young Iranian man. After our first evening meal we all sat down in our sitting-room and he told me, my husband and children his story. He had been badly tortured, had escaped, come to this country and was having therapy with Freedom from Torture.
We learnt so much from him and about the problems torture survivors face. We have remained friends ever since.
I had thought, and I think a lot of people in the country may still think this, that once somebody's in the UK they're safe. That they are okay and can just relax and get on with life. That is not the case. There are so many problems and hardships caused by the asylum system in the UK. It can treat people very badly and with little dignity, fairness or justice.
Another point I had not realised was that, although he was grateful to be here, he didn't really want to be in the UK.
He wanted to be back at home with his family in Iran.That is what he wanted more than anything. However, it wasn’t safe for him to be there. He explained it to me as, “What would it be like if you had to go live in China for the rest of your life? How would you feel?” It was a revelation.
He’s an extraordinary man. He spoke seven different languages but not English when he came here. So he went off and learnt English, learnt all about computers and he now works for an international firm that installs computer systems in international banks and such like. He met a beautiful lady, who he married, and he’s now got two daughters. the littlest of whom is only a few weeks old.
We actually later made friends with another Iranian, who we kept in contact with for many years and it took him 14 years to get his leave to remain. 14 years of instability. 14 years of not being able to work. And he was deeply angry and resentful about the whole thing.
That was quite a learning journey for me and for us - to not feel cross with him for being angry with my government.
You know, in my head, I thought, “He’s not being tortured, he’s safe.” But of course I realised how he was being treated very badly and not with dignity, fairness or justice. And I came to completely get why he was so angry.
I wish there was a greater openness and willingness to listen and to understand and share each other’s backgrounds. Because, of course I learnt a lot from my friend about his situation and the difficulties he was struggling with. But he also learnt a lot about us and our family and living a normal life in the UK.
That old First Nations American Indian saying, that you shouldn't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins, that’s what it’s really about.
It’s really listening and hearing and trying to understand what it really must have been like and what it must be like to come to this country in such a vulnerable situation.
Over and over I hear my therapist friends at Freedom from Torture rejoicing when something wonderful happens with one of their clients and their new life begins to take shape and they develop a real true independence and direction. Their resilience and the power of healing are extraordinary.
Sometimes, it's very easy to be overwhelmed. It's so dreadful and so awful that these incredible things could have happened to an individual and they're still here, they are surviving. But it really is so important to remember that there are the shared futures ahead. People may or may not become international athletes, but they become really important members of our British society.
They become our friends and they contribute to the richness of what I think British society is becoming and should be. And with a little bit of compassion and understanding, we can get there.