Monday, December 11, 2006

All I want for Christmas is a refugee

I recently went through training to become a mentor for refugees. Maude checked my outfit as I left the house and agreed that I was wearing enough corduroy to pass for a caring liberal.

The training was comprised of intensive sessions with other Guardian readers in an inclusive, ‘safe’ workshop environment. I had never seen so many Fairtrade garments in one room. The sessions were led by a startlingly ginger young woman from somewhere near Liverpool. This meant that the way in which Janet spoke was, for the most part, Standard English. Every now and again, however, her face would contort into a Liverpudlian mien and a perfectly formed bit of scouse pronunciation would slip out – like an unfortunate tic.

We were led through a variety of possible scenarios which might come into the lives of refugees trying to integrate in the community here in the North East: how to join the library, how to understand the quaint local dialect, how to hold your own in a taxi rank at 2am after a 10 hour drinking binge.

I came away from the training feeling as though I was about to contribute something worthwhile to society – to ‘give something back’. Janet assured us all on our departure that we had all handled the training very well and that she would get to work on matching us up with appropriate refugees.

Last week I was invited to a social session for the members of my mentor group. Janet had insisted that we could all skip tea and join her in her office at 6.30pm where a festive buffet would await. This was the first disappointment of the evening. I arrived to see a ‘buffet’ of a dozen shop-bought mince pies, a tub of humous and some breadsticks.

I was one of the first arrivals and chatted with Penny from Yorkshire – or rather I chatted and she shouted. I gathered from her blaring that she had been matched with a refugee (possibly hearing impaired – or soon to be). She went into great detail about the many coffees she had already enjoyed with Hassan and how much she had learnt about his culture and he about hers. She had in front of her a sheaf of expenses to claim back from Janet’s petty cash. I was surprised that someone so abrasive had been so easily matched up with a vulnerable refugee adrift in the cold North East, but feasted on another breadstick and awaited the arrival of the rest of the group. As the liberals trickled in and cast weak smiles around the room, the conversation flowed and it became clear that everyone else in the room had been matched up with a refugee. Janet avoided my gaze and relayed information about various refugee-friendly local events and cultural venues. She then encouraged a general chat on the experiences of members of the group in their early dealings with the their mentees. Anecdote followed anecdote and it became clear that many of the members of my group had become so familiar with their charges that they knew, for instance, the basic rules of Iraqi cooking or the rudiments of Persian folk-dancing.

‘So everyone is having a really productive relationship with their mentee, by the sounds of it. I lurv it when that happens!’

I coughed gently at this point.

‘Oh, I know that not everyone has been matched up… just yet.’ Janet looked at me fleetingly and reddened.

As the get-together came to a close, I hovered. Janet was collecting her papers and urging everyone to ‘take care’.

As the room emptied she realised that I had no intention of shuffling away quietly without something approaching an explanation of why I was the only fugee-less member of the group.

‘Oh, you’re still here.’

‘Yes’, I smiled. ‘Just wondering if there is some kind of problem with matching me up…..’

‘No, not at all. Just having a little trouble finding a match for your particular range of talents.’

I resisted the temptation to ask her what those ‘talents’ actually were – up to now she had only witnessed my ‘talent’ for wearing the requisite amount of corduroy and my ‘talent’ for tolerating the volume of brash Yorkshire people and simperingly smug mentors who would soon claim to be dreaming in the obscure dialects of their mentees.

I buttoned my coat and gathered up my things. As I cast a last disappointed glance at the ‘buffet’, I made my position to clear to Janet.

‘If I haven’t got a refugee in time for the Christmas party, I’m not coming.’

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