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  • The house was 2 storeys high, a purpose built block, with 52 rooms for multiple occupants, usually for 1 family, but sometimes two. On the top floor, the corridor swam both directions out from the overly grand stairwell, lit from the wide and glorious windows spanning the height of the building and introducing the new residents to the world outside safely, gently. Downstairs, there was a large hall. We used to play in this, me and my charges, when it was unoccupied. Often, however, we had to play elsewhere, as the hall was full of sleeping bodies, fresh from arrival into the country, nightmares of what was gone and what could still be, visible on the flickering faces and audible in the occasional cries disturbing our equilibrium.

    My role was volunteer, and as the foreigner and free labour, the housekeeper put me to work. She gave me the job of ensuring the housework rota was fulfilled to the highest standards. This meant haranguing men into cleaning the long and winding stairwell, men often from cultures where cleaning is woman's work, who had high positions in their own land but were forced to sell all they possessed to live, to leave. Most were happy to partake. Some even seemed to enjoy it. I shall always remember following Ismail down the stairs (as instructed) watching him giggle at the fun of it all, hearing the Afghan songs from the hills of his home, as soft butter on his breath. He looked to me for approval and we both laughed at how well he mopped, scrubbed and dried.

    The women dealt with the cooking and the other cleaning such as scrubbing the windows. Our Bosnian leader, the housekeeper, had a strict regime for this also, and to this day, I clean my windows the same way, but with less fear. I taught the new women the accepted style and we scrubbed polished scrubbed polished until our arms ached. Then my teaching was inspected and scrutinised. Often we were made to do it again.

    There was rarely any altercation in the house. Amazing really considering the stress, anxiety, and pain amongst our residents. Not to mention over 20 different nationalities living under one roof, with inherent preconceptions about each other. Mostly, they all learnt to love one another. They were a new nationality now. Refugee. And somehow, as another foreigner in this land, I was accepted under this flag.

    This collaboration of people was the most beautiful, the sweetest tasting experience of my life.

    Khadija was a few years older than me, sharing her small room with her husband, and her 1 year old son. In Iraq, she was from a wealthy family, her father a politician, her husband an ambassador. The father was assassinated for challenging Hussein, and her family was banished to the Kurdish north. Her husband then supported a rebellion, and was also to pay with his life if caught. So, with a fresh born babe at her breast, she sold all her wedding gold, all her goods, and paid a stranger to drive her family to safety. The journey took 6 weeks, and untold anxieties; fears for those left behind and for the future her son will one day know.

    When I arrived at the hostel, Khadija had lived there for 3 months already and her son became my charge while she cleaned and cooked. She invited me to her room as a guest on my first day, took me under her golden wing, and offered me cake. It was only later that I learnt that they had saved for this cake for over a month. Khadija wanted to give me all she had. She gave me all her heart. Her faith in Allah was so strong, yet quiet, like a belief in air itself, that she felt no need to complain. This is life as it is, she said, and I will love in it. Never hate.

    Years later, her husband told me, on one of my visits, that his mother had been killed by the British army during the Baghdad bombings. I was horrified and felt somehow responsible for my nations actions. He held my hand and told me he was happy. She died in the freeing of her nation, and he thanked us for that. I still cannot comprehend this generosity and faith, and I am not sure its right.

    I saw so much beauty in this place, in these people. The wealth in their love to all people is worth more than any gold.
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