While liberal hand wringers made empty pledges to take in a refugee, one acclaimed writer quietly did so — only to have her kindness betrayed
Over recent years, we have witnessed many celebrities using social media to tell the world what wonderful human beings they are (the names Gary Lineker and Lily Allen come to mind).
One particular cause close to the hearts of these self-styled do-gooding liberals has been the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have travelled from Africa and the Middle east to begin new lives in Britain and mainland europe.
Typical of the high- profile figures to say they would happily take refugees into their home have been Bob Geldof and Labour’s Yvette Cooper. To date, though, very few have honoured their pledge.
So it is very refreshing to discover that, while many of these saintly figures have reneged on their promise, others have nobly stepped in and invited a refugee to live in their home.
One of these is the distinguished journalist Lynn Barber. Around 18 months ago, after being deeply affected by ‘almost daily horror stories’ of migrants during the summer of 2015 ( in particular, by photos of a Syrian mother trying to hold her baby above the waves on a Mediterranean beach), she decided to offer help.
That mother was Barber’s ‘personal tipping point — the moment when I decided I must do something’, the 73-year-old grandmother has explained.
So began an intriguing social experiment that saw the famous interviewer — whose memoir, An education, became a hit film starring Carey Mulligan — allow a twenty- something, married Sudanese asylum seeker called Mohammed to move into her home in Highgate, North London.
The fact that she carried out this generous act in conditions of virtual secrecy is doubly commendable, considering the nauseating way much richer public figures, such as tax-avoiding Tv presenter Lineker, have treated the tragic refugee crisis as a topic for virtue-signalling.
That said, the story of Mohammed — as told by Barber in last weekend’s Sunday Times Magazine — offers a fascinating insight into this human crisis. For it raises troubling issues such as the true status of these would-be refugees, their attitudes to British society (and to women, in particular) and their often ungracious attitude to the country that has given them a new home.
Barber tells how, at first, she wrote to Islington Council, offering to take in a Syrian family. But she received no reply.
Subsequently, she met an artist in a bar who said he’d been building shelters for migrants in the infamous Jungle camp near Calais. Through him, she was introduced to Mohammed.
HAILING from Sudan, he was said to have sneaked into the UK in the wheel-arch of a lorry that travelled from France through the Channel Tunnel. He’d registered with the Home Office and as an asylum seeker was waiting for his application to be processed. In the meantime, he wasn’t allowed to work and received a weekly £35 living allowance.
His story was as heart-rending as it was familiar: having been forced, he claims, to flee his native Khartoum to escape political persecution, he crossed at first the Sahara Desert and then the Mediterranean to Italy, courtesy of people- smugglers paid by his uncle.
After being briefly detained by Italian police, he was sent on his way — without being fingerprinted — and took a train to Nice, in the South of France, and then made his way to Calais, where he spent five months trying to get to Britain.
After finally making it to this country, he handed himself into the police — thus beginning his asylum claim.
If Barber had not taken him in, he’d almost certainly have had to remain in a detention centre.
Barber had lived alone since the death of her husband David, an academic, in 2003 and opening her home to a stranger was an act of singular generosity.
Yet, perversely, it also turned out to be deeply ill-fated. For the ‘shy, but very polite’ young migrant who moved into her spare room was, in fact, a Walter Mitty figure whom she accuses of taking advantage of her hospitality, lying about his circumstances, and fabricating much of his life story.
In her confessional Sunday Times article, Barber tells how Mohammed took drugs in her home, downloaded pornography on to her computer, annoyed her by making excessive use of the NHS, was disrespectful towards women and non- Muslims, and shamelessly milked the UK’s benefits system.
She eventually booted him out after he revealed, during an argument, that he wasn’t actually a refugee. Far from being a penniless charity case, this recipient of taxpayer funds made it very clear that he was independently wealthy.
Despite all this, and although the reasons for his original rushed departure from Sudan are — at best — still unclear, Mohammed seems to have experienced no trouble in persuading the British authorities to grant him asylum.
For, in March 2016, he was given leave to remain here for five years — meaning his claim for political asylum had been accepted.
even before Barber met Mohammed, her account raises serious questions about Britain’s ability to cope with the fallout from the ongoing refugee crisis.
For example, there was Labour-run Islington Council’s failure to reply to her offer to give a home to a Syrian family, despite its councillors’ many pious statements about their desire to ‘ help refugees and asylum seekers’.
At first, Barber and Mohammed got on well: he cooked waika, his national dish of minced lamb, onions, tomatoes and yoghurt, which Barber found ‘delicious’, and regaled her with tales of his childhood: one of 18 children, whose father had four wives.
She also learned that he’d left his wife studying pharmacology in Sudan and that she would get a work visa to come to live in Britain as soon as she qualified — because the UK is short of pharmacists.
But soon, the relationship began to sour.
SHORTLY after moving in, Mohammed declared that he intended to treat Barber, who has two grown-up children, like his mother. Understandably, Barber said she was not sure she wanted to be treated like a Sudanese mother, explaining: ‘I suspect it means lots of cooking, cleaning and washing — so I tell him to treat me like what I am, his landlady, and basically keep out of the way.’
Barber also commented that her house guest filled the kitchen with sacks of lentils, drums of cooking oil and other items of African food ‘so it looks like a catering tent for a rock festival’.
He broke the tumble dryer and ‘never cleaned the washing machine’. Petty domestic tension increased considerably when she caught him increasing the temperature on her thermostat, despite being repeatedly told not to.
‘This is my house, I keep it at my preferred temperature, and if you don’t like it, you can f*** off back to Calais,’ she said.
Spending large amounts of time in bed, Mohammed frequently complained of minor illnesses, such as sore throats and colds. Though Barber repeatedly told him to visit the GP, he insisted on going to the local hospital’s casualty-department.
‘It annoyed me that he went to A&e more times in the six
months he lived with me than i had been in my whole life, and i gave him a lecture about not abusing the nHs,’ she wrote.
Barber goes on to concede: ‘in retrospect, i can see there were loads of warning signs.’ she says she should have listened to her cleaner’s ‘many complaints’ about him, and adds: ‘i should have listened when my daughter told me to be careful.’
On one occasion, Mohammed asked Barber where he could find the nearest park, as he’d been told that London parks were the best place to buy marijuana. she responded by instructing him not to take drugs in her house, a request he repeatedly ignored.
He also went on shopping sprees to expensive areas of London — ‘i now realise,’ Barber says, ‘that his rich family in sudan must have been funding him.’
Things appear to have then boiled over when, in advance of Mohammed’s March 2016 asylum hearing, Barber prepared an article for the sunday Times about her decision to take a migrant into her home. she said she wanted to ‘show readers you don’t have to be a saint to take in a refugee, you just have to have a spare room’.
Mohammed was shown what she had written and was ‘deeply upset and shaken’ by its contents. As a result, Barber did not offer the piece for publication — even though it was nowhere near as critical as her final story.
Exactly why Mohammed didn’t like what she wrote was not clear. When Barber asked him, he launched a rambling attack on her.
‘i am not a refugee!’ he declared. ‘My family are very rich! We could buy you up like that! Do you want money? is that why you write this filth? i get you money. You first world women are all the same: you are heartless. You have no feelings. You Christians are all racists.’
With that, he moved out of the house. Candidly, Barber says: ‘i felt such a fool.’
Following his departure, the writer, who was mildly upset that he appeared to have been taking advantage of her hospitality while simultaneously hating her, discovered a folder of photographs he’d stored on the spare computer in his bedroom.
it included, among other material, ‘naked pictures of women with enormous boobs and one or two of a couple making love’, providing Barber at last with some insight into why he’d been spending so long on the internet that she had been forced to upgrade to an unlimited BT broadband account. THE computer file included several other photographs of him sightseeing at the Eiffel Tower with friends, and lounging by swimming pools, suggesting that far from being a bona-fide asylum seeker who had fled for his life across France, he was, in truth (as he’d stated in their previous row), a wealthy young man happy to live off British taxpayer-funded benefits and handouts from his family.
‘ His journey across Europe looked more like a holiday jaunt than a desperate flight to asylum,’ she wrote, adding that this might explain why, when they had discussed his future plans, he’d shown no desperate desire to get a job.
Perhaps that also explains why, when he moved out, Mohammed left behind a vast quantity of clothes that Barber’s friends — whom she says were all suffering ‘ middle- class guilt’ — had generously donated. He had kept only valuable designer items, so she took the rest to a charity shop.
‘i drove up to the Oxfam shop in Highgate but then i thought “no”, it’s too near, someone might recognise their clothes, so i drove on and on, up to Finchley, hating Mohammed every inch of the way,’ she recalled.
A year after this unfortunate experience with Mohammed, Barber (who says with admirable modesty: ‘ i am not naturally hospitable and i am not altruistic’) declares she has recovered sufficiently to take in another refugee.
The most perceptive of interviewers who has won countless awards for her journalism, Lynn Barber will undoubtedly make sure her next migrant house guest is much more deserving of her undoubted kindness and generosity.
Feted: Carey Mulligan in the Oscar-nominated film of Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education
No good deed goes unpunished: Lynn Barber with Mohammed, from last week’s Sunday Times Magazine