Gatehouse, as obsequious as they come, asked the man why he had come to Europe, to which the refugee replied: “I want to get a job as a journalist.” The jovial Mr Gatehouse, far from being shocked, asked the smiling man where he wanted to work as a journalist. “England,” came the reply. Though he stopped short of offering the man a pint and a pie down at the pub, nothing would have suprised me. Gatehouse quickly went on, searching for what he knew must be a hard luck story somewhere.
This episode put me in mind of a situation a few years ago when I had the pleasure to teach English to foreign students at an inner city college in Liverpool. It was a job I loved and loathed. Loathed because of the endless bureaucracy involved, loved because of the fascinating people I came into contact with.
There were a couple of ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialists from Serbia who were, at the time, living on the 10th floor of a Kirkby tower block. For those not familiar with Kirkby, let’s just say it’s the type of place where the pit bull terriers go round in pairs...
There was a little old lady from China, who, though she had lived in the UK for forty years, could say little more than “Yes please?” and “Salt and vinegar?” She had owned a takeaway and now, having passed it on to her son, wanted to learn how to “talk proper the English.”
A happy bunch we were. And then one day everything changed. One morning on entering the college I was greeted by about fifty men loitering outside the classroom. They had come to do English classes. “No room,” I said, “You’ll have to come back.” Chaos ensued. Finally the men were persuaded to come back the next day with the promise they would all start their English courses.
The men were principally from three countries Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. They had been ‘dispersed’ from the south-east in an effort to relieve the pressure on services, which the never-ending stream of refugees was causing. Their transfer had happened virtually overnight.
One day they had been in Kent, the next Merseyside. There was a bit of bewilderment, but as these guys had already trekked thousands of miles to get to the UK, it didn’t necessarily faze them. On the contrary spirits were high.
And what were we to do? They had come to us to learn English. Coming to college was a way of breaking up a day that consisted largely of waiting for various agencies to decide their fates. Anyone with a heart could not help but feel sorry for these men and their plight. They had all left loved ones behind; they were lonely and at the mercy of faceless bureaucrats.
We did our best for them, putting on free English classes and offering as much advice and guidance as was possible. We helped them to understand directives from the Home Office, letters from the Social Services, helped them too decipher that most esoteric of tongues: Scouse.
They were accompanied by Sally, a small firebrand of a woman with a shock of ginger hair who seemed to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her role was one of advocacy, helping these men to find their feet in this new city and culture. A little Rottweiler, the men laughed a lot in her presence, but was it with her or at her?
Abdulreza was one of the more advanced speakers of English and also a very charming guy. Like many others, he was then living in a building known as The Landmark – a building which had been previously condemned and was awaiting the dynamite. Liverpool City Council meanwhile prayed the building would stand a few more months while the men were rehoused around the city.
“You must be missing your wife and family,” I said to Abdulreza over coffee one afternoon, a few weeks after classes had been sorted out for the men. Reza grinned slyly.
“I have to tell you something Mr David.”
“I’m gay. We all are.” He nodded towards the other 40 or so men. I was at a loss what to say. This revelation had come a bolt from the blue. Why tell me? “Really?”
“Noooo! Of course we’re not!” Reza's face had cracked into a wide smile. By now I was puzzled. I frowned.
“We say we are gay so we can claim asylum.”
“Oh. I see.” I was shocked, but tried not to show it. Up until this point I had assumed that the men were genuine asylum seekers.
“Homosexuality is against the law in our country,” went on Reza, “so it’s the easiest way to claim asylum here,” he said winking. He had, I suddenly realised, let me in on a secret.
“So all the others, Muhammad, Behrani, they are…?”
“Gay, yes. Well no, not really. They are only gay for the Home Office.”
Why was he choosing to tell me this? Probably because as teachers we had not only welcomed the men with open arms, but had also helped them with all sorts of problems from shopping to legal affairs. Reza obviously felt I was on side, a friendly face.
“This might sound like a silly question,” said I, “but if you are not being persecuted back home, why come to England? Why make up these stories?” Reza looked at me as an adult would a child.
“Mr David, in Afghanistan we live in two rooms. Everybody is poor. Here, my friend has a three bedroomed house from your government! Three bedrooms Mr David! Three!”
“But if you really are gay? What then?” I was intrigued by this thought. Reza and friends might not have been gay, but the thought that you could be persecuted for your sexuality was new to me.
“Well if you are gay, it’s not easy. They can make life difficult. Maybe they even arrest you.”
Homosexuality I later discovered was indeed against the law in certain Islamic countries. Further, those found to be homosexual could look forward to ridicule and in some cases persecution. That much was true. But surely not? Surely these guys in my English class, surely they were not pretending to be homosexual just to enter the UK?
“Can you imagine…” said Sally as we ate lunch in the staffroom one day, “…can you imagine what it must be like to be persecuted just because of your sexual preferences?”
“It must be terrible,” said I.
“Terrible! Ha! And the rest! Imagine what these men have been through, every day of their lives. It’s unimaginable! It’s despicable! It’s an act of inhumanity! Poor Abdulreza. Can you imagine what it must be like for him, having to hide his sexuality every day of his life? The poor man." As it happened, yes I could, but not quite in the way Sally imagined.
“Shocking,” said I rescuing a piece of cheese that was just about to slip out of my baguette.
Sally tutted. And though I was sorely tempted I did not have the heart to tell her the truth. The poor lady had built a bridge out of ‘inhumanity’ and ‘cruelty’ and ‘unfairness’ and who was I to break it?
After the course finished I lost touch with Abdulreza and the other students. They went their separate ways and I went mine. Eighteen months later while out shopping in Bootle strand I spied a familiar figure, short, squat and deep set.
“Reza! Reza! It’s you!”
“Teacher! How are you my friend?”
“Please come to my house. We will drink to your health.”
Reza looked in fine fettle. He had been given a brand new apartment, so he told me, one of several blocks managed by a local housing charity and one that just about the entire populace of Bootle would have given their high teeth to have moved into.
“I will introduce you.”
“Introduce me to who?”
A pause. Reza smiled sheepishly. “To my wife and children…”
“Wife? Children?” Said I shaking my head.
“Four, two girls, two boys and soon to be five, god willing.”
It was a lovely place – fitted kitchen, new furniture and with an enviable view of the Leeds and Liverpool canal.
“My sisters are coming soon,” said Reza as we sipped a cup of tea made by his wife. “And their children. I have eight nieces and nephews. Mr Blair will give them all nice houses like mine, no?”
“A toast to the British government!” We raised our glasses.
“But tell me Reza,” I said as we drank, “You’re sisters can’t say they are gay, can they, not with children?”
“Of course not.”
“Mr David, Mr David!” He looked at me as one who is wet behind the ears. “There are ways and means. Ways and means! A woman must say she is she is a victim. A victim of...” He paused, ashamed of himself perhaps for the very first time. "She must pretend to be a victim of..." And then he said a word that even I could not have envisaged:
All of which reminded me of Mr Gatehouse as he checked on the welfare of the boat people. Perhaps it was just unfortunate that the first person he had interviewed had not been a victim of despotic repression, but just a guy looking for a job in the UK, a job as a journalist!
Join the queue my friend.
On second thoughts, why not just go straight to the front of the queue...
The contradictory face of wishy washy liberalism: Question Time, BBC1