Hosting An Asylum Seeker

I’ve given a name to the initial phase in hosting any stranger in your home, for surely most come in as strangers. It’s simply:

“What is this stranger doing in my kitchen?”

The name comes easily — I actually had that thought back in Philadelphia with the first of our many student boarders my husband and I hosted there. We had signed up eagerly with the hosting organization, hoping to make a bit of extra money. (They paid us $586 per person per month to offer a furnished room, access to the kitchen, and two English language sit-down dinners a week. We hosted three at a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s.)

By the time we sold that house for our sojourn into The Peace Corps, we’d met and hosted a dozen or more young, engaging and fairly wealthy Asian or Latino students who had come to study for six to nine months the University of Pennsylvania’s renown ESL program.

Many of them are still in touch with us; so we definitely got through that initial phase.

As I think back over the past three years of being a host family for an asylum seeker, I realize I was able to effectively skip this very normal early phase. But only because I’d been through it already.

It’s disconcerting to share when you’re not used to it. Believe me: I’m an only child.

Sharing can even be annoying, sometimes.

Silverware goes in THIS drawer, cooking utensils in THAT one.

You get the idea.

I didn’t go through this phase with our first asylum seeker because by the time he came to us, I’d also been a resident boarder in someone else’s home where I’d been welcomed, treated as a member of the family, and had grown to care about them — at least in two of the three families we called ours during our years in Kazakhstan. I get into this in more detail in the memoir, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.

Back to Philadelphia

I don’t recall how long I remained surprised that strangers were in my kitchen; I don’t recall how many days or weeks it was that I wondered what in the world we had been thinking (or drinking). All I know, given twenty years of hindsight, is that this first phase didn’t last that long. There came a day when I was pleased to find a familiar face puttering about in what had become our kitchen.

So what to call this second phase? Friendship blooms?

Yes, friendship: an affable, comfortable new relationship based on mutual respect, trust, and gratitude. And a bit of humor for the many faux pas that were destined to occur.

We called one of our Philadelphia ESL students Noom because his Thai name was simply beyond my ability (though it’s become easier now that we’re Facebook friends and I can see it clearly spelled out). At dinner one night we chatted about what his future plans might be. I knew he wanted to study set design here in the US, so was quite surprised when he announced that he wanted to go to jail. Yes, jail. We queried him a few times and he just repeated it, “I want to go to jail.” We knew there was something lost in translation and persevered, eventually learning he hoped to study at Yale.

Back to Vermont

With our asylum seekers, friendship is only a nice bonus; it’s not necessarily the goal. I have often likened what I’m doing to the Germans, the Dutch, and the French I’ve read about in the many holocaust memoirs I’ve been reading, who during WWII hid Jews in their homes. The millions of asylum seekers around the world form today’s most pressing humanitarian issue and this is what I can do to address it. I’m not going to fix it, certainly, but it’s what I can do.

From safety to limbo

An asylum seeker, by definition, is someone fleeing persecution in their home country. They literally are running for their lives. Once they’ve crossed the border, they are safe but in limbo until our Immigration Court or Asylum Office hears their case and decides their fate. For too many, they are held in prison-like detention centers. Safe, yes, but treated like a criminal while they await their hearing. This too often takes years.

My first goal was to get an asylum seeker out of detention. Often, all they need is a place to go and someone to guarantee they’ll make their court appearances. We could do that. And, since Covid had shut down our in-home Air BnB, we knew we had the space.

Cultural differences, one of my favorite topics, played a role in our decision too. And cultural differences we have found. I hope, over the next few months, to expand on what we’ve found. For now, just know ours had to do with norms around food, privacy, space, and trust.

And I remember that these young men, these women, these families never forget that their safety here might not last. Last I looked, our Immigration Court here in Boston has a 65% denial rate. Of 100 cases heard, 65 of them will face deportation back to their home country. And Boston is considered one of the better options for asylum cases to be heard. Certainly a higher approval rate than immigration courts in the southern parts of our country.

I’ve been working this past year on the story of Ari, one of those young men I’ve come to know through my work with asylum seeker assistance networks. I’m calling him Ari, as he still lives in fear for his life. I hope by the end of the three-part story you’ll be able to learn his real name and his situation will have changed sufficiently that he’ll feel safe once again.

  1. Terri Lyon
    | Reply

    Lovely post, Janet. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences!

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