Sunday, October 21, 2007

Asylum Stories - Love and Cruelty

Mr Ahmedi had always been a bit awkward: demanding things that, though not unreasonable in themselves, were not allowed by the various bureaucracies that controlled his life as an asylum-seeker.
He makes life difficult for us; one time he had been too sick to collect the weekly sixty quid for him and his wife from the Post Office, so he'd sent her and they'd refused to pay her; because he didn't get a doctor's note or get it sorted by the end of the week it became a "backdating issue"; it's tiresome to explain that this means that, as they had survived to the end of the week without the money, the Home Office now doubted that they really needed it at all; that he needed to request a backpayment by fax, but that the Home Office had not yet decided a policy on backpayments, and therefore no decision to pay up was likely; it's wearying to hear stories of money borrowed from other asylum-seekers which now can't be repaid, and of scarce friendships thereby threatened; and all the time we have the doubt that maybe he couldn't get to the post office because he was working illegally on the side, and we have the near certainty that if he hasn't been working up to now, he'll do his best to find work in future to avoid this humiliation.
Mr Ahmedi is a funny mix - stocky, muscular, close-cropped hair, bullet-headed, always softly spoken with me, but often brusque with my female colleagues. His wife, though not afraid to speak up, is always careful to give precedence to her husband, and I too am careful to respect the cultural conventions: while I try to include her as much as possible, I address myself mainly to him. Anything else would cause discomfort, mistrust, perhaps misunderstanding.
Mrs. Ahmedi's contributions were often to gently set straight her husband's misapprehensions, or to remind him of things forgotten as he gets carried away with the injustice of things, or just to reassure him that seemingly big problems are not so important, the role indeed of wives everywhere through the ages, smoothing men's ruffled feathers, letting them feel important, carrying the real burdens of life on uncomplaining shoulders.
Mr Ahmedi used to be a leading sportsman in his country, not fit enough now, too old, too tortured, too podgy from his wife's cooking. Over his first year with us, we helped him find a coaching placement (unpaid, of course) with a very considerate local club, where he was highly appreciated, and which helped him with his anxiety and depression. It was remarkable to see this tense, preoccupied, defeated man become someone new, or perhaps his old self, when discussing the technical minutiae of the game with fellow enthusiasts; I always thought it must be such a relief for his wife to have him out of the house, and with something on his mind other than torture and asylum and injustice.
Mr Ahmedi had been with us nearly three years now. After the ritual initial decision from the Home Office, he had appealed, and the Court found in his favour; three weeks later had come the thunderbolt, the counter appeal from the Home Office, and the case now rumbled on through months and years of frustration and misery and enforced idleness.
Mr Ahmedi started to find that he could no longer focus at the club, he started making mistakes with the equipment, felt humiliated though perhaps no-one even noticed, and eventually gave up going; predictably, his stress levels escalated, his mental health visibly declined, doctors could do little.
I called on the Amhedis for a routine visit, booked in advance as usual because he's basically a proud and a private man, whose honour would be threatened by his wife receiving male visitors.
I immediately noticed an unusual atmosphere between the couple, normally so conservative; they were almost lovey-dovey, touching hands, exchanging glasses and soft words.
Even more remarkably, for such an honour-stricken husband, he sheepishly revealed what had been happening. He had been angry because hi wife had not cooked promptly enough for his hunger, then he refused to eat and even through the food away. Harsh words had been exchanged and tears had flowed. They had evidently been making up in the way of couples the world over.
My female colleagues found his behaviour blameworthy in the extreme. But I felt his pain as well as hers, that he had felt compelled to confess his misdemeanour to an outsider.
But beyond that, I blame this cruel system, that piles stress upon stress, year after year, and then exposes the cracks in a loving marriage to the eyes of the system's servants, inviting judgment.
Have you or I never behaved badly with a partner? I am privileged to look into this private world, and watch two people try to reconcile emotions and expectations, and in difficult circumstances to make sense of their lives. And if they succeed, they will have done better than me and maybe than you.


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