The father, John (43), is an army deserter who has been living in Switzerland for two years now. For the first time, he is allowed to work, and to live outside the asylum centre. He is employed short-term at a charity, sorting food that has been thrown away so that it can be distributed to those who need it.
The protected job, reserved specifically for asylum-seekers, will help John to reintegrate into the real labour market. Jordanos (13) and Heaven (16) have only just arrived in Switzerland. They speak no German, and hardly any English. By chance, I find out that they are not actually John's biological children, but orphans from his home village to whom he wants to offer the chance of a new life in Switzerland.
New house rules
As I explain the dishwasher to the two girls, and fill up the salt, they both get the giggles. They have never seen a dishwasher before. It immediately breaks the ice. What I'm not used to is being driven out of the kitchen when we've finished cooking. Cleaning is women's work, they tell me proudly. I've never before seen anyone dance and sing while they clean.
Nine o'clock is dinner time, and every evening I'm warmly invited – indeed summoned – to join them. Tonight it's yoghurt pancakes with tomato sauce. Privacy is less important in Eritrea than it is here. Much is shared, and I often catch the children in my room on my computer, as if they take it for granted that they can use it without asking.
Suddenly, Heaven falls to the floor in the hall and lies there, unconscious. After several unsuccessful attempts to wake her, John puts her to bed on a mattress. He explains that there are many traditional illnesses in Africa. In the morning, Heaven still cannot be woken, and lies shaking in bed. Her father is worried.
He keeps a vigil by her side all night, and organises a priest and several friends to come and pray for her the next day. And so my flat is suddenly full of praying Africans – and Heaven does wake up a day later. She is happy again, almost as if nothing had happened. God helped her, she says, touching her heart.
The family is strongly Christian, but practice their religion in a completely different way than in Europe. Services are like family gatherings, with dancing, music and laughter. From now on, an Eritrean televangelist can be heard daily in my flat. Father comments on the sermons with a smile, and the children listen with half an ear as they dance around.
I often talk with John about God. He takes a simple view of life. Sometimes people make mistakes, sometimes they don't. He tries to do the right thing. Now and again he tries to convert me, telling me all my problems would be solved if I were to become a Christian. His attempts never succeed, but I get the sense that the family lives their faith honestly and joyfully.
It will soon be time to say goodbye, and John asks me to read out to the girls the employment reference he has just received. He is praised in the highest terms and, although they don't understand a word, the children clap and laugh. Proudly, he takes the reference back.
I very much enjoyed this extraordinary time. John, Heaven and Jordanos were the best flatmates I have ever had – good-humoured, generous, warm and interesting. Not having to touch a broom for the whole three months was just a bonus!
Report first published on 29.06.2015 on Tink.ch
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