When Your Social Worker Thinks You’re Ungrateful

Dina Nayeri’s patience is tried as she accompanies an immigrant family into a bureaucratic nightmare.

Dina Nayeri | Longreads | August 2019 | 13 minutes (3,210 words)

In the last two years I’ve become entangled in the workings of the homelessness prevention arm of London’s Camden Council. Camden is the borough that includes the British Museum, the British Library, a small sliver of Regents Park, and a huge chunk of Hampstead Heath. It also has its rough parts, with subsidized or free council housing, artists on grants, young mothers on benefits — as in most of London, Camden’s residents are a varied lot and everyone, whatever their socioeconomic class, uses some kind of government service.

Minoo is an Iranian refugee with two bright children and a sick, immobile husband. In Iran, she was an experienced nurse, her husband an engineer and Christian convert. Her daughter is clever and witty, her sharp eye taking in every detail. Her son is a football star with a head for math. The four escaped religious persecution and possible death in Iran, spent months as asylum seekers having their story scrutinized for lies, then slept in a roach motel for a few more months before being recognized as both refugees and at risk for homelessness. Now, having been granted asylum, they share a tiny room in a Camden hostel and wait for permanent housing.

Minoo and I met two years ago, when her church contacted me to befriend a new refugee who was at risk of depression. She was my age, a mother, like me, and came from my hometown in Iran. We had fled for the same kind of apostasy, though I had been a child and she was in her 30s. We met for coffee. She was bedraggled but smiled for my sake. She insisted on buying my coffee. She had sad, kind eyes, with a drop of something, like a tear, lodged near one iris. To bridge the class divide, and to put her at ease, I made a clown of myself, and soon she opened up to me. “We can’t breathe,” she said. “My son is almost a teenager. My daughter is suffocating.”

The family’s Camden hostel room has a single bed that they share: sick husband, wife, pre-teen boy and girl. From the bed, you can touch the bathroom door and the kitchen table. Three large steps will put you at the opposite wall. Every day, they face potential homelessness, and yet, for two years, the Camden housing authority has run them in circles. It’s important to stress that the family’s status has already been decided. By the (conservative) government’s own estimation, they are at risk of homelessness, and given the husband’s condition, entitled to public housing that includes separate rooms for the boy and girl. And yet, accessing it has been humiliating, repetitive, and opaque. Recently it’s become vindictive, too.

***

In early summer the Camden Council sends Minoo another noncommittal letter. She asks if I can do anything. I join her for a visit to her caseworker. I bring my partner Sam’s brother (called Daniel, like my brother), a barrister. After months of refusing to let me see her home, always meeting me in cafés and parks and subway stops, Minoo relents, and we visit. There’s nowhere to look — her husband sits beside their children on the bed. A callous part of me wants him to reach out and touch the bathroom door, the kitchen table, so I can confirm this for my rant to the council bureaucrats. Minoo serves fruit and tea. We stare at a pile of grim papers.

Minoo and I met two years ago, when her church contacted me to befriend a new refugee who was at risk of depression. She was my age, a mother, like me, and came from my hometown in Iran.

At the meeting, a young caseworker explains the process. Minoo can apply for medical disability points for her husband, and she can use those points toward a suitable home in Camden. Otherwise, she can get in line for subsidized private housing. It’s a labyrinth. After an hour, I think I understand it. I ask if the two processes can begin simultaneously, so that she doesn’t have to wait twice if the request for points is rejected. The caseworker says yes. I translate as she takes Minoo through a series of humiliating forms. No self-respecting Iranian would continue being my friend after I’ve witnessed and taken part in this abjection. When we leave, I ask about the timeline and next steps. The caseworker says, ever cheerfully, that the application will be processed within days and the medical points resolved.

When we don’t hear from the council in several weeks, I call again. I can’t reach the worker, though she sends annoyed emails hinting that my involvement isn’t welcome. When I reach her by phone, she says Minoo’s file is missing key medical statements.

“You never mentioned those,” I say.

“Maybe not in the meeting with you, but Minoo knew.” She didn’t.

“But I triple-checked every step with you. I asked many times. I made a list.”

We chase up the forms. Then they say that it would help to have a letter attesting to the worsening of the husband’s condition in the flat. We jump through hoop after hoop until the request is rejected. We discover that the two processes were indeed not simultaneous — the caseworker claims never to have said it was. The wait begins again at day one, with Minoo’s small children still sharing a bed with a sick man, and Camden Council officials claiming, straight-faced, that this is acceptable to them.

“They made my neighbor wait four years,” Minoo tells me, her voice breaking. “Then her kids grew and they said she was no longer eligible.”

Minoo falls into a depression. A friend at Amnesty International tells me that Minoo’s situation is enviable compared with some others. She reminds me of the twenty-eight-day rule: asylum seekers have four weeks after acceptance to find a home, a bank account, and a job, or they face the streets. At least Minoo’s family has the one bed, the roof, the sink. She’s farther along the long road to respectable Britishness.

Minoo and I drift apart. I try to adjust to the way she communicates. Again, I fail. Iranian pride has only two textures: marble hard or crumbling. It’s never a malleable, habitable thing. Her situation makes her behavior worse. She responds in two-word texts, even to open questions. Then, randomly, she says she misses me very much. She can’t calibrate. I realize I’m her only friend. She is trying to behave as she thinks British friends do — cool, unmoved. I recoil. Then I text again. We meet in parks, and she always shows up at the wrong end of the park, then suddenly forgets how to read a map. She turns off the data on her phone, so she doesn’t receive my texts or WhatsApp messages, and she won’t place a call. Even if she’s lost, she waits for me to ring her. I understand why. I’ve seen her finances — her inertia still makes me angry. Where is her savvy? Her agency and drive? Did she leave them in Iran? Because this is a chance to start again. “So, start already!” I want to scream. I tell her that it’s enviable to live in central London, that she should be spending her days in libraries, reading, studying English, visiting museums. She shrugs listlessly, and I get it, I get it, I get it. But.

Maybe this is my role. I’m not very good at friendship. I’m intense and impatient with other people’s needs. But there are things only I am allowed to say — because I understand Iranian doublespeak, and I was a refugee once. No British person would ever tell Minoo to stop the damn moping. But I can say that. I can say, “OK, saving phone minutes is legit, but avoiding the library is laziness. You have a bus pass. You have Google Maps. Stop crippling yourself with sorrow.” I try to say it. But she’s so sad. How does anyone communicate with her? I start pummeling myself with jokes instead. I joke about my itchy brain, my post-baby tummy, my gray hairs, the men who dumped me, my bad cooking (I’m a good cook, but Minoo is undoubtedly better), my failures as a daughter. Is this how people help the depressed? I’ve become a circus clown, a jester.


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Minoo’s caseworker leaves her job. It turns out she never even put Minoo’s family on the list for subsidized private housing. I rage — I call Sam’s brother, Daniel, the human rights lawyer. “It’s time for the lawyer treatment,” I say. I write to the council, demanding a meeting. They delay, for a translator. I am the translator she has chosen, I write. I am taking careful note of all your actions from here on out.

They find a translator. Her Persian is bad. She’s a Kurd from the evictions unit that they’ve dragged in. I end up doing most of the translation; she jumps in now and then. Sam’s brother is fabulously intimidating. We discover that the humiliating questionnaire has to be repeated. Minoo bursts into tears, her chin dimpling, shoulders shaking. She hides her face in her hands. Then she repeats every disgraceful detail about bowels and sponge-baths and grocery money, this time with two Persian women and two strange English men watching. It is the stuff of old Persian farces, wherein the shame escalates in the most absurd ways, until the protagonist is no longer entirely human.

Halfway through the interview, we find out that the Kurdish woman is an expert in London housing. Feeling underused, she begins advising us on neighborhoods where Minoo’s family may have a shot of getting a house. Minoo sniffles. We describe Enfield and Haringey, assuring her that there are safe boroughs outside central London.

One day over coffee, Minoo opens up to me. She tells me about the family’s first nights in a London hostel. Mice dashed brazenly about as the children pulled their feet onto the shared bed and screamed. Then they all held each other and collapsed into laughter.

“With us it was cockroaches in Dubai,” I say. Minoo and I chuckle into our coffees, like real friends. I think I would’ve liked the version of Minoo who lived in Isfahan.

She says, “I used to work all the time. I was like you, with day care and a job. But, did you know sometimes in Iranian daycare they sedate the children? They give them cold medicine with sleep aids. You can’t do anything about it. You can’t prove it.” She sighs, sips her coffee. “When we were crouching from the mice, my son said, ‘I like it here because you can be my mom.’ So, the mouse room is actually a sweet memory for me.”

“You’ll tell each other that story,” I say, “when you have a big house and he’s a doctor and famous soccer player.”

“Yes!” she says. “God willing.”

The next day, the man from the council visits Minoo at the hostel building and compels her, without me or Daniel present, to add a ground-floor restriction to her housing request. She loses the next available flat, which is on the second floor. When we complain, they write to Minoo and Daniel that they won’t communicate with me anymore, having discovered that I’m a writer, a thing I’ve told them in every call and meeting. They are certain I’m writing a book about Minoo, a thing they have no way of knowing and which isn’t true (yet). They demand a medical examination, to decide if Minoo’s husband can use stairs. The family’s assurances aren’t enough, as if they don’t suffer daily alongside him, as if they aren’t the ones on whose shoulders he will lean. Barred from communication, I dictate emails for Minoo to send the council. They ignore all pleas on behalf of the children, who have grown into adolescence in a tiny room, in one bed, with their parents. On our next call, Minoo’s voice is barely above a whisper.

***

I admit (though never aloud) that when Minoo questions neighborhoods, I resent her. I struggle to control my thoughts, memories of my own refugee days. The ugly thoughts come unbidden. What are you doing? There’s so much else to get done to make a home. Do you want your daughter forever traumatized? This isn’t a real estate office.

A few months later, the council offers Minoo’s family an apartment in Enfield. It is a decent three-bedroom, ground-floor unit in a concrete block on a highway nearly an hour by bus from the children’s school. Minoo is given two days to accept or reject the apartment. She is also reminded that the council are only obliged to make one more suitable offer to the family. If they reject the next one, they will be expelled from their temporary housing and made homeless. The council will wash its hands, and the children will be housed by social services — without their parents. “You could lose your children,” the housing officer warns, her voice serene.

There are things only I am allowed to say — because I understand Iranian doublespeak, and I was a refugee once. No British person would ever tell Minoo to stop the damn moping. But I can say that.

I assure Minoo that this is a good neighborhood with excellent schools and doctors. Two days later, Minoo turns down the flat, opting for the unknown final option. I rail at her about the gamble. “Do you know what you could be offered next?” I say. “It won’t be Camden. You’ll be far away. It could be worse.”

“This isn’t my decision alone,” she says. “We are four people.” She keeps her voice always down, even as I shout, unburdening myself, though this will hardly affect me.

For weeks, I stay away from Minoo. I struggle with cruel judgments — What more does she want? Doesn’t she understand that she has been saved, that there is a struggle ahead, one that I too had to endure, in all those tiny, undesirable spaces? Despite every hard-earned conviction, my mind goes straight to that word: ungrateful.

Maybe Minoo is being unrealistic. And maybe it’s okay for me, her friend, to think that. But here’s the problem when the housing people think that, and are free to act on it: they begin punishing her for her behavior, employing strong-arm tactics: shutting out her helpers, ignoring calls, speaking fast English without offering a phone translator, scheduling multiple viewings at the same time.

Finally, they email her that they will no longer allow Minoo to view homes in person because her lack of enthusiasm is off-putting to landlords – they claim that she is “sabotaging” the offers. What they actually mean is that when the landlord turns Minoo down, instead of the other way around, they can’t discharge duty. In the end, that is all the bureaucracy wants, what it’s designed to accomplish: to get the family off their list, whether that’s into a home or onto the streets.

***

It is so easy to say: Minoo wants too much. But no one would accept Minoo’s current conditions for their own family. It isn’t a home. And why should she accept it? Why should she accept this sabotage by cruel, disaffected individuals in a flawed bureaucratic machine? Why should Minoo’s talented children, just because they were born in a brutal dictatorship and have no assets, sit on a bus for forty-five minutes while trust-fund kids sleep an extra hour, and begin their school day fresher, sharper? Why should someone with talent and passion for a sport have to quit his team because of bus schedules? There is no reason for this piling on of advantage. We’ve simply accepted it because that is how the world has always worked.

Meanwhile, the family scours online rental agencies daily. Those apartments are pipe dreams; London landlords don’t rent to refugees. Though they are recognized political refugees with an illness and two children, and though they are respectable professionals only wishing to plug into society again, to work, study, contribute, they still have no private credit in the U.K. They are at the mercy of the council’s disaffected, undertrained, poorly incentivized workers.

This story may take years to resolve.

***

I talked with Minoo today. Something about her has changed. She seems determined, searching for hospital jobs, scouring flat listings. She has learned that NHS has a shortfall of medical staff and she understands that one day she will reduce that shortfall with her talents. She texts me in English now, and has a church community that love her. She is finding her agency, becoming the Capable Immigrant I wanted her to be. She let no one decide for her. And yet, the Camden Council are still out to get her off their roster. She keeps finding suitable flats online and they keep refusing them. They claim that the three-bedroom rule is imperative, because teenagers need their own rooms. Bunkbeds? Never. As of today, the children are still waiting for this ideal home in their father’s sick bed.

Is this bureaucratic nightmare the best we can do for our most vulnerable? Minoo and her family do belong to the British now. We’ve all ended up in this city one way or another. We all depend on government services sometimes. I use the National Health Service. Most of my friends do too. It’s hard to stomach the notion that someone with rights, a real and accepted member of our society is being dragged through this hell, because we think living conditions that we would never accept for ourselves are good enough for some. It’s the free market, right?

It is so easy to say: Minoo wants too much. But no one would accept Minoo’s current conditions for their own family. It isn’t a home.

Even the finest housing programs are subject to market forces that allocate the best, healthiest, most comfortable spaces to the wealthy. We’ve been told we must respect free market outcomes, but societies, like people, grow up — they develop flaws and disorders. And while your Econ 101 textbook and that beat-up old copy of The Fountainhead will tell you markets allocate resources perfectly, it takes a deeper study of Economics to understand externalities, imperfect assumptions, and the notion that there could be better ways of calculating social good than the sum of everyone’s utility. There is also the question of fairness.

And then there is the problem of bureaucracy: we build machines to make our lives seamless and to reduce human error. As Max Weber observed, a bureaucracy is just a machine made up of people, and like any machine, it works according to how it is programmed. If there is a glitch, or if it stops giving a desired outcome, it should be fixed. If a system — an agency or bureaucracy or a market — is designed to pile on privilege, it should be re-designed. Writing about asylum seekers, I have seen how much an asylum officer’s mood and ego can alter lives. What is the unseen cost of taking what you’re owed, in terms of time and dignity? Are the individual workers at a government agency allowed to drive people to madness trying to get things that society has already said there are owed?

Because, at the end of the day, what is a government agency for? It is time to ask the tough questions: do we want to help, or do we want to have helped? Do we want to improve the life of a fellow countryman (however new)? Do we want a complex problem to be solved or just over, without a human beneficiary slowing things down?

* * *

Dina Nayeri‘s book The Ungrateful Refugee will be published September 3rd by Catapult Books. (You can read more of the story of Minoo and Dina’s friendship and the house hunt there.) Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in 20 countries and in The New York Times, Granta, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. She is a fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris.

Editor: Sari Botton