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Dina Nayeri

When Your Social Worker Thinks You’re Ungrateful

Illustration by Dola Sun

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.
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