The perils of putting up (with) two refugees: 'Our cramped living room stank of the garlic they chewed raw.' Robert Verkaik has mixed feelings about the Romanians who overstayed their welcome

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THEY stood on the steps of my north London flat at two o'clock in the morning - penniless illegal immigrants for whom pidgin English was a standard of communication yet to be mastered. By the end of the week, they had set up camp in our living room and taken root in our lives.

I had met one of them, Marian, on a visit to Romania to cover the elections after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu at Christmas 1989. At the end of an exciting and sociable visit, during which Marian had put me up in Bucharest, I had had no qualms about giving him my address. But I didn't know then what I know now.

Handing out my address was not a harmless parting gesture formally marking the end of my stay; it was a written promise of a new life in the West, all expenses paid. Since my two 'revolutionaries' arrived three months ago, I have had trouble recalling any of the good things that happened to me in Romania.

Marian, 28, and his friend Costel, 24, were part of a 48-strong contingent of Steaua Bucharest football fans who came to Dublin at the end of September, ostensibly to support their team in a European Cup tie against Dublin Bohemians. After the final whistle, however, only eight returned home. Marian and Costel gave customs the slip at Holyhead and, with their last few pounds, found their way to my flat in Stoke Newington.

The only other addresses they had were those of a photographer colleague with whom I had travelled to Romania (no vacancies at his flat) and, incongruously, a Birmingham police inspector who had written to thank Marian's uncle for the hospitality shown to him during a Birmingham police visit to Bucharest.

The novelty of our illegal immigrants, however, quickly began to wear off. They refused to be bowled over by their first curry and insisted on soft drinks in the pub. But it was when they fell back on the language of international football, as if it were an acceptable alternative to English, that I began seriously to consider informing the police about their presence.

We were sitting drinking coffee, our cramped living room stank of garlic (which they both chew raw), I had to start a new job in the morning and we were reviewing the football scores for the umpteenth time.

But my conscience was pricked by the memory of the week I had spent in Marian's cramped, one-bedroom apartment; of his stories about police harassing the family after his father, an anti-Communist agitator, had been beaten to death by the Securitate and how they had beaten Marian when he refused to demonstrate for the neo-Communist regime. Above all, I recalled how he had slept with his sick mother in a single bed, so that I could sleep alone in his lounge.

The day after they arrived, I had driven them to the Nationality and Immigration Department in Croydon so that they could register as political refugees. Further up the queue, they recognised another of the football fans who had done a bunk. He was accompanied by a fellow countryman who had been granted asylum in the UK soon after the Romanian revolution, and this man started to question me about our flat, saying that now I must look after them. I was annoyed. Why couldn't he put them up in his council flat in Battersea?

When we reached the window and I began to explain my boarders' predicament, the immigration officer interrupted: 'Would you mind not interfering? Let the applicants speak for themselves.'

'They can't speak English and I'm only trying to help,' I replied.

'If they are political refugees, they must say so themselves,' she said.

Marian, whose English is better than Costel's, managed to make an oral application. But Costel was scared. When he was asked what he was doing in this country, he didn't understand and started to panic. He looked at me like a child in trouble. I told him to repeat what Marian had said, but he got into a tangle. In the end the immigration officer had to tell him what to say.

The only purpose of such an approach - the Immigration Department cannot refuse to consider an application for asylum - seemed to be to humiliate and weaken the resolve of the political refugee. It left me feeling that they needed my help more than ever, even though I had been told there was already a waiting-list of 60,000 asylum seekers, and their applications might take as long as 18 months to be processed.

Having registered with the Home Office, they were entitled to income support and associated benefits, and they wasted no time. The following week Marian had furnished himself with a pair of health service glasses and had his teeth capped; he and Costel enrolled at Hackney Community Centre for English and French classes; and Marian demanded my boots for a game with a Sunday football team.

All the time I was getting more and more irritated by petty things, and they seemed as dependent on us as ever. I asked the British Romanian Association for help, but a spokesman told me: 'When there were just a few of them coming over we tried to help, but since the revolution, every day 40 more arrive.' He wished Marian and Costel luck, but that was all.

My girlfriend had had enough, and spent a day helping them to look for a bedsit. With a pounds 200 deposit, she found them a place around the corner where the landlord was willing to take them as benefit tenants.

Now that they have secured legal aid and a solicitor to represent them during the political asylum hearings, their morale is much improved. Marian wants to be a football coach and Costel is hoping to keep bees, as he did in Romania. They both want to buy flats and get a foot on the property ladder, believing that is where the money is. And Marian keeps saying: 'If you want to find work, you just have to look hard.'

They still come round three times a week for form-filling or letter-explaining sessions. Three weeks ago I got annoyed again and told them to come back another day. When they appeared, they were bearing Christmas presents.

Marian told me he had just received a letter from his 14-year-old brother, saying that the Securitate had begun harassing his mother and brother again. I had another guilt attack, and hastily folded some money into their Christmas cards.

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