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Week 11: Close to home

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In our blog series ‘Close to home’ Yemeni refugee Ali* and host Robert share their experiences living together. There will be weekly posts about the ups and downs, difficulties, highlights and surprises.

*not his real name.

Robert is many things, dad, dog-lover, Director of Takecarebnb, an organisation that matches newcomers to host families. Every day, he convinces Dutch host families to offer temporary places of stays for refugees with a status. Now that his youngest daughter has passed her final exams, it’s time to put his words into action.

Ali is a refugee from Yemen with big dreams. He loves poetry, chess and can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than a minute. He spent time studying and working in India when it became clear he could not return to Yemen. When travelling to Europe as part of a conference, he visited The Netherlands and knew he wanted to stay.

Ali: You are what you eat? A term I’ve heard and haven’t understood. My eating habits are something I’m not proud of, it makes me feel awful because I eat what I want whenever I want. Eating is one of the hardest habits I have to alter. Should I begin being vegan? Or do I have to carry on keto? How does it feel to not eat meat for months? Cooking is not my strongest suit, but trust me when I say eating is. I adore food, I enjoy eating, and I don’t keep track of calories.

Robert: I’m also the kind of person who cannot limit himself to one cookie or four pieces of drop (liquorice). You keep it and it gets stale, so you better eat it all at once. Therefore the only solution to stay healthy is to NOT BUY that kind of stuff. Ali has written about my discipline before, so you will not be surprised that I succeed quite easily. Until Ali arrived. Cookies and chocolate in abundance. Dates. A pie baked by a friend. Time for a serious talk Ali!

Ali: While Robert is less concerned about what to eat or have for dinner, I start thinking about what I will eat for breakfast the moment I wake up, and while I am eating breakfast, I am already thinking about what I will eat for lunch, snack, and dinner. I can finish a jar of Nutella or a box of chocolate in a single sitting.

Food is an important part of our culture. My mother dedicated her life to preparing the best food for us, and that is where it all began. Her way of showing love was to cook more and feed me more. My father will also always give me as much candy as I want. I’m not sure where to begin with my health concerns? 

Robert: We have lunch or dinner together a couple of times a week. Not every day, since our schedules differ. Having a meal together is a good way to stay connected, just like in a regular family. We discuss work. How to interact with a Dutch boss, or an American one. How to find a balance between working as hard as you had to do in other countries and the more laid-back 4 day a week/25 holidays per year/special leave for the dentist/mental health Wednesdays corporate culture in a Western ICT company.  

Ali: Now it’s time to make the most of my new experience living with Robert, where there isn’t much unhealthy food in the house, and I’ve noticed that he doesn’t like it when I bring unhealthy snacks, so I decided to start eating healthier. Today, I can say that I don’t plan my meals because everything I buy is healthy and I eat whatever is available.

Robert: Ali offered to chip in for household costs. I refused. He insisted. I refused again. He insisted again. We came to a solution: we go out for dinner in a nice place together once a month and he pays (I pay for the wine myself). I told Ali during one of our first talks that in my opinion it’s a talent to be able to accept gifts and thereby offering someone the opportunity to show gratitude (my gifts to him I meant at the time).

Ali was smart enough to remind me of that when it was my turn to accept his gift. So, yes I accepted his gift and we enjoy a meal together in a fancy restaurant where we laugh about the way the waiter presents the wine (hints of butter, summer fruit) or the introduction of that special bean harvested by hand in some faraway country. No they don’t do it that way in Aden or Sanaa. Especially not nowadays. 

Ali: As someone who has eaten everything imaginable, I enjoy burgers and fries as snacks. But today, I don’t mind having only salad for dinner. I still enjoy food, but I value my health more, so I am more conscious of what I put into my body. My mood, weight, and energy levels have all improved. And I have changed my perspective on food forever. Eating for survival rather than pleasure. That’s what I took away from Robert. So yes, we are what we eat.