Christmas is always a bit awkward for me as I’m Jewish, and a big part of my Jewish identity growing up was that we did NOT do Christmas. I have since married into a Jewish family that DOES do Christmas, so we have settled into a routine of one year ‘on’ and one year ‘off’, and 2012 was an ‘on’ year. So to counterbalance the wonderful family dinner and indulgences I knew were awaiting me on December 25, I decided to try to volunteer somewhere over the festive season too. A tip off from a very good friend resulted in me driving from my comfortable north Leeds neighbourhood, on an unfamiliar route (satnav enabled), to Wakefield. Next door to the prison in fact. I was out of my comfort zone in more ways than one.
I was going to help out at a Christmas party at Angel Lodge – one of five British absorption centres for people who have newly arrived in the UK seeking asylum here. I was nervous and held all kinds of assumptions about people’s backgrounds, abilities and language, and was relieved when I was tasked with handing out the small gifts we had all brought with us. But my nerves so quickly evaporated when the party started and I quickly engaged in conversation, played with the children and smiled with the residents there. It was so clear that we had more in common than separated us, and I felt more than any other time in my life part of the family of humankind. I was hooked. I returned Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and early January, each time bringing small gifts and donations from myself and others responding to a quick status update on Facebook. But more important than the material things were the conversations, the smiles, and the games with the children which relieved the residents of the boredom of the very long empty days.
In particular, I met a young mum and her 3 year old son at Angel Lodge. They were relocated after three weeks (the usual length of time there) to Harehills, an area of Leeds I didn’t know even though it was a mere seven minutes’ drive from my house. You see when I first moved to Leeds, I was advised to use the A61 to drive home from town, because of the reputation of Harehills. and Chapeltown, as dangerous areas.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself in mid-January, last year, tentatively knocking on the door of this tiny back to back terrace. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, for her or for me. I didn’t know if she even remembered me, or if she did, if she would be angry that I had just turned up like this and invaded her private space. She opened the door and immediately gave me a huge hug and smile. A new chapter of my life had begun.
So 2013 was the year of our friendship. It was the year that we have laughed together, sung together, cried together, worried together, sat silently together, baked bread together and drunk good coffee together. Our children play together, her son and my daughter even shared their birthday party together.
Harehills is an almost every day feature of my life now, and I enjoy the lively international atmosphere, sense of hard work and beautiful smells of curry on my many journeys to and through it. I often laugh at the old me who could have spent her whole life driving up and down a really boring stretch of dual carriageway instead, always seeking the familiar and the comfortable. Not any more!