On Finding a Refugee Sleeping in My Basement

At the end of August, an unexpected encounter at 6:30 in the morning was to turn my week upside-down.  I wrote about the experience and the Guardian ran with the story, which was their Spotlight article for the 2nd of September, and appeared in the paper edition on the 4th.  I was very impressed with the conscientious editing done by the Guardian staff and was quite happy with the result.  Although the article had been cut down to nearly half its original size, it maintained its core message.  I include here the original article, pre-editing, for those who way be interested.




I Got A Shock When I Discovered A Refugee Sleeping In My Cellar, But The Shitstorm Which Followed Was Even More Unexpected…


Bernie Duffy, 30.08.2015


Our neighbourhood in the Western suburbs of Hamburg was built during the Nazi era.  Short, uniform red-brick buildings, covered in lush ivy, are separated by greens and stand in neat rows perpendicular to a quiet leafy street.  My girlfriend and I, from Scotland and Ireland respectively, love it here – it’s a fifteen minute walk to the river and its beaches, and there is a huge playground outside for our baby daughter.  The neighbours are largely foreigners too and we have community barbecues in nice weather.  One unusual feature of our street is the basement complex which connects the buildings.  During the war, this labyrinth of tunnels was used for air-raids – blast-proof metal doors are still in place and have to be opened with huge levers, like on a ship.  It’s a strange but lovely place, regardless of the history, and we find it hard to leave even though our small family is outgrowing the apartment.


Hamburg is a tolerant, cosmopolitan city.  It has been relatively very welcoming to refugees (compared to some other cities).  Container-style villages are popping up all around, in some of the nicest neighbourhoods, as emergency housing for the sudden influx of people.  The current crisis is in the news every day and citizens are mobilizing where and how they can to provide support.  As a freelance consultant, I visit many clients’ offices – in each I see a corner with donations piled high to send to the refugee centers.  At Hamburg’s main station, sometimes hundreds of migrants arrive every day, often standing in groups and looking confused, not knowing where to go next.  It’s impossible not to notice what’s going on here.  It’s the biggest humanitarian crisis to hit Europe since the war, and everyone here is acutely aware of it.


On Thursday morning I had an earlier than usual start.  Dragging myself out of bed at 6 a.m. for an important meeting on the other side of the city, the refugee crisis was the last thing on my mind.  Dressed and ready, I went to the cellar to fetch my bike, and was just about to pull it out of the storage room when there was a movement at the edge of my view.  I nearly hit my head off the low ceiling in fright.  There was a person, a middle-aged woman, scrambling to pick up her clothes from the floor in the corner of the corridor.  She was middle-eastern, and was saying sorry, and was packing her things hurriedly into a bag.  Some blankets and a floor-mat were lying in disorder around her.  In the moment, I didn’t know what to do – she seemed frightened, I had just had a fright.  I held out the palms of my hands and said, “it’s okay, don’t worry.”  She looked at me with fear and suspicion and I tried my best at a calm, reassuring smile.  She kept packing, and I took my bike outside.


As I cycled to my meeting, the shock faded and quickly turned to concern.  I stopped and called my girlfriend, waking her up, and asked her to go into the basement and see if the woman needed anything.  It was too late, she had left.


After the meeting, I was troubled and felt I should share this with my friends and family, most of whom are scattered around the world, on the one place where I can reach out to them, Facebook:


August 27 at 8:01am ·

Went down to the basement at 6:30 this morning to get my bike, as I do every Thursday (early start) and got a shock when I found a woman sleeping down there. This is the refugee crisis in Germany hitting home! I wouldn’t suppose any of my British or Irish friends have any idea what I’m on about…


Perhaps I was snarky in tone, maybe I was inciting the argument – Germany, after all, is taking the giant’s share of refugees with nearly 800,000 expected this year alone.  But the responses to my status update were far beyond anything I anticipated.  I had obviously touched a nerve.  The comments came in fast, ranging from righteous alarm to mixed rage.  Although I may publish my original post, I respect the anonymity of others not to repeat their words publicly – but I can say I got it in the neck for the following:


  1. not responding with immediate emergency aid
  2. being too sympathetic and not calling the police (for trespassing)
  3. being in Germany, which makes me by default German, which is the source of all the world’s woes, including this current crisis
  4. being ignorant of the particular situation in the U.K and Ireland


The comments were – shockingly and for the first time in over 9 years of speaking my mind openly on social media – laced with personal insults, perhaps indicating the level of feeling I had stirred up.  Now I was suddenly defending myself, I was justifying my actions, or rather, inactions in this situation.  I was, actually, dumbfounded by the comments.  These were people I thought I knew well who were now judging me in this critical moral moment.  “We should look after our own first, send them back!” was a big stated theme, “I suppose the good samaritan came along later” was another more sarcastic sentiment.  I was caught between two conflicting moral responses and there was no winning.


I eventually appealed for some reason.  Even the harshest critics started back-pedalling.  I realized that it took them time, too, to think of how they would respond in the same situation.  Although I regretted not acting immediately, I argued that it would be problematic to ask the woman to explain herself at 6:30 in the morning to a strange man in a basement, while half dressed and startled awake.  A cup of coffee does not solve anything when you’re sleeping rough – I know this because I’ve been there, twenty years ago in the U.K., I’ve slept rough on many occasions.  When you’ve spent a night on the hard ground, a cup of anything is a shallow gesture – a toilet, a shower, a washer and dryer and a clean towel are your real needs.  You want your dignity, not sympathy.  A further complication to this situation is that I am a man and this was a woman.  Any invitation to my home rings alarm bells.  I’m anyway less apt to throw my door open to strangers now I have a small child.


As the anger towards me, and my defensiveness, dissipated, I noticed a pattern to the reactions.  The more well-off and well-established of my critics were the more sanctimonious, clearly, savagely critical of my not doing enough.  The more hard-working, less-traveled of the responders were the less tolerant, and more likely to blame Germany, or me, for being too sympathetic or even causing the problem in the first place.  I became profoundly philosophical about everyone’s reactions, so much I could not sleep the following night.  I searched the basement complex, every nook and cranny, every vacant space, for her or others…  She was gone.  Only the scent of heavily sprayed perfume lingered, probably to mask any bodily smells left behind.  It was as if I had encountered a ghost.  A thirty-second encounter had turned my day, my week, upside-down.


I searched myself too, that night.  I’m not a man without compassion – we all have compassion to varying degrees – it’s human.  I do a lot for charities – homeless, conservation, environmental – but no, not for refugees to date.  So, how did I miss this opportunity to be the hero?  Should I not have swept her up in her moment of despair – fed her, clothed her, found her a place to live, traced her family and sorted them out too, and maybe even taught her the language and found her a job while I’m at it?  Well, no, it’s not my responsibility.  She was sleeping in the basement, not drowning at sea – and I was not standing on the beach watching, although some reacted as if I were.  I don’t know this person, but I know there is still space at the refugee centers.  Her particular situation must be more complicated if she feels she can’t stay at one of these.  Just because she is a woman does not preclude her from being a bad person either.  I can’t presume she is a victim.


I’m not territorial to the extent that I see her as a trespasser.  The basement is private property, but it is also shared space.  I would ask the question to any one of my critics to think hard about how they would react to finding a person in their basement or garden shed…  What if it were a man, and not a woman?  What about a young man surrounded by used syringes?  An elderly person stinking to high heaven of booze?  A small child with a sick puppy?  Now put them in any combination.  Good morning, this is on your property, now what do you do?  (You have 30 seconds to decide).  There’s never going to be a simple answer.  Any city dweller will pass dozens of homeless people on any given day without the urgent need, or feeling of moral obligation, to intervene.  Most of us have strong opinions on the issue of homelessness, we know it’s wrong, but we believe the authorities should be doing more about this.  We don’t take it as a personal responsibility.


The more oblique argument is that the problem is not for our authorities at all, at our expense, but for the authorities of another country – whoever “us” and “them” might be.  It’s a whole other way of deferring responsibility and was the sentiment at the root of my more indignant critics.  I don’t believe people in Britain and Ireland have yet grasped the scale of the migrant crisis – they are only receiving a small fraction of the number of people that are arriving in Germany, and yet the panic is inflated in the U.K. press as if the barbarians were at the gates.  I don’t follow the argument that it is Germany’s obligation due to any degree of history, I find this view both cynical and bizarre.  Who should be responsible is the most contentious point for many, and there will be bad feelings and harsh words, undoubtedly, as the EU begins discussing migrant quotas for member states.  Our refugees are hot potatoes.  Who should take the pain?  Who’s the cook?


But, at the end of the day, when it’s on your doorstep, it’s not political anymore, it’s personal.


My Dad, who was following my Facebook shitstorm, became naturally concerned for me, and was the first to reach out to me as to my feelings on the matter.  He called and referred me to passages of poetry, and gave me an important reminder that we Irish were once the refugees of the world too.  We’re all displaced in time and space, in a sense – the idea that a place is or should be exclusive to us is just an odd notion.  Of course I empathize with migrants, I’ve spent the majority of my life as one, but it doesn’t mean I’m ready for their problems when I’m confronted with them.


I sit with the uneasy conclusion that I perhaps did do the right thing, by playing it cool and not overreacting.  Mobbing someone in an unfortunate situation with hurried kindness doesn’t really help in the long term, and is open to all kinds of misinterpretation in the short-term.  I support the housing and protection of refugees but I am now aware that I must do more personally.  The minimum I or anyone can do is to be prepared to help the poor traveller.  I am putting together an emergency kit for the next time this happens – complete with a towel, toiletries, rain poncho, bottled water, new socks, twenty euro and fliers with directions to help centers.  I will not include food, as heavy tins are the last thing a displaced person wants to lug around.  I will speak to my neighbours and encourage them to prepare likewise.  I will finally participate in the football club my friend has established for young refugees in the city – something I’ve been putting off for months….


And, I’ll be leaving the back door which leads to the basement unlocked, for the time being.



The story was referenced in Martin Rowson’s editorial cartoon on the following Sunday, a great honour indeed!


Has one comment to “On Finding a Refugee Sleeping in My Basement”

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  1. Seán O'Donovan says: April 15, 2016 at 12:18 am

    A powerful and thought provoking story, written with great honesty and humility Bernie.
    You dealt with your Facebook shitstorm admirably, I wouldn’t have.
    And, yes you’re right; we in Ireland and the U.K. Have no clue as to the scale of what’s happening across mainlland Europe, particularly in your country.

    It’s obvious you’ve given this thought; your useful care package is an excellent idea and one we should adopt and adapt for those local to all of us who are in need.

    By the way, reading your piec reminded me so much of our recently passed mutual friend, I miss his posts – however it’s lovely to see that his writing style, humanity and thought provoking articles have a similar feel to yours, no doubt a testament to your close friendship over the years, where I”d imagine the time spent living under the same roof helped form both your characters

    Thank you for sharing your stories.