on manicures and refugees


This room was very familiar to me. It’s round tables, the laminate floor, the residual smells of mass-cooked dinner remaining from last night. Here I would come weekly, gather a small group of people around a table – from Tibet, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya – a few women bouncing babies on their laps, and we’d sound out new English words, practise new phrases, laugh at the difficulty of any word with “th”.

Today I was part of a bigger group. We were sitting in pairs and threes, beauty supplies scattered around, painting bright fingernails, giving hand massages, applying makeup to these already-beautiful women.

I sat opposite a stunning Afghan woman in her fourties or fifties. Unlike some of the others, she didn’t cover her hair, and her long greying hair was beautiful. Her eyes were lined and tired but she took my breath away still. I’d not met her before.

I took her hands in mine, hands that had seen so much more than my young smooth ones. And as I washed and massaged and smoothed rich moisturiser into dry skin, she visibly relaxed. The tension left her shoulders, a weight seemed to lift, and she started talking.

She spoke of the Afghanistan of her youth, under the Russians. She spoke of travelling to Moscow to study, and as our Chechnyan friends passed us she’d pause to say something in fast Russian to them. She spoke of working at the university in Kabul, of the freedom she’d had. She spoke of her two sons, with pride in her voice. She spoke of the changes that came, of needing to cover her hair and her face, of leaving her teaching post, putting away her books. She spoke of her fear – in such a resigned voice. She spoke of needing to escape her husband, of the terrible wrench of having to also leave her behind her sons.

She imagined them now, teenage boys growing up in a hostile and difficult environment, brought up by an extended family who’d never moved to protect her or help her. And I wanted to cry, but she didn’t. And so I held them back and concentrated on her hands in mine, our fingers interlinked as I worked.

It came pouring out of her and I just sat quietly, watching and massaging those beautiful hands, hands that had written a PHD, hands that had raised two boys, hands that had helped her escape across countries and continents to this crowded dining room.

I finished her manicure, hugged her and she left. I never saw her again. I don’t know whether she was able to stay, or whether she moved on elsewhere or was forced to return. Occasionally she comes back into my thoughts, and then I remember her strength, remember her courage and the knowing in her eyes.


I met her when we lived in Brussels, volunteering with a fantastic organisation called Serve the City, a movement of volunteers rising up to serve, many people doing small things to make a big difference.

In December, a small team I’m part of launched Serve the City in Luxembourg. We want to encourage a serving revolution here – people who will serve the homeless, the refugees, the lonely, the elderly, the vulnerable women, the children in care…

If you live in Luxembourg, I’d love for you to join us. You can like us on facebook to keep up to date with all our news and serving days, or follow on twitter. Our next day of serving will be on 23rd February.