To mark Refugee Week, Johanna Derry hears stories of individuals and churches providing homes and life-changing support to migrants
SINCE Syrian asylum-seekers were shown on the news making treacherous journeys to Europe in 2015, more and more people and organisations in the UK have sought to house refugees and asylum-seekers, and even taken them their own homes.
The charity Refugees at Home, founded in response to the Syrian crisis by Nina and Timothy Kaye, is now working with refugees from many countries.
“It started because we wanted to offer our spare rooms to refugees,” Mrs Kaye says. “We set up a Facebook group, found others who wanted to get involved, and then created the infrastructure. We’ve been inundated with enquiries, have around 700 hosts all over the country, and have made over 500 placements, which adds up to almost 25,000 nights.”
The Boaz Trust, in Manchester; Open Door North East, in Middlesbrough; and Housing Justice, in London, are charities that also follow this model: volunteers give space in their homes to refused asylum-seekers left destitute, and to refugees waiting to find a place to live.
When asylum-seekers gain refugee status and “leave to remain”, they have 28 days to leave Home Office accommodation. In that time, they have to apply for a National Insurance number, register for benefits, open a bank account, and find somewhere to live. For this reason, many, both Syrian and non-Syrian, find themselves homeless.
As well as Syrian refugees coming to the UK on official resettlement schemes such as Community Sponsorship, or the Vulnerable Person’s Relocation Scheme, there are thousands of asylum-seekers from places such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Iran. About half all applications are refused; but not all failed applicants are removed.
“In 2013, a homelessness count of London found that 51 per cent of people sleeping rough were migrants,” says the founder of the Boaz Trust, Dave Smith, who is also national co-ordinator of the No Accommodation Network (NACCOM).
“Many of these had no recourse to public funds,” he says. “There are at least 50,000 people — and possibly a lot more — in this country who are destitute, forced to either live off charities, or do illegal work.”
In an attempt to create what Theresa May termed “a hostile environment” for illegal migrants, the most recent Immigration Act, passed in May 2016, will subject landlords to a fine, termed a civil penalty, if they take a tenant who does not have the right to rent. This includes any failed asylum-seeker who has not left or been deported.
Those who provide free housing — a room or even a vacant property — are not affected; and the restrictions on commercial landlords are yet to come into effect. But Mr Smith says that “nevertheless, the rollout of the Act is likely to force even more refused asylum-seekers on to the street.”
He founded NACCOM in 2006 as a support network for charities and churches that were working with refugees and asylum-seekers, to exchange information about good practice. The project now has 41 members offering free accommodation.
It is an area that the Church Housing Trust has engaged with over many years, in support of the homeless and socially excluded, or people in crisis, who need help to establish a home and reintegrate into society. Among them are homeless asylum-seekers.
The Church Housing Trust communications manager, Nicole Holgate, says: “The Church Housing Trust grants £25 a week to migrants being housed by host families so that they are not completely reliant on their hosts. Housing Justice applies to us on behalf of the migrants; so we are clear that the money is going to the right people.”
Many churches are directly involved in helping homeless migrants, both those with and those without leave to remain. The Team Vicar of Hanley, in Stoke-on-Trent, the Revd Sally Smith, launched Sanctus in 2014, originally as a drop-in for refugees. In response to the numbers that Sanctus found were homeless, it became a separate community-interest company, and now works directly with local partners to house people.
“People have bought us houses to use, and other people open their own homes to host people,” Mrs Smith says. “Many of the people we work with have nowhere else to go. They need help, and we just can’t abandon them.”
The Refugee Council’s director of advocacy, Dr Lisa Doyle, says: “Every day at the Refugee Council we work with people who’d be sleeping on the street without the help and generosity of strangers: individuals and faith-based groups who are helping to provide shelter for people with nowhere else to go. It’s heart-warming to see members of the public stepping in to help refugees from all backgrounds. This kindness and compassion is truly an example of Britain at its best.”
Steve Wells and his wife, Linda, opened their Surrey home to a Syrian asylum-seeker, a Russian-speaking neurosurgeon
MY WIFE and I have always been active in progressive politics, and both of us were frustrated, even ashamed, about this country’s lack of response to the refugee crisis. We both wanted to salve our consciences, and to feel we were doing something to help. We’re empty-nesters, which means we’ve got spare rooms in our house.
Refugees at Home encourage people with a spare room to host a refugee or asylum-seeker. We made contact, somebody came round and told us more, and shortly afterwards we were given the profile of a man called Abdul Karim, a 46-year-old Syrian asylum-seeker.
It was a step into the unknown. We felt a desire to do it, but also nervousness about having someone in our home who couldn’t speak much English, from a completely different culture, and who’d been scarred by conflict.
It was a wet Monday morning in October 2015 that I met Karim at the Oxfam bookshop in Kingston. He was clutching his few belongings and smiling, and he really hasn’t stopped smiling since. It was clear from the first moment I met him that we would get on.
His English was limited, but he’s very intelligent; fluent in Russian because he trained as a neurosurgeon at the University of Odessa’s medical school. At the beginning, he had no funds at all, which was quite difficult for a man who’d had his own large house, a position of respect and security, and even a chauffeur-driven car.
I happily funded him to get to his English school, but to hand over a £20 note one morning felt extremely grubby and difficult. I was embarrassed to have to give it to him, and he was embarrassed to be in a position where he needed to take it. It was awkward for both of us.
We got his family here in late January. It was terrifically moving to witness the moment when he embraced his whole family, after 14 months of separation.
We’d been desperately trying to find accommodation in the weeks before, but it’s difficult to find affordable private accommodation, and where we live there’s no public housing. Housing associations have thousands of people on their waiting lists, and don’t want refugees to be seen as jumping the queue.
One day, I was cycling through a neighbouring village, and — call it divine intervention — I noticed a vicarage that looked empty. I got on to the parish church, who confirmed that they were between vicars, and to Guildford diocesan office, who were extraordinarily helpful, and gave us a six-month tenancy at reduced rent, an amount that could be covered by housing benefit. That’s where they are now.
People have told us we were noble and brave, but, actually, we’ve got a huge amount out of it. When someone is forced into being a refugee, their relationships with friends, family, community, and where they live are ruptured, and they have to forge new bonds, new relationships. Taking someone in isn’t just about safety and security and a roof over their heads. It’s about acknowledging our interdependence.
We’ve learned so much about never giving up, and the example that Karim has set has been absolutely brilliant. He’s shown fortitude and a deep humanity.
The Revd Ann Ballard and her husband, Ray, in Stoke-on-Trent, offer emergency placements to refugees and asylum-seekers from all over the world
WE’RE a couple in our sixties, and we’ve got a spare room, because our family have gone. We’re involved with Sanctus, and when there were people who needed housing with nowhere to go, I said to Sally [Smith]: “If you need me, I’ve got a room.” That’s how it started.
The first person who came to stay with us was a Namibian lady with a nine-month-old baby, who’d been staying with a friend. The friend wasn’t allowed under her [tenancy] terms to have people staying with her; so she found herself on the streets. She and her baby came and stayed with us for a couple of months, until she found some longer-term accommodation.
It was quite a step into the unknown, but we stepped out in faith, and we’ve been really blessed by the people who have stayed with us. Everyone has been both grateful and respectful — so much so, that we often go away for the weekend, leaving whoever is staying in our house, and it’s [been] absolutely fine.
The people who come to stay are referred to us by Sanctus, and are really in need. They’re waiting for interviews, or have been refused and are waiting for an appeal, or they’re people the Home Office haven’t yet housed. They usually have nothing, and they need somewhere to live. So we look after them in the mean time.
We steer clear of getting involved in any of the legal stuff, because that’s not our area. What we do is house, feed, and taxi. Taxiing is quite a commitment, but we live a bit off the beaten track; so we spend a lot of time running people back and forth.
It has never felt risky. Sometimes, we do feel like we’ve had enough, but we know it’s a temporary measure on an emergency basis. It might last a couple of months, and then we get back to our boring old pensioner lives. It’s a bit of excitement along the way.
At the moment, we have an Iranian couple in their twenties, and it’s a bit like having teenagers in the house. But, whoever comes, we just roll with it. We show them their room, they share a bathroom with us, I show them the cupboards in the kitchen, and tell them to help themselves. We’ve had Iranian women staying with us who loved to cook; so they’d take over the kitchen, and we changed our eating habits to fit with them.
For me, it’s about sharing your assets with other people, and trusting they’ll show you respect. They always do. They’re usually young people who walk in, and they call me “mum”, and my husband “dad”, straight away. I would hope that, were my children in a different country, in a difficult circumstance, there would be people to help them. I think it’s a reciprocal thing I can offer.
I see it as my faith in action: like having Jesus coming into your life and your home. Letting people into your home can be disruptive, and might give you a bit of bother, but you have to adjust yourself. It’s not straightforward or easy, and you have to be prepared to be flexible. But the alternative is keeping Jesus in a box in the church, which is not what we want.
The Revd Jack Noble, Assistant Curate at St Martin’s, Ruislip, in west London, is sharing his tied housing with an asylum-seeker from the West Indies
I’M CURATE of a suburban church, and when we heard, as a church community, about what happens to refugees and asylum-seekers, we were aware of the need to make a response. London Hosting invited me to hear more; I went along; and then ticked a box saying I wanted to know more.
As a curate, I have got a three-bedroom house: my room, a spare room, and another that had only my ironing board in it. So, I thought I might as well let someone stay in it. Someone from London Hosting Network came to meet me and to discuss what I’d be prepared to offer.
The idea is to have as large a database of all kinds of people, in [as many] places as possible, so that there’s more chance of helping people. Most people have their guests for four to six weeks, but I was able to offer longer-term hospitality.
I wasn’t fussed about who came to stay, because I live on my own. When I first met the guy coming to stay with me, we went through a form to see if it would work: we turned the tables on the stereotypes. We were asked: “Do you smoke?” I said yes; he said no. “Do you drink?” I said yes; he said no. “Do you keep unsociable hours?” I said yes; he said no.
But having him stay with me has been a gift. If I weren’t living with another, I’d not be finding Christ in another, or in the difference between us. We bonded over box sets of Gavin and Stacey, and he does more than his fair share of washing, cooking, and cleaning. Plus, I know that if I go on a trip somewhere, there’s someone to look after and water my plants.
As clergy, we are sometimes more plugged into what’s going on, and have a responsibility to encourage people to be hospitable by showing hospitality ourselves. We also often have the space to host people; and, as Jesus said: “If you have two coats, give one away.” So, I’m sharing my space.
It’s been surprisingly easy and overwhelmingly positive. My guest has never had a safe home, not since he was child, and I’m delighted to give him somewhere for as long as he needs it. It’s basic humanity to give someone a place that’s home, where the light bulbs turn on, it’s warm, and there’s food in the fridge. You don’t have to give much to give more than some people have ever had.
I can’t fix his problems, be his lawyer or psychoanalyst. But I can be human, and offer hospitality and friendship.