Rebecca Louis, partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter solicitors, talks about her experience of hosting through Refugees at Home in Re: Magazine
As I write this in June it is international refugee day and the UN have announced that at the last count there were 65.5 million displaced people in the world. This includes refugees and persons who are displaced within their own country. That’s more than one displaced person for every single man, woman and child in the United Kingdom.
Even the most hard-hearted would fail to have been affected by the images of Alan Kurdi’s body lying washed up on a beach in 2015. As a mother of two small children this was the tipping point for me on top of all the other atrocities we had seen and read about in the news. But what could we do? Money was donated, clothes and food were packed up and shipped off, petitions were signed but the problem is still there and people with more skills, more insight and a lot more power cannot seem to solve “the” problem.
One day I was walking home from playgroup with my then 2 year old. It was raining hard, he was crying and he wanted to be carried. He’s not light and I was juggling the pushchair, my daughter’s scooter and two bags of shopping. It was a ten minute walk. But as I was whispering to soothe him I wondered how many mothers are there right now on longer journeys, who don’t know if “everything will be ok my darling,” who don’t know how long the journey is or who or what will greet them when they get there. Who have already lost so much – friends, family, possessions? How do they soothe their child, how do they find the strength?
This all sounds quite melodramatic but the drama is real for so many. I started looking into other ways to help. It wasn’t possible for me to apply to foster Syrian orphans as you have to not have a job. I couldn’t pack up and leave for Calais as I have my own family (and that job!). I stumbled upon an article for homing refugees. I applied but the charity was based in Scotland and I didn’t hear anything from them apart from their newsletter emails.
Time passed and then, through Facebook, I read about Refugees at Home which was started by a married couple who started with hosting someone and then built the infrastructure to match other people with refugees.
And why do refugees, who have been given permission to stay, need rooms? Well because once they get leave to remain they have only 28 days to leave home office accommodation. In that time they have to apply for a national insurance number, their benefits, open a bank account and find somewhere to live. No easy feat. New legislation on private landlords introduced in May 2016 makes it very difficult for refugees to find accommodation as Landlords are wary of being heavily fined. They wouldn’t be if the tenant has leave to remain but it means the refugee may have a higher burden of proof to pass before they’ll be accepted. Even without all these obstacles I think we would all struggle with the bureaucracy and to find a new home in such a short period, especially in a foreign country.
So how does it work? First of all a quick and easy form to fill in on the Refugees at Home website. Next a home visitor comes to your home. This is for them to check out your accommodation but also a great chance for you to ask lots of questions. My home visitor, Avril, was lovely and gave me a lot of insight to the local situation. People can self refer to Refugees at Home but many come from other charities or organisations. In Sussex one of the main referrers is the Sussex Syrian Community. Because of the colleges and other education facilities in Brighton it is a popular destination for refugees who are trying to improve their English or gain professional qualifications.
When I signed up I thought I would only like to host a female guest. My husband is working away and I have two young children, the idea of strange men coming and going did make me a little nervous. Avril explained to me that the majority of guests are young men. They are more likely to make the arduous journey. They are “normal” young men but also they are not – they are industrious, they are determined and despite what they have been through they are respectful and positive. They want to make a future.
You can also state how long you would like to host for, short term, emergency placements of a few days; a few weeks or a few months. Again because of the children, I didn’t want a high turnover so I specified the mid-term. Obviously it is not ideal for the guests to have to keep moving every few weeks but the charity leave it fully for you to say when you need your guests to leave. As I’ve said, in Sussex, a lot of the guests are here for education so the charity are short of hosts for longer term placements.
After about two weeks I received a phone call from the Refugees at Home administrator. There were two possible guests. One a 46 year old chef who had relocated from Oxford and wanted to get some roots in the area and the other a 22 year old student who had an interview at Brighton college. The former wanted a longer term placement than the latter, who just wanted a few nights.
People asked whether I felt safe. Honestly, I felt apprehensive; it’s a leap of faith. There has not been a single incident of bad behavior reported to Refugees at Home and one guest even thwarted burglars! Whilst Refugees at Home do not undertake any checks on the guest the referral agencies usually have done or have obtained references, plus if someone has refugee status then they have passed government checks.
A couple of days later, Nadine from the Sussex Syrian Community, came to my house with my potential guest and his friend. A lot can be told in a short while and instinctively I could tell that my guest was a gentle and polite man. He was friendly with the children although his English was not fluent. We agreed that he would move in the next afternoon. How much you offer your guest depends on both them and you. It is expected that you will provide a private bedroom and access to a bathroom and the kitchen. I expected to provide a few meals but shortly after my guest arrived Ramadan started so he had to fast until 9.30. In fact I have seen my guest a lot less than I expected. He has friends he visits, appointments to keep and obviously I am at work. He also has health issues and depression, is painfully shy and is not used to being alone with women. Whilst it was disappointing, at first, that he spent so much time in his room I spent the evenings researching a lot of things: Syria, halal, Ramadan are just a few of the topics I now know more about. And my guest has warmed up, he plays with the children, he mows my lawn, he has cooked me some delicious Syrian food. I have helped my guest with a parking ticket appeal but I almost feel bad for how little I have had to “help” but perhaps this is the most perfect first guest. He is spotlessly tidy and he leaves the house the same.
I have had the phone calls and emails from Refugees at Home, Avril and Nadine and feel like I have been well supported and able to voice any concerns. I have been invited to community events and I look forward to engaging with the Sussex Syrian Community in the future.
I have a friend who has just started hosting in London and I know of other people who have hosted several times, all successfully, there are lots of recent published articles of people’s positive experiences. After 7 weeks I have just agreed to extend my guest’s stay for another 5 and I’m glad I took the leap of faith.
Although I have only helped one person, that person has a son, they have family. Refugees at Home have arranged for 30,000 hosted nights since February 2016, currently there are 130 guests and a waiting list of more referrals everyday. There are students, professionals and even Mothers and parents who need to be near hospitals where their children are being treated. The small acts are amounting to a great big thing.
Not everyone is in a position to host. Not everyone can or wants to share their home. But if you are even slightly interested then I urge you to go to the website www.refugeesathome.org, fill in a form and find out more. If I can answer any queries then email rlouis@ mayowynnebaxter.co.uk. If you are a social worker, or similar professional, then the charity is also looking for volunteers to undertake the home visits.
By Rebecca Louis