UK: Families opening doors to refugees

Meet the British families who are hosting refugees in their homes.

Kajsa Soderland

The British government officially offers some level of material support to refugees who have reached the UK by their own means to seek asylum. But, there are various circumstances under which this support can be withheld or withdrawn if the state refuses or delays the initial claims for asylum.

In such cases, people seeking asylum can find themselves left destitute and homeless.

Among the many grassroots solidarity initiatives that have emerged within the UK’s “Refugees Welcome” movement, the “Hosting” movement has grown specifically to address this need for housing people who find themselves trapped within the system.

Made up of different charities, NGOs and grassroots initiatives, the “Hosting’ movement seeks out and coordinates people who are willing to offer shelter to destitute asylum seekers within their own homes. People from all walks of life are participating in “Hosting” across the UK and thousands of nights’ shelter are being provided for those in need annually.

People who have opened up their homes to asylum seekers say they took the decision for various reasons but that the shared experience has been mutually enriching.

Al Jazeera met a few of the many “hosts” and their “guests” to document their stories and find out more about this initiative.

Vahe* from Armenia is being hosted by Donna Williams in Epsom, Surrey  
Vahe* spends a lot of time exploring the local area on a bicycle that was given to him by Donna Williams [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]
Vahe* spends a lot of time exploring the local area on a bicycle that was given to him by Donna Williams [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

Vahe was a human rights journalist in Armenia with a large social media following. His work challenged governmental corruption which he says made him the target of state authorities who arrested and imprisoned him many times in Armenia. He says that he was finally threatened and told that he had 48 hours to leave the country.

Vahe had visited Britain before and had a valid multi-entry visa on which he came into the country.

“In the airport I claimed asylum and I told them that I could not return to Armenia because I knew that I would be killed if I did. I was put in an immigration reception centre where I was kept for two months before being housed by the Home Office until my case was heard.

“My asylum application was rejected.

“I appealed but also lost that case in November 2013. They do not believe that I cannot go back to Armenia.

“Following the second rejection, I had nowhere to go and came to London where I slept anywhere that I could. I lived for more than two years like that, homeless. I came here to the UK to find freedom but I just found more problems.

“Eventually I went to a London migrant and refugee centre and they found me a new solicitor. They also contacted people about “Hosting” who, through an organisation called “Refugees at Home” found Donna for me who invited me here to stay at her house.

“I felt like I had come to a second home when I met Donna. She has been like a ray of sunshine for me that is helping me to grow again and have some hope back in my life. I had lost more than 16 kilos since I had been in the UK but at last I am eating, sleeping and getting healthy again.

“I spend a lot of my time here on the internet reading and keeping up to date with what’s happening in Armenia. My mind is always there.”

Most of my friends are either in prison or dead now because of our human rights work. I just ask the British government to give me a chance to live in freedom, at last.”

Donna Williams, host

Vahe* was homeless for two years until Donna Williams invited him to stay at her home in Epsom, Surrey [Rich Wiles/Al Jazeera]
Vahe* was homeless for two years until Donna Williams invited him to stay at her home in Epsom, Surrey [Rich Wiles/Al Jazeera]

“I am recently widowed and my children have all moved away so I had space in my home and it felt wrong not to share it with someone who was in need.

“Before becoming involved in hosting I didn’t quite realise how difficult it was for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. I thought that people must be getting looked after within the system, but now I realise that many are surviving with basically no help from the state.

“I am also aware about how important it must be for people who are going through all of this to have a roof over their head and somewhere safe to live. People cannot think about progressing their asylum cases when they have nowhere to sleep at night.

“Watching Vahe flourish and develop has been the best thing about this experience. I can see his confidence growing all the time. He has to keep himself busy because of what he has experienced, to keep himself active and to keep his mind occupied. It has not been easy for him.

“I am also trying to find Vahe some voluntary work locally. He wants to work and he needs some stability in his life and hopefully his new solicitor can help him to move his case forward.”

Arnold* from Sierra Leone is being hosted by Kajsa Soderlund in Lewisham, London
Arnold's* application for asylum in the UK took 26 years until he was finally given 'Leave to Remain' in the country [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]
Arnold’s* application for asylum in the UK took 26 years until he was finally given ‘Leave to Remain’ in the country [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

Originally from Sierra Leone, Arnold went to Nigeria to study law where he was arrested for writing an article in a student newspaper exposing corruption in the Nigerian government.

In 1989, Arnold managed to escape from prison and fled to Britain where he immediately applied for asylum. Arnold was given a letter by the Home Office stating that while his application was being assessed he had the right to work although he could not practise law in the UK.

He says that every time he contacted the Home Office he was told that his case was ongoing and a final decision was yet to be made.

“I began to learn about IT and got a good job in London, but I still couldn’t get my documents back from the Home Office. This went on for 10 years and then suddenly the Home Office sent me a letter saying that I wasn’t allowed to work, and they contacted my employers and told them that I was working illegally.

“It was a bad time for me and I had a horrible feeling of being ‘wanted’. I stayed with friends for a while but eventually became homeless and for many years I was sleeping in the streets or in hostels when I could find a bed.

“Everywhere I went I was looking over my shoulder and paranoid.

“For a while I was sleeping underneath some stairs near the offices of the Refugee Council in London. One day I was invited inside the offices and I told them my story.

“They introduced me to an MP who agreed to help me. She told me to fill in new application forms and write a personal statement explaining my case.

“After some further complications, and with the MP’s help, the Home Office finally gave me Leave To Remain in the UK for two and a half years, including the right to work. I finally got this official documentation in June last year, 26 years after first arriving in the UK.”

Kajsa Soderlund, host

Kajsa Soderland, herself an immigrant in the UK, became inspired to become a 'host' after hearing a Syrian refugee talk in London about his experiences [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]
Kajsa Soderland, herself an immigrant in the UK, became inspired to become a ‘host’ after hearing a Syrian refugee talk in London about his experiences [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

“I went to a fundraising night and heard a Syrian refugee speak about being hosted and what it had meant to him. He said that ‘what you can do to help refugees is to tell other people that we are not monsters’. This broke my heart.

“After hearing this speech I contacted Refugees at Home, the organisation that had found the speaker a place to live, and I registered to become a host.

“They sent a social worker to interview me to find out more about me and what I could do. For example, I am not in a position to offer professional support to someone who has gone through severe trauma, but what I can do is offer someone who is quite independent a place to live.

“The organisation told me about Arnold and we met for coffee to get to know each other. We got on well straight away and in the last week in February he moved in to my house.

“Arnold is such an inspiring person. I have learned a lot about African culture and history, and about the slave trade which I knew little about previously.

“I am an immigrant myself. I was born in Sweden but as an EU citizen I can move freely. It’s so unfair that I have these rights but Arnold doesn’t.

“It shows how unfair the world is when things are based on where we happened to be born – the ‘accident of nationality’ – over which we have no control. We are all people who are just trying to live a decent and safe life.”

Arnold, refugee

“Living with Kajsa has helped me to reintegrate in to British society. Every time I had applied for a job after I got LTR [Leave to Remain] my application was refused because I was living in a hostel and had no home address. Now that I have an address people see my differently.

“I am studying now for legal exams so that I can become an immigration lawyer and help other people who find themselves in difficult situations like I did.

“The hostel where I stayed previously helped me a lot and I still go back there now to help out, but there was no privacy and it would have been impossible for me to study there. I am also volunteering at the Refugee Council now.

“Kajsa and I respect each other, we care about each other and we help each other. I could never have found a better friend than Kajsa has been to me.”

Hajer A’Sharafeh, a member of stateless Bidoon community from Kuwait is being hosted by Stephanie Allen and Jeremy Dunham in Sheffield, Yorkshire
Hajer A'Sharafeh spends a lot of time with her friend Kawa Abdulqadir, a Kurd, who came to the UK in 2003 [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]
Hajer A’Sharafeh spends a lot of time with her friend Kawa Abdulqadir, a Kurd, who came to the UK in 2003 [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

As a member of the Bidoon community in Kuwait , Hajer A’Sharafeh had no ID papers or passport in her home country, as well as no right to work, study or access medical care. A’Sharafeh reached Britain in 2014 and applied immediately for asylum. A’Sharafeh was placed in a refugee reception centre before being moved to Sheffield:

“I was first moved to a house in Sheffield where 10 other female refugees were also living from Syria, Iran, Eritrea and other countries. Later, ‘Assist’ [a refugee and asylum seeker support organisation in Sheffield] helped me to find Stephanie and Jeremy.

“I have been here 3 months now and I am really happy here. They have been really kind to me. I practise my English with Stephanie and we laugh together a lot.

READ MORE: The women helping refugees in Serbia

“I go to weekly English classes and we also study other subjects like beauty therapy which I love. I now have several friends here in Sheffield, but mostly I like to spend time with my friend Kawa who is Kurdish and runs a restaurant near our house.

“My aim was not specifically to get to Britain, I just needed somewhere to live and I found a way to get here. If I would have been able to get to any other country I would have stayed there. I just want the right to live somewhere.

“My family are all still in Kuwait and that is really hard. I miss them a lot but I call them and speak to them nearly every day.”

Stephanie Allen and Jeremy Dunham, hosts

Stephanie Allen and Jeremy Dunham say that Hajer A'Sharafeh has become 'a part of their family' [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]
Stephanie Allen and Jeremy Dunham say that Hajer A’Sharafeh has become ‘a part of their family’ [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

“Learning more about the situation here has been a real ‘eye-opener’ for us. In Sheffield there is a church hall where asylum seekers are allowed to sleep, but it is mixed gender and doesn’t open until 10pm and people then have to leave again early in the morning.

“So it’s literally just somewhere to sleep for the night. State support is usually given to refugees when they first arrive until their case is heard in the courts. But if the application is rejected and an appeal also fails people are essentially just left to become destitute.

“Many of our friends were surprised at first when we said we were going to start ‘hosting’, but now that they have got to know Hajer and learned about the experience they have said they would like to host people themselves.

READ MORE: Part of the neighbourhood: Syrian refugees in Amsterdam

“We feel really uncomfortable when people praise us, as though we are making some kind of sacrifice by inviting Hajer to stay here, because its really not like that at all. Its nice to just have made a new friend, she has become part of the family now.

“We are both really concerned that this government’s policies make the most needy people pay, and suffer. We are in a position to do something small that can help alleviate that in one case.

“I think that many people, when they know about the refugee crises in Syria and other places really want to do something tangible to help, but often they don’t know what they can do. For us hosting has answered this question.”

David and Jan Preedy are hosting an Iranian family, a father, his wife and their son in Headley, Surrey
David and Jan Preedy stepped in at the last minute to prevent the Iranian family from being forced to sleep in police cells [Rich Wiles/Al Jazeera]
David and Jan Preedy stepped in at the last minute to prevent the Iranian family from being forced to sleep in police cells [Rich Wiles/Al Jazeera]

Although originally Muslim, the Iranian father, his wife and their son converted to become Jehovah’s Witnesses in Iran.

The family say this led to them being threatened and their house being attacked. Believing that their lives were in danger the family fled to neighbouring Armenia where they were baptised. While preaching in Armenia, the father was photographed by Iranian Embassy staff, who he states issued a death threat because of their religious conversion.

Unable to return to Iran or remain in Armenia, the 19-year-old son travelled to Britain in October 2015 after secured a student visa to study English in London.

His parents sought the assistance of a visa agent who completed their application for visitors’ visas and the family were reunited in the UK.

Son, refugee

“Once my parents arrived we went to the Home Office and applied for asylum. We had been invited by a Jehovah’s Witness to stay in his house whilet he was on holiday, so we told the Home Office this and showed them the small amount of money we had.

“The Home Office told us that because we had somewhere to stay and some money that they would not support us then, but to contact them again when we had no money left and nowhere to live.

“When we had to leave the house we had nowhere to go and only £13 left ($17). We contacted the Home Office again but they asked us for receipts to prove that we had spent our money. We had spent it on basic foods and bus fares so we didn’t have receipts.

“They also said that according to my parents’ visa application they had money and a business in Armenia. We have no business or money in Armenia. We think the agent that applied for my parents’ visa in Armenia must have written these things on the application to get the visas.

“We had been looking on the internet and found the Refugee Council so went to see them for help. It was a Friday and they couldn’t find us anywhere to stay so eventually contacted the police and arranged for us to sleep in a police station until Monday.

“It was horrible and we were scared. As we were about to be taken to the police station, Jan contacted the Refugee Council, through Refugees at Home, and told them we could stay with her. She saved us.”

David Preedy, host

“They are getting no state support at all and have absolutely no money left. We are trying to help them with their applications for support from the Home Office.

“They are currently stuck in this position, trying to prove that they have not got a business and money as had been stated on their visa application, but how do you prove that you haven’t got something? They are also being asked to account for every penny which has been spent since they have been here, which again is impossible.”

Jan Preedy, host

“We got involved with hosting, because we were so deeply moved by the desperate plight of refugees from Syria as well as those from other countries and wanted to do whatever we could to help. I have also become involved with collecting donations for refugees, and have helped out at the refugee camp in Calais. The dignity and resilience of the people I met there was inspiring.”

David Preedy, host

“One of the best things that I have got from this experience has been the honour of getting to know the family and how genuine they are. It has confirmed my world view that ‘people are people’ – the idea that we should only work to ‘protect our own’, I mean ‘local people’, is simply ridiculous. This experience has really enriched our lives, this is not about giving but about sharing.”

Father, refugee

“We had many problems in Iran, then in Armenia, and now also here but we must thank God that we found Jan and Dave.

“It is still very difficult for us but at least now we can relax a little bit and feel safer. They have helped us so much. We have learned a lot about love for people and we will never forget these days and this family.”

* Name changed for reasons of safety

READ MORE: The refugee crisis through the eyes of refugees

Source: Al Jazeera