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From Syria To Surrey: The British Families Hosting Refugees

It’s a long way from Aleppo to Epsom, but Ahmad, a 26-year-old Syrian Kurd, seems remarkably at home in suburban Surrey, dipping in and out of his hosts’ middle-class, British lifestyle. “I’m totally independent,” he explained. “I’ve got my own room upstairs, but I also join them, we go out together to dinner or concerts."

Ahmad arrived in the UK last summer. At about the same time, his hosts Nina and Timothy set up Refugees at Home, an organisation that places asylum seekers and refugees with British families, couples, or individuals who have space to host them for anything from a few days to several months. Ahmad is the second person Nina and Timothy have taken in themselves.

A lack of existing networks and an escalation in the refugee crisis spurred the couple to set up their own organisation last August. “We had our son and his girlfriend living with us until Spring, and then they left,” Timothy explained. “We didn’t want to move, but equally it was difficult to justify having this five bedroom house with just the two of us rattling around in it, so I suggested that we ought to look into taking in refugees.”

There are points in the asylum process at which migrants can fall through cracks in the system and be left destitute — with nowhere to live, nothing to live off, and no entitlement to work in the UK. Ahmad’s asylum claim was approved a few months ago— he was granted refugee status and is allowed to stay in the UK — but this meant he stopped being entitled to the small allowance given to asylum seekers, and he was given notice of eviction from the temporary accommodation he had been placed in. All of this before his National Insurance number — which you need to get a job, or job seekers allowance — had come through. Anticipating being made homeless, Ahmad posted in a Facebook group asking if anyone could help him. Nina responded to the post.

So far, Refugees at Home have placed six or seven other migrants with hosts, and Nina has a list of 300 people who have expressed interest in hosting in the future. Beyond Surrey, it seems there has been a nationwide boom in hosting since the refugee crisis peaked last summer. Several similar schemes have popped up in different parts of the country, and the few organisations that have existed for years — the Boaz Trust in Manchester for example — have experienced a spike in interest.
Constance, with her two teenage sons Alex (left) and Raph (middle).
Constance, who lives in Dorking with her two teenage sons — Alex, 17, and Raph, 14 — has recently started hosting through Refugees at Home. “If it clicks then it’s dead easy,” she told me. “People don’t know what they’re missing. It’s a basic duty of hospitality, and it’s a chance to learn something and also to make new friends.”

The idea of hosting refugees didn’t occur to Constance until last summer, when she read that 11,000 people had offered to host asylum seekers in Iceland, in a bid to persuade the government to let more refugees in. Now, Constance regrets not having started sooner. “From this point on, this is going to be integrated into our lives,” she said.

Hosting is very much a family effort — “My sons were the ones who actually offered,” Constance tells me. Alex was already helping to run a Dorking refugee solidarity Facebook page when his mother brought up the idea of hosting, but as well as sympathising with the cause, both boys said hosting guests is something they enjoy. “It’s just nice to have another person in the house,” Alex told me, “More people to talk to, more things to talk about.”
The family — who only have two spare bedrooms, in the converted loft — originally planned to take someone in when some existent lodgers left, but this changed when they heard about Emily, a 34-year-old Eritrean woman, who was seven-months pregnant and had nowhere else to go. They said yes immediately. Constance set about borrowing bedding, and they bought a framed photograph of some Eritrean pelicans, to make Emily feel welcome. A couple of days later, Constance and Alex went to meet their guest at the station, with a banner and flowers.

“It was lovely from the start,” Constance said. “It’s like when you welcome the daughter of a friend that you’ve never met, but they’re nice, they’re smiling, they’re kind.”

And for Emily, what was it like to be taken in by a family of strangers?

She was shy at first, she said, but when I visit less than a week after she arrived she seems to have settled in, other than still being a little afraid of the two large, friendly cats who prowl around the cosy living room while we speak.

Emily first arrived in the UK in 2007, fleeing Eritrea, where the regime has been consistently violating the human rights of its citizens for years. Her asylum claim was rejected, and she’s been in and out of the immigration system since — repeatedly but unsuccessfully appealing the decision. In that time she’s never had permanent accommodation, regularly sleeping rough or on a friend’s floor. “Since 2007, I have always been frightened, because I haven’t had a place to live. I’m always stressed, and I’ve had back pain,” she said, a friend on speaker phone translating from Amharic — Emily hasn’t had the time or stability to learn much English — “I am very happy now, because I am safe. I have a proper bed. I haven’t had a life like this for the last 10 years.”
Unlike Emily, Ahmad had the advantage of being hosted by a British family within a few months of arriving in the UK, and he recognises the difference this made.

“When you arrive in a new country and you don’t know anyone and you don’t know anything, you need a kind of transition period. You need someone to give you a hand until you are on your feet,” Ahmad said, sitting opposite me, at Timothy and Nina’s kitchen table. “It’s an advantage, living with an English family: it helps me integrate, to understand the culture more.” He added that having some support is empowering — it has encouraged him to make better plans for the future. As well as looking for a permanent home and a job, Ahmad’s applied for several MA programmes in the UK. He wants to study conflict resolution, or peace building. “Hopefully when the war is over I can return and play a part in reconstructing my country,” he said.

But at the moment, Ahmad’s primary goal is to bring his wife and two children to safety.

Over coffee, he tells me how he left his home, near Aleppo in north-west Syria, eight months ago, when his town was besieged by Assad’s army. As a Syrian Kurd — “a minority being attacked by both conflict parties”— a human rights activist, and a former UN worker, Ahmad had a lot of enemies in the region; he believes he would have been tortured, killed or forced to fight if he had been captured by soldiers on either side of Syria’s ongoing civil war.

It took him 55 days to reach the UK, travelling in dinghies, in trucks, and with the assistance of people smugglers. He left his pregnant wife and baby daughter behind, after weighing up the danger they were in (less than him) versus the danger of the journey. “If I bring my family with me on that dinghy, crossing the Asian sea from Turkey into Kos, and that rubber dinghy sinks and I see my wife and child drowning in front of my eyes, who am I going to rescue?” he said, explaining that he couldn’t take that risk. “I decided I wanted to do it alone, and then I’ll bring them over.”

Ahmad’s now expecting his family soon and Nina and Timothy are currently arranging to free up a second room, so that when they arrive they can stay too.

Timothy emphasises the importance of boundaries when it comes to maintaining a good relationship with Ahmad.
“To keep it positive we decided from the beginning that it could only be done if rules are set,” Timothy explained, adding that he and Nina had the advantage of having established rules with their son, when he returned to live with them as an adult. “[For example,] we’re not going to do your washing, but you can use the washing machine. You can eat what you like, but if you finish something put it on the shopping list. You can use the kitchen, but clean up after yourself.”

Aside from guidelines about housekeeping and food, an important rule is that if someone has recourse to sufficient public funds, they have to leave. “It’s not because we don’t want to give people nicer homes than they’ve got,” Timothy explained, “it’s much more a political thought; if the government thinks they can get away with not making a provision because the big society will provide — charity will provide — that’s what will happen.”

Overall, Timothy and Nina have found hosting to be an immensely positive experience. “Ahmad really is an exceptional guy, we feel really privileged to be hosting him,” Nina said. “But we feel we’re a tiny drop in a vast ocean,” she added, of their role in the larger crisis. Timothy agreed.“We’re not trying to be all things to all men, we’re trying to do our little bit of the jigsaw, but do it well.”

Meanwhile, Constance and Emily are working on bridging their language gap — challenging each other to learn new words in Amharic and English everyday. Soon after I leave, Constance sends me photos of a meal Emily cooked for the family, and she tells me they’re knitting clothes for the baby.

Constance hopes speaking about her positive experience will encourage other people to host, but she stresses that there are other ways of helping too.“Lots of people just don’t have the space, but they have blankets, or a really good recipe for moussaka” she said — contributing things like this can make hosting a refugee a community effort.

And to those who are thinking of hosting? “I can say really sincerely go for it,” Constance said. “It’s really enriching to meet people who just have such a different experience from yours. All your fears eventually melt, you become curious. You’re just going to start asking questions instead of being worried.”

Check out Refugees at Home website here.