As far as second birthday parties go, the basement of a London law firm is an odd choice of venue. But such has been the success of Refugees at Home, a London-based charity founded in 2016, that the expansive conference rooms of Travers Smith in Farringdon were the necessary setting for a well-attended celebration of humanitarianism. Refugees at Home, which aims to match up people with a spare room in their home to asylum seekers and refugees in need of short-term or long-term accommodation, is the brainchild of former broadcaster Sara Nathan, her brother, Timothy, and his wife, Nina.
The decision to start Refugees at Home stemmed from the Nathan family’s own experiences. “My brother’s wife’s mother was a refugee from Vienna in 1938, one set of our grandparents hosted a kindertransport child, and the other took in a café violinist,” Nathan told me at the party. “When we all got to the empty nest stage ourselves – our own kids had moved out – and as the recent refugee crisis moved to the top of the news, it seemed a terrible waste not to deploy the empty rooms in our homes.”
The “absolutely tragic death of Alan Kurdi” in September 2015, she recalled, had thrust the world’s refugee crisis into sharp focus. Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body had washed up on a Turkish beach, drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea with his family – just one leg of a treacherous and long-winded journey that they had hoped would end in Canada.
Images of Kurdi’s lifeless body being carried by a police officer triggered a crisis in the global public’s conscience. “I think that was probably an exclamation point. It made it clear that anyone, even a child, can be a refugee,” said Nathan.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 65.6 million people worldwide were forced to leave their homes between 2016 and 2017. Among that figure were 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom were under the age of 18. The scale of the issue, Nathan noted, “is not going unnoticed and people definitely care, and want to help. But they don’t always know how they can. They’re far away or detached from the situation”.
Refugees at Home encourages those with the space to help by simply opening their door. To apply, they just fill in a form and provide referees. But while letting someone through the front door might not take much effort; living with them is still a huge commitment. How does Refugees at Home ensure that the hosts and lodgers stay amiable? “We send round a home visitor who is a volunteer with safe-guarding or home-assessment experience – usually a doctor, community practitioner or social worker,” Nathan explained. “They talk the host through the process, see the accommodation, ensure everyone in the household is OK with hosting.” The home visitor remains a local contact throughout the placement. Guests who are asylum seekers are referred by case-workers who are managing their immigration case.
One of the party guests, insurance worker Nikki Doidge, had been hosting with Refugees at Home since the organisation’s first few months in operation. “I had been feeling very miserable about what was going on with the refugee crisis and at a loss as to what I could do,” she said. “I’ve got a husband and an eight-year-old daughter so I can’t just get up and leave for a foreign country, to Calais, or to Greece or wherever. But I couldn’t sit on my hands any longer, reading newspaper headlines and getting upset. Hosting represented the perfect opportunity to act without inconveniencing myself, and I’ve still made the difference I wanted to.”
While the screening process for guests and hosts is comprehensive, Doidge said that she didn’t hesitate when deciding to take part in Refugees at Home. “I know there can be some anxiety from a potential host, but honestly I didn’t see it that way. People are in that situation, looking for a place to stay, because they need to be. It wouldn’t be in their interests not to be a good guest. Why would it be? And honestly, the second night is easier than the first night, the third night is easier than the second and so on. You’re gaining a friend and so are they.”
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union was influenced in no small part by a long-standing debate surrounding immigration and border control. Whatever outpourings the leave campaign might have produced regarding economics or sovereignty, it is hard to deny the role of identity politics in winning 2016’s referendum. Foregoing any delicacy, for example, former Ukip leader Nigel Farage suggested that allowing Syrian refugees into the UK would put British women at a greater risk of sexual assault.
Furthermore, police figures obtained through freedom of information requests have revealed that the number of recorded incidents relating to racial or religious discrimination increased by 23 per cent – 40,741 to 49,921 – in the 11 months after the referendum, compared to the same period in the previous year. Against such a backdrop, has Refugees at Home found its message harder to put across? After all, cynics might question why an organisation would choose to help refugees rather than tackle, say, domestic homelessness. Nathan, though, gave a bullish response: “If I said I was fund-raising for Cancer Research, you wouldn’t ask why I am not raising money for Alzheimer’s. If I said I proposed to run a marathon for the NSPCC, you wouldn’t ask why not the RSPCA? How is this different?
“We are about hosting refugees and asylum seekers. There are other charities such as Shelter, St Mungo’s and Crisis UK amongst many others, who have a broader remit. But we are tiny and recent and have to be focused in order to achieve. And the big charities refer their eligible clients to us anyhow.”
Areej Osman, who experienced homelessness in Britain after fleeing war-torn Sudan
Is the UK more or less compassionate than it was? Areej Osman, who was homeless as recently as August 2015, is now working as a translator for the Refugee Council. She fled war-torn Sudan and has experienced “some of the best of this country with Refugees at Home”, but acknowledges “the struggle in terms of perception is still very real”. She said: “I think I’ve been very lucky with my own experiences. My hosts treated me as if I was one of the family and helped me to find work. They helped me to establish a life over here. But yes, the conversation around immigration and around Brexit does mean that there are some ideas that might not be fair. To those people, I would say to look at the results.
“Refugees can and will do great things, if they are given the chance to do so. They don’t come here just to take resources. I don’t think anyone comes here with the intention of just taking. They want to have a life that they couldn’t have in the country they have left.”
For kindness to become the status quo, Nathan thinks, the UK requires a “major overhaul of its system.” She said: “We forbid people to work for years as asylum seekers yet expect them to live on £36 a week, we evict them 28 days after they get status, having decided they are refugees deserving of sanctuary in the UK. We detain asylum seekers for an indefinite time with no end to their detention except forced deportation. If the government would extend the 28-day rule, we would have much, much less to do. The Home Office and Border Agency processes are beyond inefficient to the point, we sometimes feel, of malice. And lots of people – not those I deal with at Refugees at Home – don’t care or don’t know.”
Nevertheless, as an organisation still in its infancy, Refugees at Home has already achieved more than Nathan and her co-founders expected that it would. So what is the next step? “Well the charity can only grow as fast as we can find hosts. If, as a society, we can be more receptive and less repellent, then obviously the demand will decrease, but we can’t bank on that. It’s my hope that hosting will become normalised.” And what would Nathan say to someone who asked why they should host someone? “Why shouldn’t you?”
Refugees at Home has been running since 2016, securing over 1,000 placements in the homes of generous hosts, and covering over 63,000 individual nights – nights not spent in parks or graveyards, in train stations or riding night buses. For more information, please visit: www.refugeesathome.org