TRCH

Host Nottingham is a Community Organisation That Saves Refugees Fleeing Inhospitable Environments

17 June 19 words: Cleo Asabre-Holt
photos: Fabrice Gagos

Compassionate, altruistic and essential, Host Nottingham changes the lives of refugees fleeing inhospitable environments by offering a place to stay with local hosts. We talked to the organisation’s founders, families who offer their support, and former guests, to find out more about the project…

Current Chair, Jane Henson, founded Host Nottingham in 2011. Hosts are people who provide accommodation in their own home for destitute guest asylum seekers, for anywhere between a few days to three months. I visited Jane at the Refugee Forum, based at The Sycamore Centre, St Ann’s, where she told us how and why she started this invaluable provision.

“Before we set up Host, a group of people were privately supporting a young male refugee in the process of seeking asylum,” says Jane. “Due to his circumstances, his mental health was rapidly deteriorating. It was a weekend, the hosting family did not know where to go for advice or support services, and the young man’s anxiety became so high that he took his own life.”

This traumatic event motivated Jane and others to set up a structured hosting scheme, offering training and round-the-clock telephone support. This means hosts with queries or concerns for a guest’s welfare can get in touch for guidance at any time. Guests are also assessed to ensure they aren’t experiencing severe mental health issues and are suitable for hosting in a family environment.

These mostly young-adult refugees leave their families behind to escape circumstances where their lives are at risk so, understandably, they need accommodation and support through their navigation of a gnarly and chaotic asylum application process.

Two female guests, who lived in Sherwood with hosts Lee and Richard, told their story of alienation from family, repeated application rejection and hostile interviews with the Home Office, “We were looked down upon and made to feel inferior. You have all the stress of your claim and, on top of that, not having a house is a lot to take in. Because we had somewhere to stay, we could focus solely on our claim.”

Jane says, “To make matters worse, there’s no way of predicting how long it will take the Home Office to confirm either way if refugees have been successful in their application. This leaves them in a position of great uncertainty, which is why hosting is so important.”  

The generosity and compassion from hosts Lee and Richard moved their guests to tears: “You would think after so long we would have stopped crying by now, but the kindness and acceptance we have been shown after everything we’ve been through… we still can’t believe it.”

Like all asylum seekers, until being granted refugee status, these two bright young women face the additional challenge of being unable to work or enrol in education. Periods of unemployment can lead to self-blame, feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem, so mental health struggles, including anxiety and depression, are common and often exacerbated by deportation worries and reliving traumatic events. Lee and Richard’s guests explain: “The whole process damages you psychologically and people think we don’t want to work or that we came here for a better life, but if we could go back, we would.”

You would think after so long we would have stopped crying by now, but the kindness and acceptance we have been shown after everything we’ve been through… we still can’t believe it

Refugees seeking asylum are as varied as the individuals themselves. In countries like Iran, where the death penalty is retained, converting from Islam is a capital offence. D fled Iran due to his conversion to Christianity, and experienced a culture shock when arriving in the UK for the first time: “The rights for people are totally different in my country. In the UK, there are no differences between women and men – they are both equal. People here are very polite and I’m not used to living like this.

“It doesn’t matter what your situation is, everyone is treated the same and you have your rights. That’s the best thing about being here, but it was hard for me to get used to it. My hosts Roger and Sue helped me a lot. The only thing that made my life better was living with them. It wasn't like just living with friends. We were like a family.”

Of his experience at being a host, Roger says, “It’s very rewarding. It means such a lot to the guests. It’s asymmetrical; the amount of effort you put in is relatively small yet the benefit to the guest is transformational. It can be overwhelming for them.”

I ask D for his views on how the press portray refugees, and he explains: “The media show refugees as people always needing help who can't get better.” Roger agrees, saying: “It’s wrong. The idea that somebody would come by lorry or foot then walk all that way because they want to claim benefits is ludicrous. There’s a notion that Britain is some sort of magnet for refugees but we take fewer than most European countries. The idea that we are a soft touch is completely false and people scapegoat refugees who are easy targets. Occasionally though, there are positive reports. The Guardian sometimes feature articles about how much refugees have contributed.”

Jane describes the media as a huge hindrance, calling it orchestrated, “It’s difficult to fight the press when what they portray is biased. Hosting enables people to say they’ve met somebody. We’re not going to change the general public opinion unless they themselves encounter someone who’s gone through it. All we can do is painstakingly change people one by one.

“It’s great that we’ve now hosted over 200 asylum seekers and newly-recognised refugees, however, a challenge we’re continually faced with is that there just aren’t enough hosts.”

“A drop in the ocean” is how Jane conveys her sense of being able to help only a small number of refugees over an eight-year period. Hosting is a huge commitment and won’t be viable for everybody, but there are other ways to support, like volunteering at the Refugee Forum clothes bank, sponsoring bus passes or donating bikes. Additionally, when guests need to attend medical appointments or interviews at the Home Office, befrienders or chaperones are always very helpful.

Current member of the Management Committee, and host, Roger, concludes, “Behave well to people who look different. Make normal conversation. Step in if you think somebody is being spoken to abusively. They’ve had a rough time. Let people know they are welcome, trusted and have a safe space.”

Considering hosting or think you can help?
Contact Host Nottingham on:
Phone: 07963 740 175
Email: [email protected]
Web: hostnottingham.org.uk

National Refugee Week runs from Saturday 15 - Saturday 22 June. There’s a full programme planned for Nottingham, with events all over the city and opportunities to learn first-hand about asylum seekers, refugees and ways to support them.

Nottingham Refugee Week website