World Refugee Day: A Personal Perspective

To mark this day June 20th, World Refugee Day, I want to relate our positive experience about hosting a refugee for seven weeks in our house in Notting Hill. This is a good news story in the wake of the disastrous fire that has needlessly claimed so many lives in our borough.

In late March, we were inspired by friends who were hosting a refugee, to do the same. We had been thinking of it for a couple of years, particularly since I am a board member of the International Rescue Committee UK, whose mission is to help people whose lives are shattered by conflict to survive and regain control of their lives. I had emailed our local MP to say we would host a refugee almost two years ago, but heard nothing back. I didn’t find another avenue to be a host until my friends told me about Refugees at Home, a small NGO established 18 months ago in London to match people willing to be hosts with refugees and asylum seekers needing accommodation.

I submitted a short application on line with Refugees at Home and shortly after, a social worker came for a home visit to find out about our family and see the type of accommodation we could offer. She was very helpful and knew the ropes about being a host having been a host herself several times, so was able to answer all of our questions about the process and what to expect. She then recommended us to be a host family and added my name to the roster of hosts. We simply had to state the dates when we could offer a room.

We were away for the spring holiday so as soon as I returned on April 24th, I contacted Refugees at Home to find out if they had identified a match for us. I was referred to Steve at Crisis, a UK NGO assisting single homeless people, who knew of a young man from Sudan in need of a room. He gave me some basic information about the 22 year old refugee from Omdurman, Sudan who was currently sleeping rough at the Tower Hamlets bus terminal. ‘M’ has been granted refugee status and is surviving on a job seeker’s allowance of £57 per week. I don’t know under what circumstances M left Sudan, only that he left behind his parents and siblings and spent some time in Calais at the now destroyed camp called the Jungle. I can’t possibly imagine the horrors he has witnessed making the long and difficult journey from Sudan, across the Mediterranean followed by spending time in the Jungle before coming to the UK.

M moved in on 26th April with only a small knapsack in his possession, and he was very cold.

As soon as we knew M was coming, we rushed out to buy halal meat since that was his only request. On our first evening together, although we managed fairly well at dinner, there was so much I wanted to explain to him so that he would feel comfortable in our house. He only had very basic English skills so communication was pretty limited. He is a shy young man, who proved to be an easy-going houseguest since he is tidy, quiet and respectful.

We have had the same mini cab driver for 12 years and so the following day, I recruited Mustapha, an Arabic speaker from Morocco, to come over, in order for us to have a proper conversation – what a relief to be able to understand each other! I was sure it must have been a somewhat scary experience for this young man to come into a stranger’s house. Mustapha told him about us and in turn I could explain how we operate, and what our expectations were (curfews, keeping the bathroom clean, amount of time we could accommodate him etc). I also wanted to find out what he needed. We took him out shopping to get him some new clothes including jeans, shoes, underwear, socks, as well as toiletries.

Finding a routine took a little work on both our parts. After a couple of weeks of getting used to being in a safe, warm, dry room with regular meals available whenever he wanted to eat, I knew he had to get out for daily English lessons. I scouted around but it wasn’t easy to find lessons free of charge so was relieved when I got a lead about International House at Holborn, which provides two hour English lessons daily to refugees by teachers getting their accreditation to be ESL teachers. M’s confidence has improved markedly since he started and he feels a real sense of community with his classmates. He also has discovered a community centre in Shepherd’s Bush where he enjoys watching football with some other Sudanese guys. Also, I took him to the mosque under the Westway off Ladbroke Grove where he could walk to prayers every evening during Ramadan.

Steve at Crisis gave me a contact at an estate agent who provides social housing and I was pleased when Greg, the agent, contacted me to say there was a room in a house in Ealing that would be available soon. I was keen for M to get into the system so was glad when he was accepted for the lease. I collected things that M needed to furnish his room, plus gave him my bike to keep his transportation costs down.

On June 13th, he moved into his new room in a shared subsidised house, in Ealing (West London) with four housemates, two other from Sudan, two from Eritrea. I am delighted to report that M likes his new neighbourhood and new newly painted house very much. He feels that this is a really good beginning.

We have told M that he is welcome to come back every week to do some laundry and pick up a meal for his household, so we hope to keep in touch with him that way. He continues to attend English lessons every day. It looks as though he is off to a good start for a decent life in the UK. The next step for him will be to find a job.

Since I got involved in the issue of refugees living in the UK in late March, I have been shocked at how little support there is from government. On the other hand, it has been heartening to work with NGOs helping refugees and asylum seekers here, and kind people like Greg, the agent who let M his room. The other thing that has saddened me is the reaction from some people who uncharitably suggest that he may not be a refugee (he has been granted refugee status in the UK – not an easy feat) and that he may be everything from a thief to a terrorist. Such negative assumptions about refugees who have escaped dangerous circumstances, witnessed appalling tragedies and offered so little along the way, couldn’t be further from the truth.

I will continue to keep tabs on M, our refugee guest who is now our friend, along with his housemates, to see how we can provide support they may need. It certainly has been an eye opening experience and one that I would encourage anyone who has a room to take the chance.

From 1992 – 2001, Susan Gibson (TPW 2012–2013) worked as a micro-finance program advisor for international NGOs, UN agencies and donor governments. She received her micro-finance training from Prof Yunus at Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1992 and then went on to provide technical assistance and conduct workshops in team building, communications and micro-finance principles in more than 50 countries. After moving to London in 2001, she joined Human Rights Watch where she co-chaired the London Committee from 2007 – 2010. Susan also chaired Learning for Life (schools in India and Pakistan) from 2003 – 2007 and joined the Carter Center UK board in 2010 as vice-chair. For the past couple of years, she has enjoyed organising and hosting events for organisations she supports including IRC, Refugee Studies Centre Oxford, Yunus Social Business, The Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative, Girls Not Brides, International Crisis Group and the Fund for Global Human Rights among others. She also sits on the UK board of the International Rescue Committee.

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