Sara Nathan has been invited to speak at Friday prayers at the mosque in Acton this week. Unusual not only because she’s a woman but because this is a special week, being the last Friday of Ramadan. The fact that she’s been invited to speak is a measure of the respect with which she and the charity she founded, Refugees at Home, are regarded. She and her brother and sister in law decided four years ago that being empty-nesters, with their own children grown, they should put their spare rooms to better use. They took the bold step of inviting refugees to live with them. Now there are 160 hosts taking in refugee guests all over the country. Sara talked to me about how setting up Refugees at Home with her brother and sister in law has enriched their lives.
Photographs above: Ganim with Jonjo and Malcolm in football gear; Reza, Sara, Malcolm & Murtesa; Areej, refugee, guest, now placement coordinator with the charity
It was around the time that Alan Kurdi made global headlines that she decided she had to do something. The body of three year old Syrian boy washed up on an Italian beach became a symbol of the desperation of refugees trying to escape from war zones and the indifference of Europeans to their plight. Successful, professional, and the owner of a house with a spare room, the logic of taking in refugees seemed obvious to her.
Sara was very aware that anybody could be a refugee, as her brother’s mother-in-law had fled Vienna in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution and her grandparents had hosted a child brought to England by the Kinderstransport. She set up Refugees at Home with brother Timothy and sister in law Nina. They have now hosted 25 people and Sara and her husband Malcolm are up to 18. Their first was Ganim, pictured here in football gear with Sara’s son Jonjo and husband Malcolm, a few days after he’d arrived. He had not a word of English but they had football in common, so three days after he’d arrived they took him to a match. Ganim was from Syria and stayed nine months. He’s still living in Acton and now works for Deliveroo.
There was Reza the tailor from Iran, persecuted there for being Christian, now living happily with his girlfriend in Finchley and working in central London, and Kingsley the Nigerian who claimed asylum because as a gay man his life was under threat, and Khaled, another Syrian with a Masters in Pharmacology who now works in Hammersmith selling dental equipment.
Yes but, people who’ve had to struggle to survive often can become brutalized in the process. What if they’re violent? Mentally unstable?
Those are not the refugees and asylum seekers they place as guests in people’s homes. Everyone they deal with has been vetted and referred by organisations such as the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, St Mungo’s, the big immigration solicitors. All of these organisations desperately need to place their clients somewhere and give them a start at a life here, so they’ve very careful who they send. You sign up for a month initially and are visited by a home visitor to check that all is well. “They’re mostly very grateful and compliant. Only twice in 1700 placements have we had to go round and ask someone to leave”. They don’t take people with serious mental health issues. They don’t take people with drink and drug problems and they don’t take unaccompanied minors, unless their age is disputed.
Are they here legally?
“What is legally?” Indeed. They’re all in the system. Known to the authorities, going through the various stages of applications and legal proceedings. All are either refugees or asylum seekers.
What is your commitment as a host?
“Just to provide a bed. A safe, warm, dry bed in a room with a door that closes”. Some of the refugees work. Those asylum seekers who are not permitted to work are offered a bursary of £20 per week. Anything else provided by the host is optional.
When you apply to be a host, Refugees at Home sends round a home visitor. They check the accommodation, but also that everyone in the house is ok with the idea. “You’d be surprised how often the woman of the house thinks it’s a good idea but hasn’t mentioned it to her husband, who says ‘No way!'” The charity is always looking for new homes. They have 160 people hosting all over the country, mainly in London and the south east but also in big cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. There are a disproportionate number of Jewish households, Quakers and LGBT hosts. They don’t ask the race, religion or age of the refugees so asking for a Christian refugee for example, would be fruitless.
The charity is also looking for home visitors, particularly in the Chiswick area. They need to be people with a background in safeguarding or home assessment who are prepared to give a couple of hours a fortnight of their time. “Social workers, district nurses, Community Practitioners and doctors are perfect, or any of the above who are now retired”. Refugees at Home is also looking for a placement officer. Areej (pictured above) came as a refugee, stayed as a guest and now works for the charity as a placement coordinator. They’re looking for someone who is “both compassionate and firm, is sensitive, committed and resilient, with good judgement and outstanding attention to detail”.
The rewards are huge. Sara told me about the friendships she has made and the huge satisfaction you get playing a role in setting someone on a path to independence and a better life. When we met she’d just heard that a woman who is a paediatric anaesthetist and hasn’t been able to work here has just taken her first exam with the General Medical Council and now that she is settled here, has been be reunited with her children who she hadn’t seen for four years. The kick she gets out of helping someone like this is evident from her huge, beaming smile.