Refugees Welcome Hounslow – charity run by Chiswick residents Shelagh Allsopp and Rachel Tanner

Image above: Refugees Welcome Hounslow

How Hounslow based charity Refugees Welcome Hounslow (RWH) goes the extra mile to welcome new families to our community

Refugees Welcome Hounslow has welcomed families of refugees and asylum seekers, supporting the basic programme which the local authority provides, since 2017.

Shelagh Allsop and Rachel Tanner from St Paul’s Church in Chiswick, along with members of the Hounslow Friends of Faith, started the local charity after David Cameron announced that the UK would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees.

Since then, they have welcomed 22 Syrian, Sudanese and Afghan families to Hounslow, with preparations for the arrival of 18 more Afghan families and their work has been recognised through various awards, including the One Hounslow Community Award in 2021.

What motivates Shelagh, a mother and now grandmother who has lived in Chiswick for many years, is her faith. She is a longstanding member of St Paul’s Church Grove Park, and feels called by her Christian faith to support the families of all religious backgrounds.

Born into an inter-denominational Irish family of both Protestant and Catholic faiths, she feels compelled to unite faith of all kinds. By supporting families and embracing their faiths and cultures, her aim it so fosters the inter-faith unity which she sees as crucial to our community.

Image above: Refugees Welcome Hounslow

Refugees Welcome aims to provide support for these families throughout their arrival and the beginning of their new lives in the UK, extending the basic service provided by the Home Office,  which Shelagh says is not sufficient.

Asylum seekers in hotels report that the diet provided in hotels is inappropriate and inadequate, particularly for those with health conditions such as diabetes, children and pregnant and breast-feeding women.

“The food is just dreadful. It is unvaried and at times it is lacking in basic nutrients. If offered the same unfamiliar and unpalatable food day in and day out. Some groups – like children and pregnant women – just eat very little and this results in harmful weight loss.”

The current system for asylum seekers living in hotels in Hounslow, provides an allowance of only £8 a week per person to pay for transport, and all other essentials, including the essential lifeline of a mobile phone, so buying extra food is not possible. This results in people who are supposed to be being fed in hotels funded by the Home Office, going to food banks.

Asylum seekers living in accommodation with kitchen facilities are given only £40 a week per person with vouchers for specific supermarkets, limiting access to local markets. During the Covid pandemic, when supermarket shelves were empty at times, this was frightening for already vulnerable people.

Image above: Refugees Welcome Hounslow

These small problems which have such a large impact on the individual families were not forgotten by Refugees Welcome, however, who stayed in touch with a group of asylum-seeking women and their children in a hostel in Hounslow, trying to make sure their needs were met, with the financial support and encouragement of a group of congregants from St Paul’s Church in Grove Park.

For example, during the pandemic, they gave £5 to each of the asylum-seeking women they supported. Combined, this paid for a communal garden and for the women to access provisions from their preferred local markets.

Refugees Welcome Hounslow also help refugees on government resettlement schemes on their arrival to the UK, providing a welcome meal and extra amenities for their homes. They work with the London Bike Hub to provide refurbished bikes for families and produce many community events which link the asylum seeker and refugee families, even hosted at Brentford FC.

Yet it is not so much the physical actions, but more the emotional support which makes Refugees Welcome Hounslow such a valuable asset to the Hounslow community. The Chiswick Calendar spoke to Sanaa Haloul, a Syrian refugee supported by Refugees Welcome who said:

‘The main way they helped me was by befriending me. I feel as though they are my family.’

Sanaa arrived in Feltham in 2017, after fleeing Syria with her husband and son. On her arrival, after a challenging journey from Jordan, she and her family arrived hungry and exhausted to be greeted with an empty fridge and an unhelpful caseworker.

On her second day, however, she met the Refugee Welcome Hounslow volunteers who gave Sanaa a heartfelt welcome. They helped to source second hand items that she needed, such as a hoover, sofa bed and other amenities.

They showed her how to pay her bills and use a computer, while also introducing her to the local community. It was through the kindness of others that she was given such a warm introduction to Hounslow.

Even her landlord allowed her to leave her apartment for a council house with only a week’s notice and to take the kitchen appliances with her.

Image above: Refugees Welcome Hounslow

It is through this compassion that Sanaa has managed to settle so happily into the community and now is even a volunteer herself, being a fully qualified interpreter for incoming refugees. It is this circle of compassion which Refugees Welcome aims to create, with those who were originally helped becoming the helpers.

Refugees Welcome volunteers in conjunction with the work of the local authority but struggles with the inefficiencies imposed by the Home Office.

Shelagh told me that the Home Office takes too long to process asylum seekers as families living in hotels (a scheme introduced in the pandemic) for extended periods is unsustainable. And delays with processing applications of course leads to a growing backlog of people waiting for their applications to be processed at the expense of the public purse.

Now, Refugees Welcome Hounslow is encountering a new problem. After introducing the hotel scheme, the Home Office has now speeded up granting refugee status to asylum seekers in hotels, without supporting the two local authorities accommodating 25% of all asylum seekers in hotels in the UK – Hounslow and Hillingdon, to provide housing for a great number of people who are suddenly needing to find affordable accommodation because the Home Office is no longer responsible for them.

This means that some refugees, particularly single men who the local authority cannot prioritise for housing, can end up homeless.

Shelagh argues the government needs to process and make decisions about asylum seekers more quickly, let asylum seekers work while waiting for status and focus funds on implementing existing rules and legislation efficiency rather than creating new schemes.

Shelagh Allsop and the Refugees Welcome Hounslow volunteers have clearly shown that the smallest actions can make a huge difference to the individual families. The donation of pots and pans and other amenities is of course immensely helpful, but it is ultimately the fact that volunteers are so compassionate and dedicated which makes the largest difference in welcoming families to their new homes.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar