This is the story of my sister Emma, she made the decision with her husband Rej to offer up their spare room to a charity that finds temporary homes for refugees. She didn’t shout about doing it in fact I can’t remember her telling me, so when I suggested I come up to stay for a few days she told me my usual bed in a leafy part of North London had temporarily gone but I was welcome to the sofa. Now I'm not saying we should all fling open our doors and take in refugees but is donating money the only way we can help, its great in fact it is vital but this is a story of a person who decided to really put herself and her family out there and she just so happens to be my older sister and I am so incredibly proud of how one selfless decision touched three other peoples lives irrevocably.
- What made you consider taking in a refugee?
Hearing Hassan Akkad's story in the documentary Exodus made me want to do something more, I think in the documentary he said he had lived with a family with a spare room and I had a spare room so thought that was a way I could do something
- Where did you find out how to go about it?
I googled it and found the charity Positive Action in Housing. I thought what they are doing is amazing and really inspirational. I spoke to my husband and thought he would be against registering our spare room but he was actually really in favour of doing it, we figured a room in London was worth way more than we could ever donate so it had a real financial value and felt like it was a very tangible way to help someone.
The process was super easy, I registered the room and gave some information about us and then had to provide a character reference.
- You have two children of your own, did you ever consider taking in families?
We hosted a mum and her son, who is the same age as my daughter. We only had one spare room so probably two people is the most we could fit in
- Did you build a relationship with them?
Yes, the second time we hosted a mum & her son, we are still in contact with them and are godparents to her child.
- What was the hardest part about having a refugee live with you?
Sharing the space can be difficult sometimes but actually you all get into your own rhythm and routine and get into a daily pattern. Plus it was very useful to have someone in the house whenever we went away, it made us feel really safe leaving the house.
- Do you get paid?
No, it's all voluntary. You sign an agreement saying no money will be exchanged, the people staying with you will be supported through the charity for their costs such as food, as they are usually receiving no money and no benefits as part of the hostile environment to make it hard for people to stay here while applying for asylum
- Do you know how long they will stay for, are you given a timescale?
You start off with a trial week and then can extend it. You do get an indication of how long anyone will need a home for but these people are usually in a system that can take months to have a decision made and then one day they can be granted asylum or immediately deported with no notice
- Do you have to help them with their day-to-day living whilst they are with you?
No, but we always offered to share food and sometimes cooked for each other. Although both times we hosted people they were always very careful not to use our stuff
- How do you integrate them into your lives?
You get into a routine, in both cases, the people who stayed with us had been in the UK for a while and had their own lives. The charity asks if you have any rules, so you can say then things like can you take your shoes off when you come in, what time you go to bed, get up, use the bathroom etc
- Do you cook/eat together?
Sometimes but usually not. Both people we hosted had food from a food bank so were very careful about using their food and planning the meals out with it for the week. If we had a take away we would get one for the child that stayed with us and he loved that but we'd always check with his mum it was OK first
- What is the hardest part and what do you get out of it on a personal level?
The hardest part is hearing someone's story and how they have been treated by the system and yet they are still fighting to have a home somewhere safe. As they can't work or get any benefits they are forced into waiting and waiting for a decision about if they are telling the truth about what has happened to them and what has happened to them might be so bad they are also traumatised by it but have to speak about it in great detail to be seen as a bad enough case to get asylum.
- Last words
The experience really opened my eyes into how much I take for granted, that I can work, have a bank account, get a take-away, have a safe home for my kids etc and that there are so many hidden homeless people in the UK that just want the same thing.
The mum and son we hosted were like holding a mirror up to our lives. The son had no nationality as he was born here in the UK but as his mum didn't have citizenship he also didn't get citizenship. So despite being born here for 11 years he wasn't British and could have been deported at anytime to a country he had never been to. The mum had been trafficked over and then had all her documents taken away from her. She had worked some very exploitive sounding jobs and then met someone, got pregnant and got dumped so was left on her own. She couldn't pay her rent so friends and her church helped her out but she also couldn't work as she had no documentation so ended up sleeping on office floors and spending nights in A&E waiting rooms where it was safe with her son.
She reached breaking point and said one day after dropping her son off at school she started crying and someone came up to her and asked what was wrong and then told her about the charity Positive Action in Housing and she said that was the day her life changed. The charity found her and her son a place to live, got them a lawyer and told her what her rights were so she finally could get their lives sorted out.
You can donate to www.chooselove.org here a charity that is pioneering a new movement in humanitarian aid helping where the need is greatest and changing the face of charities across the world.