My experience as a guest support worker

As a volunteer guest support worker with Sanctuary Hosting, we are asked to keep in touch with a guest, check they are happily settled with their hosts and, if necessary, liaise with the host’s support worker should any difficulties have arisen.

On a roughly weekly basis, depending on needs, I would aim to contact them just to catch up, listen and check they had any particular issues with which I could support them (though not legal ones). 

I have now been fortunate enough to have been a volunteer support worker to seven different guests.  Some of them have required more input than others; for two of them, I had to do little more than text on a regular basis and meet for the odd cup of coffee, pandemic permitting.  Others required more support and have remained friends ever since.

The first person I supported was a young man who had suffered a very long and distressing time as an asylum seeker before finally getting his refugee status.   His long wait had left him understandably demoralised so we met weekly for moral support and practised English together.  I was deeply touched when he rang immediately to let me know he’d received the long awaited letter and we duly celebrated together with cake, balloons and the wonderful Sanctuary Hosting Service Co-ordinator!  But help was then needed with filling in innumerable forms for the Job Centre and the Housing Register and, in the search for accommodation, going to the City Council Housing Officer together and to Crisis for further advice and support.  I had helped him with his application to study A levels at our local FE college and he then asked for help with his university application where, to his great credit, he is now studying.   

Next was a young woman, who had suffered from abuse, spoke very little English and knew just one person in Oxford.  Over the weeks, she needed help with filling in countless forms and we went together to open a bank account,  register with a doctor,  practise her English,  go shopping as well as meeting up for coffee and checking that she was settled with her hosts.  This was some three years ago now, but we still keep in regular touch and continue to meet as often as we are able.

A woman, another abuse sufferer, was the next person I supported and again I met up with her regularly for coffee and chats,  exchanged regular text messages and calls to check she was ok, checked necessary bus routes together,  helped her move to a new host, and finally to independent accommodation.  With her, I went shopping and to a food bank – an entirely new experience for me.     

By contrast, the next guest really only wanted regular messages and moved on very quickly so that little input was required, though he still chooses to keep in touch.  He was succeeded by a young man who arrived at the start of the pandemic, so that most of the support needed, apart from the usual checks on his general welfare by phone and text, was liaising with a charity to ensure he was supplied with food, and then with Crisis to help with finding independent accommodation.

The most recent guest was going through a deeply distressing and worrying time and we formed a bubble during the last lockdown which meant we would have a weekly walk together, giving us time to talk and, eventually, to laugh together.  She too has now moved on but I realise how much I too gained from our times together and it is always good to find a text from her, saying how she is now getting on in her new life.

So, can one sum up what is involved in the volunteer support worker role?  Not easily.  It can vary from a guest needing very little support, other than a regular catch up time, to someone whose needs are necessarily greater.

All that I can say is that everyone I have worked with has shown an immense level of courage and determination to make the most of their new found safety that I find humbling and it is a privilege to have been around them.  And best of all, I have some amazing new friends.

Notes From A Support Worker

I have spent six fascinating and fulfilling years volunteering with Sanctuary Hosting. The first five as a host to myriad folk who had found themselves homeless, invariably through no fault of their own.  When the epidemic struck, I found myself on the NHS’s ‘Extremely Vulnerable’ list, so I switched to a support role.  

Oddly, I’ve not met any of the three guests I have supported in the past year; Covid prevented that, but it did not prevent us – the guest and me – establishing an easy relationship, if only by phone.   

Each guest knows a volunteer has been assigned to help them; they’re expecting a call. So breaking the ice is not hard, and guests know I’m there to help, so trust is not so difficult to establish. 

The main role of a guest’s support worker is to make sure all is going OK where they are staying but, in my brief experience, guests get on well enough with their hosts that they can sort out any misunderstandings between them without needing me as an intermediary.  

My first aim is to make the guest feel more at ease, to help them grow in confidence. Many have undergone horrible experiences in their own country, and now find themselves adrift in Britain’s asylum system, not knowing what fate will befall them.   If I were in that situation, I know my confidence would be shot through. Just being friendly, adult to adult, human to human, taking an interest and showing respect can go a long way. I hear the change in their tone, cheerier, speaking a little quicker and more confidently. It can be truly rewarding.

All Sanctuary Hosting guests are trying to move on, and face obstacles in doing so.  As their support worker, I try to help them overcome some of those obstacles, but I am not expected to know the finer workings of government bureaucracy, just to report back to SH’s managers, so they can help the guest through their next stage or connect the guest with someone who can, be it a local food bank, a lawyer or a housing advisor.

As it happens, I also volunteer as an adviser at another local charity, Asylum Welcome, and by now I know quite well how to help guests find their way through some of the maze of requirements they must fulfill to move forward. Almost every refugee I’ve met is determined to stand on their own feet again, to pay their own way and to give back to the community which has given them refuge. 

Of course, it’s not just bureaucracy that Sanctuary Hosting’s guests need to negotiate; there’s the language, the culture, and the poverty. Most asylum seekers had to leave behind all that they had built in their lives; most they arrive penniless and all are forbidden to earn money. They have been pushed from pillar to post,   

My most recent guest had just been awarded refugee status, ie the right to stay in Britain. That’s a wonderful moment for an asylum seeker. Now they can start to build the lives. It’s also a difficult moment: housed by the Home Office, as many are while they await a decision on the asylum application, asylum seekers will be evicted 28 days after getting refugee status. 

Sanctuary Hosting helps bridge that gap by providing with accommodation and support.  That’s how come, a month ago, I started supporting a guest who was now a refugee looking for a place to rent. A quiet, modest man from eastern Europe, I shall call him Mehmet. With no money or job yet, Mehmet’s only route to renting lodgings was through Housing Benefit.  To get that, he had first to get for Universal Credit. And UC requires all claimants to have a bank account. 

Despite producing the photo-ID issued by the Home Office precisely for transactions such as opening a bank account, the bank refused Mehmet an account. Happily, I was able to tell him that the bank was wrong.  It proved easy to find other banks who do welcome refugees.  With his new bank account, he soon got his Universal Credit.  

And when I advised that he might look beyond Oxford for accommodation, as housing in the city is so expensive, he has ended up renting a bedsit in Abingdon.  A first step.  He has also found a job two days a week and is volunteering with a local charity, so beginning to connect with the community.  

The thing is, the help you can give is usually far greater than the effort it takes. It’s often possible to be a big help to asylum seekers and refugees by doing something that seems small and is not difficult for us who know more than we realize about how to navigate life in Britain.

The reward is knowing you made a difference to someone’s life, for the better. And that is so satisfying. 

 

Celebrating migrants contributions to our Community – International Migrants Day

To mark today, International Migrants Day, Sanctuary Hosting would like to celebrate the attributes and skills that migrants bring to life in the UK. In particular, we will be referring to the characteristics of the individuals belonging to Sanctuary Hosting’s community.

Sanctuary Hosting formed in 2015 as a product of a grass-roots movement in Oxford of people wanting to welcome people who were homeless fleeing violence or persecution. It is a movement acting with hope, defiance and solidarity for those people arriving in the UK to seek safety. The Sanctuary Hosting community has come to see the wealth of skills, culture and diversity brought by men and women in need of hosting in the Thames Valley.

Our guests have been doctors, nurses, accountants, oncologists, biomedical engineers, interpreters, medicine students and aspiring law students in order to help others in their situation to navigate the asylum system and advocate for their rights and entitlements. 

As our Service Manager, Sarah Wahby highlights: “In the four years of working with Sanctuary Hosting, I have seen guests go on to do amazing things. One person is midway through a degree in medicine, another former guest is now a chartered accountant. I think of one lady who experienced so much suffering in her childhood and adulthood, and really struggled to accept the kindness of our volunteers. She is now living contentedly in her own home, and drops by the office with gifts and love whenever she can. These are inspiring stories of resilience that show what people can imagine and go on to achieve.”

During the COVID pandemic, we have been especially proud to have a guest winning a scholarship to study a nursing degree while also volunteering at the John Radcliffe hospital. Recently, a guest ran a half-marathon to raise funds and give back to Sanctuary Hosting to ensure we have funds to support many others in need of shelter. Others have taken part in public speaking, Refugee Week campaigns, and contributed to the development of promotional materials. These are all testimonies to resilience, humility and integrity, and hosting goes to show that when offered a place of sanctuary, warmth, and welcome, people can thrive and accomplish wonderful things.

25th November 2020 – International Elimination of Violence against Women

         

 

It is well documented that lockdown saw a steep rise in domestic abuse cases. Sanctuary Hosting and Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Service (ODAS) saw this reality first-hand through the experiences of several women in spring 2020.  Working together, these two organisations were continually astounded by the resilience and strength of the women who fled domestic violence during a global pandemic, a time when support from friends and family was largely closed off. The capacity of organisations to make a great change for the safety and wellbeing of women is remarkable and showcased in the story below.

One lady, we will call her Anna, was helped to escape her home after the police were called. Anna was placed in a hotel. The next day, Sanctuary Hosting received a call from ODAS to see if she could be found safe shelter with a volunteer host. A video call was set up with Anna the same day. Thanks to her resilience, and the hard work for her ODAS advocate, an interpreter and Sanctuary Hosting staff, Anna shared the details of her situation, a little about her past and her hopes for the future. With this information, Sanctuary Hosting set about finding her a host to stay with. Her caseworker at ODAS worked with her to make a safety plan to keep all involved safe and connected her to a solicitor.

The next day, Sanctuary Hosting arranged a taxi and Anna, just 24 hrs after she had fled her home, arrived at her hosts’ home. While initially nervous, as days passed Anna began to enjoy the garden and space, and tranquility of the rural home.

Thanks to legal aid, she was told she could apply for public funds, and then move to a refuge but this would take 2 weeks. After 10 days, the solicitor let her know she could now apply for public funds. Without delay, ODAS set about applying for a refuge space for her. One was rapidly found, and she prepared to move again.  Anna left the host’s house feeling cared for and supported.

Recognition of the fortitude and resilience of these women, and the agencies that are there to support, is something to celebrate today on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 25th November 2020.

Our Experience of becoming hosts…

Some 3 years ago a friend mentioned Sanctuary Hosting. My wife and I were ignorant of this charity. In a nutshell they link guests, (normally people with no housing as a consequence of immigration/refugee status) with hosts. Hosts with a spare room take in a guest, a refugee or migrant, who has no home. It sounds simple… mostly it is that simple. But Air BnB it ain’t!

Following our friends comment we contacted Sanctuary Hosting. After a helpful and reassuring visit from a caseworker we were very soon welcoming our first guest. There were of course briefings and support visits of course, both for us and our guest. We soon had a set of ground rules and to be honest I was surprised how smoothly it all went. It was fairly informal but thorough and included our daughter who was 16 at the time. She enjoyed having a guest in the house.

Who are the guests?

We have hosted two guests but confidentiality paramount. So I will only give a flavour, avoiding too much personal detail. Suffice to say our first guest had been trafficked, in his early teens across Europe, eventually arriving in the UK alone still under 18 having passed through the notorious Sangatte Jungle camp.

After his experiences he was still surprisingly cheerful and positive, but
somewhat naïve, which was surprising after all what he had been through. As our guest he had the physical support of a guaranteed roof, bed, laundry and access to the kitchen. A simple routine soon set in and we would on occasion share a meal cooked either by the host or guest. So in a practical sense it was easy. As for food he received Red Cross food parcels so he was self-sufficient.

On a emotional and personal level he did need some support. He spoke
reasonable English but his reading and literacy skills were limited. Though
Sanctuary Hosting did mange to get him support from our local FE college. His understanding of bureaucracy was also poor. On a number of occasions we had to help with e.g Home Office letters which were usually written in “legalese’ and often dashed his hopes of progress. I must add that the case worker did sterling work but when a “bad news” letter arrived our guest did value having at least a sympathetic face and guidance on the implications at hand as soon as he opened it. A letter mentioning a possible removal to an Immigration Detention Center is not comforting reading even if it is unlikely to actually happen. Being there when such a letter arrives is important but also ensuring the case worker is kept up to date to provide any suitable “official “support.

In a nutshell it is important to be able to provide some comfort, but providing legal, financial support or advice etc. is absolutely not a host’s role. (No matter how tempting to join in!)

I can’t say much more without briefing confidentiality. He has moved on from us but does keep in touch on social media. The good news is that there some limited confidence he will establish a right to remain.

Again I cannot give too many details of our second guest.

This was a man who had been in the UK for some time and had a UK daughter though he and his wife were separated. There was a question over the status of his visa which meant he could no longer legally work or have any recourse to public funds. Essentially he went overnight from professional paid employment to being virtually destitute and likely to become homeless. After nine months and seemingly endless Home Office delays, “lost and mislaid” documents, he did receive his right to remain. In practical terms he was able to fight his corner against the home office. But emotionally the strain of trying to maintain regular contact sessions with his daughter and the necessary travel arrangements did tell on him. He was never a burden, (he was a good cook) and would sometimes share a meal with us, and take opportunity to just talk about what was happening.

Will we be hosts again?

Absolutely yes, though may have a pause.

Was it hard work?

Not really it was mostly straightforward with a few ups and downs.

What did we as hosts get out of it?

An education in parts of our society that are not visible if you have no involvement. There is also a certain satisfaction in doing something, which while not onerous to us, really did help someone in need.”

– Sanctuary Hosting, Volunteer Host, Milton Keynes

When charity begins at home, our community becomes a sanctuary

This international day of charity, we’re highlighting the ultimate in volunteering – sharing your home with someone seeking safety and shelter. We want to celebrate the incredible contribution of our brilliant volunteers to Sanctuary Hosting, particularly Mrs. Kate Bowen, who has shown her belief in our ethos of sanctuary by supporting numerous individuals in need since day one.

Sanctuary Hosting was founded with an ‘open minds, open hearts’ mindset, and if there is someone that truly embodies this vision, it is Kate Bowen, who is a trustee, host, support worker, media spokesperson, admin support… the list goes on!

Kate became one of the founding members of Sanctuary Hosting in 2015, and since then her family has welcomed 12  guests to their home, 3 during the COVID 19 pandemic, represented Sanctuary Hosting on radio stations across the Thames Valley, hosted a Summer Party for our guests, volunteers and staff, provided support when appraising new host and guest referrals, provided shelter to individuals at very short notice, driven guests to appointments, and we got so lucky as to have her join our Board of Trustees.

Madeleine is also an extraordinary representation of charity and kindheartedness. Moved to make her spare room a sanctuary out of a feeling of helplessness in the face of the refugee crisis at its peak in 2015, She has hosted 9 guests at her home in Oxford over the past 4 years. She says: ‘It’s more than just ‘doing good’. It’s quite deep. It’s about equality and respect, and all those things. You’re living it a bit, rather than just reading about it or thinking about it.’

Of course – like having any guests – there can be difficult moments, and many of the guests are traumatised by their past experiences, but there are also moments of magic. ‘It’s amazing being able to laugh about things with people from a different culture. I love that – when you find so much difference, but you find something you can both giggle about, or do together. Humour is a really big positive.’

We are eternally grateful for the outstanding support we have received from our volunteers in the past years. In the words of our Service Manager, Sarah Wahby: “it never gets old after so many times and years, it astounds me away every time when a host family says to a complete stranger: ‘My home is your home, help yourself to anything you need’. Hosts show such generous hospitality to someone who otherwise could be in a dire and unimaginable situation.”