One of our wonderful Volunteers- Anne Wheeler, a host and support worker in Oxford- has written from the heart about her experience with Sanctuary Hosting.
It was at the tail end of 2015 that we first became involved with hosting refugees. Host Oxford, as it was then called, came into being following the Refugees Welcome demonstration in Oxford in July 2015. The founder of the hosting scheme, Wyon Stansfield, asked people if they would be prepared to open their homes to a refugee or vulnerable migrant. That was the beginning.
In 2016, Host Oxford, along with the British Red Cross and Citizens Advice Reading, won funding from the Big Lottery to provide support to refugees and vulnerable migrants across the Thames Valley. It changed name to Sanctuary Hosting and in 2017, it became a registered charity.
After an initial interview, a look at the accommodation we could offer to check its suitability, and a DBS check because of the vulnerability of the guests, we were on the list.
Our first guest arrived in January 2016; the weather was typical of that time of year. Cold and very wet. He had been living on the streets, walking around through the nights as he felt unsafe otherwise, and sleeping during the day. He had by then received his papers and was officially a refugee, but destitute. Once he had a safe place to live, he found himself a job and enrolled at the FE college to resume his studies. He had fled a country where he had been imprisoned for his religious beliefs, escaped, and made the highly dangerous journey to the UK. He stayed with us for about 15 months, becoming very much part of the family and saying what has since been repeated by other guests: that it is not just a matter of having a roof over one’s head, but having a home and a family.
Since then we have hosted a victim of human trafficking who had been sent to prison for working illegally in the care sector, a young man escaping a highly oppressive regime and now someone who is claiming asylum from one of the most violent and troubled areas in the world.
When a guest arrives, we agree an informal set of rules between us; will we share the kitchen, the washing machine, and meals. The length of stay can we offer (which can be terminated at any time), for example.
Listening to their often harrowing stories is not always easy and should one ever feel overwhelmed by what one is told, Sanctuary Hosting offers counselling from someone trained specifically in this area. In addition, training is offered on relevant subjects such as human trafficking, and opportunities are given to meet up with fellow hosts and support workers.
Hosting is not the only role I play. Each guest and host is allocated their own volunteer support worker so that any problems that might arise can be sorted out more easily. I have now supported two other guests and we meet up for coffee, advice (and English lessons for one
taking his GCSE) and friendship at regular intervals. As part of this role, I have given support in enrolling on college courses, opening bank accounts, registering with doctors, helping find affordable accommodation (the scheme aims to support guests to move on), and completing
interminable forms in the vain hope of getting on a housing list; a new experience for me, but one which gave me an insight into the difficulties many face. I’ve also been part of interviews of prospective guests to ensure they are eligible and suitable to be hosted, and in interviewing prospective hosts for their suitability too.
The usual clichés apply when thinking of the benefits of hosting migrants: of course it can only be good to provide a vulnerable person with a safe and comfortable space and hold out the hand of friendship and support but there is a great deal to be gained too; we have learnt of, and been inspired by, their courage, resilience and determination to make the most of opportunities now open to them. Any difficulties or misunderstandings have almost always stemmed from differences of cultural assumption and expectation. But we have learnt of, and benefited from learning, about other cultures and enjoyed innumerable discussions on our similarities and differences. Right now, the kitchen has been given over to Middle Eastern cooking – and that really is a benefit!