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.

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.