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.
Dai Richards, Oxford, May 2021