Hosting a destitute asylum seeker: an uplifting experience
By Ankie Hoogvelt
I live in a large house with plenty of unused space. Yet when I joined ASSIST as a volunteer I was keen to do almost any job except hosting an asylum seeker. I was dead anxious about it: about the invasion of privacy, about sharing bathroom and kitchen with a stranger, about damage or loss of property, about not being able to handle someone with depression or psychological scars; about –who knows? – dawn raids by the border police. But mostly I worried about not being able to get out of a commitment once I had entered into it. It is so much easier not to take someone in than to turn someone out!
So I applied myself to other areas of ASSIST’s work. But steadily my unease grew from occasional itch to permanent sore. Because, the bottom line is : what all destitute asylum seekers need more than anything, more than cash or conversation classes, more than legal advice or a bus pass, more than TLC at our drop-in, is… a place to stay!
Some sleep rough on park benches. Sure, we can help them with our night shelter. The night shelter is a treasure: warm and friendly and there is always some food too. But it is a community centre on loan for the nights and it is used for other purposes during the day. Our clients can only use it from 10 pm to 8 am. The remaining 14 hours of the day our clients roam the streets. Can you imagine, in winter?! They find warmth in department stores or in the central library. One client tells me she has spent so much time in Primark she knows the price tag of every item in the store! Some clients are unwell and need to take medication at set times – difficult when you are always on the move. Others have injuries or walk with a limp. Add to this that the night shelter is closed at the weekends and you get the picture!
Many asylum seekers find a sofa in a friend’s home, someone from their own community who takes them in. It is always a relief to learn that they have somewhere to sleep until you realize that such accommodation is often strictly temporary, with clients ‘sofa-hopping’ from one friend to the next; that sometimes the friends keep tallies of how much in food and heating bills is owed to be paid back in some distant future, or that the friends turn off the heating when they go out to work, or don’t even allow them to be in their homes when they themselves are not in.
As an ASSIST volunteer I couldn’t really listen to all those sad, depressing stories without feeling wretched and selfish. And running out of excuses, like: I am afraid, I don’t know them; I need to keep my spare room for friends and family who turn up for a night or two at a time. Or, I am away quite often and can’t leave them alone in the house. After about a year or two, I caved in.
I dwell on these personal agonies of doubt and guilt for two good reasons. One is that I know from talking with friends both in-and outside the ASSIST community that these doubts and excuses are widely shared. The way I felt was normal. It did seem a big deal. Certainly, those of us who have the space and who do not bask in the sunshine of principled political objection (nothing of course is more soothing to the conscience than being against asylum seekers on principle) feel the tug of this dilemma. And the other reason is that, having taken the plunge, I discovered not only that it was NOT a big deal, but also, that it was a truly rewarding, life affirming experience.
Why rewarding and life affirming? This has to do a bit with who I am, where I come from. Nice middle class, reasonably affluent, big house, liberal, retired academic with a background of political activism which has involved –as with so many of my generation – grand ambitions to change the world, nothing short of turning back climate change, or banning the bomb, or sinking tax havens. I have done my bit: joined protests, marched for social justice, held up banners against capitalism, written worthy, polemical papers. And a fat lot of good it did too!
By contrast, working with ASSIST generally and bringing someone into my home particularly, has given me a surprising sense that at last here I am making a difference. Helping someone in need, just with little comforts, a warm bed, a kitchen where they can cook their own meal with their own spices, was such a delight, such a relief to them, and returned so much gratitude and joy to me that I felt both humbled and uplifted by the experience. It grates to have to state the obvious but when someone has been out in the cold, is terribly anxious about where to find a bed next, deeply worried about deportation, hungry yet unaccustomed to the ‘mash and bangers’ provided at emergency food outlets, yes, then giving them a respite and retreat, for even a short period of time, is making their lives a little bit better, and making me feel good.
And that is not all of it. Being an inquisitive person and interested in learning, short of travelling the globe as an intrepid war correspondent cum anthropologist, you could do worse than engaging with asylum seekers to get to know a little about the horrible conflicts, oppressions, routine brutishness, daily insecurities and torments in other parts of the world. And you learn to appreciate in ways I never had done before how lucky we are to live in a country where it is still possible to walk the high street in relative safety.
I have a friend who said she would be happy to take in an asylum seeker provided he or she was truly a deserving political hero. She would be the judge and anything short of Nelson Mandela’s stature wasn’t really worth bothering with. This arrogance is based on a common misconception. Those who flee and ask for shelter in our country are rarely political heroes. I have yet to meet one. They are ordinary people caught on the wrong side of the street during an outbreak of inter-ethnic violence, or caught on the wrong side of especially nasty, religious or social laws, like Christians in Iran, or gays in some African countries, or women forced into marriage in parts of the Islamic world and elsewhere. These are the people who run for their lives.
And these are the people we take in and care for, for a short time, on the assumption that either they succeed in getting refugee status, or when they are refused and sent back, the particulars of their situation at home may have improved. Ours, therefore, is a human rights commitment, not a political platform.
From just talking with my guests, hearing their voices and reading their stories or the ‘case notes’ of their asylum appeals, I have also learnt about spheres of our civilised existence of which I was only dimly aware and which I now realize we must stand up for and defend because – as the Flemish poet Hugo Claus once wrote: “All that is of value is vulnerable”. Too much to go into here: from the respect that our Courts still have for individual human rights, despite the Home Office determination to chip away at it, to the professionalism and ingenuity of immigration lawyers, the caring dedication of NHS frontline staff fiercely defending the principle of universal treatment, to our own ASSIST community of non-judgemental volunteers, of all ages, nationalities and religions, working together to help those in need. And working together so harmoniously that one is driven to conclude that for all our diversity we share a common script, a common base of decent humanity.
Lastly, I want to say something about practicalities. Offering to take someone in, I have discovered, is NOT such a big deal after all. At ASSIST there is an experienced and sensitive accommodation team that advises and supports hosts every step of the way. If for whatever reason there is a problem, or things do not work out, they are only a phone call away and will come immediately to find the asylum seeker another place to stay. No questions asked, or judgements made. No pressure.
Although I have not had many asylum guests, I have found their presence always pleasant, affectionate, interesting and not imposing in any way. My experience and that of other hosts is that they keep themselves pretty much to themselves. All they really need is a room and if possible a television in there and you do not see them from one day to the next if you don’t want to. Curious at her long daily absences, I once asked a charming Yemeni guest what she had been up to all day and she replied something along these lines: “I just love being free to leave the house when I want, walk about the streets without fear and not coming to any harm and come back into the house with my own key and not having to account for what I have been doing. You people who live in this country do not know how lucky you are that you can do this always. Freedom is everything”. So she just spent her days exercising freedom! Sadly, within weeks of saying this she was detained while signing on at the Border Agency, flown back to Yemen and I never saw her again. A wrench!
I have hosted only three asylum seekers in recent years, so my experience is limited. But another ASSIST volunteer has had over one hundred pass through her doors in ten years and has told me that not once has she had anything stolen or wrecked by anybody. Another worry laid to rest! As for extra costs of utilities, ASSIST can make a small weekly contribution to defray these costs to those who want it.
But still the fear of making a commitment that they can’t live up to is, I believe, why so few people come forward to offer hospitality. And this is exactly the irony and the paradox. The more people there are who are willing to offer short term accommodation: a few weeks, or just weekends, or maybe just a room ‘until further notice’, the easier the burden on all of us.
If you know that when you can’t have somebody with you any longer for whatever reason but you also know that there is plenty of alternative hospitality for this person then there is no stress or pressure. Imagine all the people….If there were many of us we could have a fabulous network of hospitality in Sheffield that would make our City of Sanctuary really live up to its name.
If you would like to get in touch with Ankie to find out more about her hosting experience, please feel free to contact her on a.hoogvelt [at] sheffield.ac.uk
If you would like to talk to someone at ASSIST about hosting, please contact our accommodation worker, Jochen Kortlaender, on 0114 – 275 4960 or Jochen [at] assistsheffield.org.uk