Helping to build a multi-cultural community of belonging, solidarity and equity
I first began ‘hosting’ some 20 years ago. My original guests were journalists who had fled for their lives from despots, political enemies, or criminal gangs. It was an easy choice for me. They were professional colleagues, sometimes from trouble-spots with which I was familiar, so we had much in common. They didn’t usually stay long, as their cases were so clearly valid that they were quickly given refugee status.
It was sometime later that I was approached by a friend, who asked if I could provide shelter for an Iranian mother and daughter who were homeless. Their asylum claims had been rejected, even though as newly converted Christians it was evidently unsafe to return them to their home country. In the event, only the mother came, and stayed for two years. She opened my eyes to the horrors experienced by young girls ‘arranged’ into unsuitable marriages, or imprisoned and abused for standing up to violent men. She also introduced me to a wealth of Iranian cuisine. Luckily, both she and her daughter have now had their refugee status recognised, but unfortunately, her son, who came to the UK with her as a minor a decade ago, has still not been granted his status. They moved to London to look after him, as he remains technically destitute.
My next guest was another journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He had his status but was still finding his feet. He also turned out to be an excellent cook. It was when he moved on that I began to take in young men through Bristol Hospitality Network.
The ‘hostile environment’ promoted by the current government often results in people who are seeking safety and security ending up homeless. This is because the system’s first priority is to reject all but the most clearly proven cases. We are lucky to live in a city that has made a point of welcoming asylum-seekers who have been ‘dispersed’ in our direction. As a City of Sanctuary, Bristol has a wide variety of support systems for them, and a Mayor who has made a personal commitment to help refugees.
My guests have come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. I am currently hosting an Algerian man who has a health condition, but who also happens to be a very good cook. Are you detecting a pattern here?
We all have so much to learn about the plights and cultures of people who believe we have much to offer them. What better way than in the kitchen and over a meal? I have also learnt that it is more than enough to just offer someone a room as this can make the difference between moving forward with life and being stuck living ‘under the radar’.
My guests meet my grandchildren, socialise with my friends, and help out with my chickens. But many of those hosted through BHN simply want a room and a secure place to stay. BHN provides them with a key worker to help with their case, and a support network for the hosts. Normally there is a weekly drop-in centre for guests and hosts at the Easton Family Centre. There are informal opportunities to discuss any issues that might arise and to learn about the asylum system. There are occasional social events too.
BHN has been operating for more than ten years and so has a vast array of experience in setting up successful hosting placements. There are perhaps 100 destitute asylum-seekers in Bristol at any one time and just last year, BHN housed 47 of them. Established on the Christian values of its co-founders, the charity engages with people of all faiths and none, creating a multi-cultural community of belonging, solidarity and equity to counter the hostility to refugees and asylum seekers that has built up over the years.
It may seem odd to invite a complete stranger into your home, but BHN has developed a successful system to protect everyone involved. Guests and hosts are equal members of BHN, and sign a contract with each other. The arrangement is reviewed every three months, to ensure that all is going well. The concerns of both are respected, and contracts can be terminated by either side,
Hosting is extraordinarily rewarding and I am pleased that many of my guests have stayed for as long as it took to win their status. Hosting is open to anyone with a spare room in their home and their heart to welcome those who have fallen foul of a hostile environment in both their home country and the country they believed would provide sanctuary for them.
As the COVID19 arrangements to house destitute asylum-seekers comes to an end, BHN is keen to hear from anyone willing to make sure they do not end up back on the streets. If you can provide a spare room for at least three months, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Find out more about BHN here and keep in touch through Twitter or Facebook.