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Interview: Sara Nathan, co-founder of Refugees at Home

09 April 2020

‘My hope is in the helpers, not the haters’

Janie Critchley

We arrange the hosting of asylum-seekers and refugees in the spare rooms of hosts. We’ve made around 2250 placements, hosted for over 160,000 individual person-nights. We hosted about 650 a year in 2018 and 2019 — but some long-stayers were the same people.

Some of our placements are of one person, others of a couple or family. I think six is the most with one host. We must have helped at least 1000 people so far. Even now, in the middle of the current crisis, we have about 100 guests staying with hosts.

My brother, sister-in-law, and I wanted to act at the time of the big refugee upsurge in early 2015. Nina’s mum was a refugee from Nazi Vienna, and our grandparents had hosted a Kindertransport boy. We were all empty-nesters with spare rooms. No one else in London and the south-east seemed to be doing much. Someone had to; so we set up Refugees at Home.

I was a broadcast journalist; so I’m good at deploying traditional and social media to reach potential hosts in cities all over the UK. Plus, in 2012, I ran a successful campaign to save Gaby’s Deli from closure, which taught me how to motivate people. Plus I’m noisy, energetic, and well-networked.

We have nothing to do with the Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, which David Cameron announced in 2016. We’re a charity which enables private citizens to host refugees safely in their own homes, for as long as they can and want to. Every week or month helps. We have no government or local-authority funding, and make our own decisions — within the law and Charity Commission regulations. One of our volunteers described us a “a giant, humanitarian dating-agency”.

The asylum-seekers often move on to Home Office accommodation. It means their asylum claim is back in the system and their need acknowledged. The refugees move on in a variety of ways: to hostels, to shared flats, to rented lodgings, and, very occasionally, to council provision. Guests do also move between hosts, and sometimes live with one host mostly, but go to another when the first needs the room back. We move guests when the host needs us to do so, usually to another host.

Things do go wrong — but not what the Daily Mail would have you imagine. Most of our guests are referred by case workers for charities. Guests can be depressed and unhappy. Some younger men find it hard to settle in a settled family. We’ve always managed to resolve things. We’ve had two consensual affairs in 2500 placements, both of which were initiated by the host — and, I believe, continue happily. The things that go wrong are about boundaries or misunderstandings — the wear and tear of life.

GoogleTranslate, we love you. I’ve had guests who spoke virtually no English, but you can do a lot with goodwill and a cup of tea. Having conversations about Descartes, or asking guests personal questions, isn’t appropriate. They will have endured a lot of intrusive questioning about their case.

Astonishingly, we still have over 90 willing hosts, plus a couple who are lending us their homes empty at the moment; but we’ve decided we can’t accept new referrals — it’s just not responsible. Thank goodness there are now procedures to house the homeless in hotels during the pandemic; so we’re hunkering down and preparing for when we can take new guests again. Of course, if a guest or a host does contract the virus, they must self-isolate as members of the same household. That’s quite a commitment.

Many guests are happy with their hosts, pleased to share the crisis in relative safety; but it must be lonely and frightening for people alone, with so many of the drop-ins, advice centres, and colleges closed, If you’re an asylum-seeker on £37.75 a week, or a refugee on minimum wage, you can’t stock up. You can’t afford the little shops which have inflated prices. There must be real distress and hunger.

I grew up in the Surrey suburbs in a loving, not-very-observant Jewish home. I was very conformist: Queen’s Guide, Deputy-Head Girl, and never rode a motorbike or smoked weed. My father’s total belief in me was a driver, though. He lived long enough to know I had been awarded an OBE for services to broadcasting, but died before I could pick up the gong.

Now I live in Acton, west London, with my husband of 35 years, Malcolm Singer, who’s a composer and was Director of Music at the Yehudi Menuhin School. I love the sound of Bach, especially the Brandenburg Concertos, and Menuhin playing unaccompanied.

Our two children have grown up and left, and we share our house with a succession of male refugees: 21 so far. The latest, an Egyptian who teaches Qur’anic Arabic when he isn’t working in Starbucks, is a great cook. This is getting us through the pandemic as easily as possible.

There’s still a lot to do for Refugees At Home. We have guests, hosts, staff, and volunteers to support; media and social-media tasks — usually my role; and fund-raising for help with our IT. Plus, I’m running our local street WhatsApp group, and helping to co-ordinate Acton’s response, while being the main link for my 88-year-old mum and her diabetic carer, who live down the road.

And Passover preparations are well under way — which requires me to scrub as much of the house as I can. And all that beastly cooking and catering. We normally have 20 people over two nights, one with each side of the family. This year, we’ll be together on Zoom, breaking up to eat. We’ll be explaining what’s going on to our quite observant Muslim guest, which will be a hoot.

And after this? Will we remember who the key workers in society really are: the NHS employees, the carers; the drivers, and shop workers? We need them all to survive in a crisis. Just saying thank you isn’t enough.

We should learn we need to plan for pandemics, and invest in the NHS. I also hope we appreciate the BBC more. I want to see austerity vanish and our public sector duly valued. I’m not convinced that much, indeed any, of this will happen, but there really is no excuse.

I hope the few relaxations to the hostile environment to immigrants will stay in place — not having to carry asylum applications to Liverpool; not having to report in person; being evicted from Home Office accommodation 28 days after getting refugee status, whether or not you have somewhere to go. I hope asylum-seekers will be allowed to work while they wait, especially if they are doctors, nurses, and carers. But actually it should be generally allowed. I hope there’s an acknowledgement that all destitution is a public-health hazard to those experiencing it and to the whole of society.

My early experiences were not of God per se but of the Jewish life, particularly Passover. Judaism is so much about story-telling, and the Passover story is about liberation from slavery and putting yourself in the place of the fleeing. We say: “This is what God did for us when we fled Egypt.” It gives an engagement and a presence that I find rare in religious experience.

Apart from believing in the existence of the one God — which, for me, comes and goes a bit — Judaism is about what you do, rather than what you believe. I believe in social action, social justice, and responsibility. I believe we all have a duty to make the world better and repair it. If we ourselves are not in acute need, we have a duty to help those who are. “Duty” is a great concept, which is under-appreciated in 21st-century Britain.

I don’t have much physical courage, and I’m lucky not to have needed it. Looking cheerful and stalwart when I was sacked as editor of Channel 4 News was quite tough, though.

I hope to see my son get married next year, please God — assuming his fiancée survives working as a junior doctor in respiratory medicine in a woefully under-equipped hospital. I want to watch my darling grandson grow up and be barmitzvah. My hope is in the helpers, not the haters. When awful things happen, there are always more people who try to help, often at considerable cost to themselves. Encouragingly, more of them seem to be young.

The British Government and some of the electorate’s attitude to refugees makes me angry. It’s only an accident of birth and history that anyone, their children, or grandchildren might not be forced to flee, and condemning them to a “hostile environment” is needless cruelty. Plus, it’s daft to throw stumbling-blocks in front of those who could make a great contribution to our society — as the Huguenots, the Jews, and the Ugandan Asians have done before.

Swimming in Lake Orta before breakfast is the happiest thing.

Most of our Jewish prayers are worship and thanks. The requests are rather all-encompassing: world peace, that sort of thing.

I’d like to be locked in a synagogue with Rabbi Hugo Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor who never lost his humanity. He was our rabbi, and married us, but I hardly ever got him to myself. I’d like to explore his take on religion, frailty, and failings.


Sara Nathan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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