THREE in every four people in Britain have a strong desire to act generously and with compassion towards refugees in genuine need, a ComRes poll commissioned by the newly launched Hospitality Pledge suggests.
Initiated by Dr Krish Kandiah, the pledge calls for Christians to speak up for asylum-seekers, and to open their homes. This is familiar territory to Rachel Poulton and her husband, Nigel, the chief executive of a charity that helps vulnerable children. Over the past five years, the couple have taken in 15 newly arrived, unaccompanied children who were fleeing countries such as Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
The couple have seven adopted children of their own — the two youngest still living at home. They explain their motives to the traumatised teenagers on the evening of their arrival.
“These youngsters have suffered terribly: they have had to flee from war, many from being forced to be child-soldiers themselves. They have been tortured and literally bear the scars of that,” Mrs Poulton says.
“What we always say to them — because so many horrible things have happened to them that they have got absolutely every reason not to trust people — is: ‘We’re really glad you’re here. The reason we do this is not for money, or because we’re being told to, or being made to. It’s because we really want you in our home.’
‘We think if this was one of our sons, far from home and having been through horrible circumstances like yours, and they didn’t have any money, and none of us were anywhere near to help, the one thing I would want would be for somebody to be kind and to open their doors.’
“They get that. That helps. It’s then for us to shepherd them towards the first time that they have felt safe for months or even years.”
MRS POULTON trained initially as a paediatric nurse, and spent several years in relief work among refugees, first in Cambodia, and later in Africa and Europe. “What I saw in Cambodia was tragic circumstances, appalling conditions, and ongoing trauma. People were literally having to run for their lives.”
“But you can make changes, you can do meaningful work, and it’s amazing how God can use ordinary people like me in those extreme situations.”
She worked initially with malnourished children, and witnessed how seeing them gain weight brought joy to their mothers, however terrible their circumstances. She went on to work with babies who had been abandoned, and again found that, even where people had lost everything, there still remained a desire in them to help other people. “I saw acts of incredible kindness,” she says.
Rachel and Nigel Poulton
She worked with refugees from the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. In 2016, she went to the island of Lesbos, in the Mediterranean, to work with women and children who had come off the boats.
Opening her own home is an extension of all that, and is a pleasure and a privilege, she says. “To be honest, as Christians, we pray about this, and if we get a call that says a young person needs a home, I guess we say yes, and we take it from there.”
Some of the 15 young refugees have stayed for a few weeks, some for a few years. Three are living with the family at present. “On the whole, they have done incredibly well. Like any group, there is always going to be a bit of a mixture. You never know who is going to be coming through the front door. But that’s fine, really. We get amazingly fond of them, and keep up with most of them after they’ve gone.”
THERE is an urgent need at the moment for hosts for children, and also for refugees of all ages and many different backgrounds. The Hospitality Pledge seeks to motivate Christians to respond. “I’d encourage anyone to try doing this, and actually see where it leads,” Mrs Poulton says. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything special in doing it. We are learning all the time. We make mistakes, but it’s something that we really want to do.
“You don’t have to be ‘qualified’; you don’t have to be some perfect person. You need just to want to do it, and have a spare room, and be prepared to go through whatever checks are needed — different according to whether you take under-18s or over-18s. When they can sense and tell that you really care about them, that’s all it takes. It’s not hard to care when you meet these youngsters and hear what they’ve been through.”
What they have been through is chilling. One was caught up in a religious attack in which he saw his father killed. He fled with his mother and younger siblings, but the next village that they reached was also under attack, and he was separated from his mother and family. He has never seen them again.
“Eventually, through a lot of horrible circumstances, and with a bullet wound in his leg, he arrived in the UK and landed on our doorstep. He went to the local school, where he got some GCSEs — an amazing young man,” Mrs Poulton says, with warmth.
“Just before Christmas, I always have the same anxieties, and I say to them: ‘I’m a bit worried because it’s going to be a busy time here, and I don’t want you to feel left out; but, at the same time, I don’t want to offend you’ — because he was a Muslim, as most are. But he said: ‘Oh, don’t worry, Rachel. Not so far apart.’ I think he was 16, then.”
Mrs Poulton describes the children as “incredibly resilient. . . None of them have grown up wanting to do this. It has been forced on them.
“Two of the ones that are with us at the moment have missed their families desperately, and their parents did the most loving thing they could think of in sending them. Otherwise, they would almost certainly be dead now, or recruited as child soldiers.”
The boys come with no English, but the Poultons find that they use the available interpreting service very little. “They learn English very quickly. The schools, on the whole, are fantastic in offering support,” Mrs Poulton says. “There is a lot to get through, and support to be given, during the asylum-seeking process as well, but it’s available.
“If it’s fostering through a local authority, you have its support; if it’s through one of the other groups who work with older refugees, you have support through their systems.”
And people want to help, she says, in gratitude to the people from her church who organised a hot meal for 12 — with all the dietary requirements — every night during the lockdown, and put it on the doorstep. “There is a huge amount of kindness out there, and it comes when people meet and get to know the individuals rather than just perhaps seeing the bigger picture, or reading the headlines.”
All 15 of the boys’ asylum applications have been accepted, and most of he boys have gone on to live in other households, or are now living independently.
IT HELPS to see them as teenage boys rather than refugees, Mrs Poulton suggests. “Refugee” is “a hard label to wear when you are finding your own way and your own identity. There are all the usual teenage things, and then just a whole lot more.”
It has shaped her own children’s lives, and “hugely expanded their understanding of the world and the problems of the world. They really enjoy it — a lot of games, playing, and sport, and a houseful of teenagers: for our children, the benefits have been huge. If it’s been quiet for a while, or they see something on the news, they ask, ‘When are we going to get someone else? When’s the next one coming?’”
The couple were awarded MBEs in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for their fostering work. “I tell them: ‘I have such respect for your parents. Your mum would be really proud of you.’” None of the boys have seen their parents again. For some, there is occasional contact, but that can bring its own difficulties, Mrs Poulton says, if they hear of ongoing trauma. One boy learned that his brother had been shot.
She concludes: “We have received so much kindness from people for refugees, and, when things go well for them, it is just fantastic. You try to build some hope for their future.
“I wave them off to school every morning, and when they come back and I say, ‘How’s it been?’ and they come back with a story: that’s tremendous. It’s a pleasure to be able to put some good into a life that has really suffered.”