15/11/2016 11:39 GMT | Updated 16/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Hosting A Refugee At Home - A Small Answer To A Big Problem

refugees at home

Our youngest host (19) and oldest (94) at the first meeting of a hosts hub in Kingston

This week Refugees At Home found one asylum-seeker a generous host in a Benedictine Monastery, a recent refugee somewhere to stay in Bournemouth so he can keep his part-time job and English language classes. We placed a couple of young men with families in west London and another in Kingston-on-Thames. Plus we found hosts for two more in Bristol, after a rather successful Facebook appeal for more hosts. Guests placed this week included several from Syria and others from Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan

So far we have made 222 placements. These could be one person for one night or three people for eight months. So it's maybe more informative to say that by November 14th, Refugees At Home had sheltered people for 8,082 person nights. That's a lot of nights not spent sleeping rough in parks, on night buses or accepting a bed for the night from a stranger - with all that implies. It's definitely better to be somewhere safe, warm and dry than on the demeaning and downright dangerous streets.

Plus we topped 9,000 votes in the Aviva Community Award challenge to help fund travel cards for our guests. We hope this will help prevent isolation and enable hosts, who have a spare room but no spare money, to feel they can support a refugee.

Of course, we need more votes and the poll close this Friday, November 18th.

This is huge progress from the summer of 2015, when my brother and sister-in-law decided they would start hosting refugees in their comfortable home in Surrey, England. Their nest was empty and his mother-in-law had come to England from Vienna in the thirties as a refugee. It seemed compelling and they thought it would be straight-forward. But hardly anyone was organising hosting in London and south-east England.

So we started with a Facebook group - to test the water - and were surprised by the response. Fortunately, we found a combination of skills in data-bases, refugee issues, charity governance, communications and, very soon, in legal advice.

refugees at home

Lunch for hosts and guests at the Surrey hub at the zig zag café in Epsom Surrey

Pilots started last autumn with a placement of Ahmad with my brother, which lasted over four happy months. Ahmad, a Syrian Kurd, had made his way to them via Calais, a lorry on a boat to Hull, Yorkshire and then dispersal to grim hostels in Wakefield and Macclesfield. When he got refugee status he had, as everyone does, to leave the hostel in 28 days, in spite of having nowhere to go, no National Insurance number yet, so he couldn't work or claim benefits or find accommodation, or even open a bank account. What he did have was unlimited energy and determination and fluent English. He found Refugees At Home, stayed in Surrey and worked to get his wife and two babies out of Aleppo. He managed that by February and moved on to a rented flat in High Wycombe, north of London. Now he has a scholarship to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The man and his story are a triumph.

While Ahmad was extracting his family from the horrors of Aleppo in Syria, we were thinking through how we would run this, what systems and safeguards needed to be built in, what we could do about strangers living together in the same home so as to limit vulnerability for both guests and hosts.

We rolled out in early February 2016 and have been growing rapidly ever since. Our hosts offer anything from a sofa-bed in the living room of a little flat above a shop in the edgy part of North London, to spacious suites with bathrooms in Notting Hill. What each does offer though is a generous heart and a desire to do something to those, and it could be any of us, fleeing war and persecution and facing a deeply uncertain future

The refugee crisis swamps our capacity to respond. What can we do that will make a difference? What can any individual do? Most of us can't go and work in a refugee camp, we can't board a ship and fish desperate people out of the sea. We can give money of course, but that doesn't feel enough of a response to a human tragedy.

What Refugees At Home offers is the opportunity to make a practical difference to someone's life, to offer temporary shelter, to bridge the gaps. And we do bridge gaps: we have observant Jews hosting practicing Muslims, agnostics hosting Iranian Christians, almost vegetarians hosting Halal meat eaters and all sorts from a variety of faiths and none, offering the hand of friendship, in a practical way at a difficult time, to strangers, because they can.