We started HostNation soon after the New Year and now the year is drawing to a close. A lot has happened in our first year and we’re happy to report that we’re really up and running now. We’re matching Londoners to socially isolated asylum seekers and refugees on a weekly basis. We’re finally doing what we set out to do and making a difference to individual lives.
One month after being matched we check in on the relationship and the early feedback is really encouraging. A referrer described it as being transformative for her client. A befriender told us that she is getting on so well with her befriendee that they are fast becoming very good friends. We’ve made 50 matches so far which include football-crazy young men from Africa, devout Christians from the DRC, post-graduate students from Nigeria and South Sudan, young mothers, a professional chef from the Ukraine, a keen cyclist from the Congo, Sri Lankans passionate about South Asian food, resettled Syrian refugees and a wonderful painter and fashion designer from China.
They have been persecuted for reasons of faith, politics, sexuality or ethnicity and most are still seeking asylum in the UK. Many live in hostels and substandard accommodation on the fringes of the city and receive no welfare, not even national asylum support of £5 a day. They rely on the support of the Red Cross and refugee organisations. As a result they spend most of their time with other migrants and asylum seekers and move from one drop-in centre to another. Those that have been referred to HostNation are remarkably resourceful and cheerful despite their circumstances. They are delighted to be offered the prospect of enjoying more of what London has to offer with a Londoner by their side – someone who can give them new, positive experiences of the city they live in, help them practise their English and live in the present, rather than the past. What HostNation offers, we hope, is the chance to be treated as an equal and a real person, rather than as a statistic or someone defined by immigration status, and the opportunity to rebuild some of the social capital that most left behind in their country of origin.
Its become clear that London is crying out for social integration projects as few of the big refugee organisations have been able to sustain initiatives aimed at the emotional well being of their service users. Since the summer we’ve been working hard to build relationships in the sector and with the larger NGOs despite their crisis casework overload and the fact that dealing with homelessness, destitution and detention understandably takes precedence over social integration. There isn’t a week that goes by without HostNation attending networking events, meetings with frontline caseworkers, calling in at drop-in centres and multiple efforts to reach out via email and social media. We have become aware that we need to be as careful about who is referred to HostNation as we are about who we accept as befrienders. We are seeking those who are naturally sociable and curious and want to meet Londoners and enjoy more of what the city has to offer. They are here, living semi-invisible lives on the margins, attending Churches, drop-in centres, free ESOL classes, adult education colleges, youth projects, refugee choirs and in the queue for Citizen Advice Bureaus. Slowly we are finding them and they are finding us.
In the first half of the year we were inundated with offers to befriend refugees. Despite what some newspapers would have us believe, the humanitarian urge to help – especially those who’ve fled persecution – is still alive and well. We spent months screening those who registered and checking 300+ references and have been inspired by the empathy, kindness and generosity of spirit we uncovered in the process. Some are children of refugees, others have strong cultural and linguistic links to war-torn regions that have produced so many refugees, some have volunteered on the frontline in the camps in Calais, the refugee centres in Athens and on the beaches in Lesbos, whilst others are simply passionate about London and want to share their enthusiasm with newcomers and make them feel welcome. We have built up a small army of humanitarians in the capital – many young and female – of which we feel proud.
AND, last but not least, we have a great team building the digital infrastructure and search engines, spreading the word, encouraging referrals and making the matches. You can find out who we are in the About Us section although not everyone who deserves thanks is featured on the website. Whilst we now have some funding thanks to kind donations and the Paul Hamlyn Ideas and Pioneers Fund, we are very grateful that most of our core team are happy to continue to work pro bono, allowing our funds to stretch further.
We chose to pilot the scheme in Greater London and are learning a lot in the process about getting it right. As we get more feedback we shall update the website and make some short films about HostNation matches. We also hope to run training workshops and provide more of a support service to befrienders in 2018.
We’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime we wish everyone a very merry Christmas and New Year.