Hosting a refugee guest at home offers the unique opportunity for mutual encounter and social justice in action, writes Hannah Markay of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Imagine living through the coronavirus pandemic without a roof over your head, or a place to call home. This is the harsh reality for many people seeking asylum in the UK, who are forced to live in chronic poverty as they wait to be granted refugee status. In the meantime, they live each day at risk of abuse, exploitation, and discrimination.
Today, on the UN World Day of Social Justice, we are invited to promote social justice in our communities and parishes, and work towards the goal of greater social integration. For our friends seeking asylum, one of the most powerful forms of social justice in action takes place at home, through refugee hosting schemes pairing volunteer hosts with refugees in desperate need of accommodation.
Through the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS UK)’s hosting scheme ‘At Home’, refugees are welcomed by individual households, parishes or religious communities who are able to offer accommodation for a three-month period. By opening their homes to a stranger, our volunteer hosts respond to the Christian call for hospitality.
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis renews his invitation to us all to take concrete steps to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate refugees and migrants seeking sanctuary on our shores: ‘The arrival of those who are different, coming from other ways of life and cultures, can be a gift’. This gift is of a ‘culture of encounter’, through which host communities and new arrivals can exchange the gifts of one another’s culture and enrich all those involved.
Volunteers encouraged to host by their faith, are the driving force of our ‘At Home’ scheme. Their anchoring in faith enables them to appreciate that behind the label ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ is a person of dignity – a person with a story, hopes, dreams and fears; who like all of us, is seeking to get on with their life.
Volunteer host, Nora, said: “I am very lucky to have a house; how could I not give a home to somebody? It is rewarding even though it’s just day-to-day living. But for my guest, it is something big.”
Another host, Miko, said hosting refugee guests was “just such a privilege. Most people in life you meet for a short amount of time and you get a general impression of things. But if somebody is actually there, then there’s the possibility to have a proper conversation and really learn.”
This mutual, sustained encounter between refugee and host puts principles of social justice into practice. It is an act of charity which upholds dignity, shows solidarity with the vulnerable, and increases avenues of participation.
Seeking asylum is a complex, drawn-out process during which refugee friends are banned from working and earning a living, lose the right to rent housing, and face multiple barriers to healthcare. They live in a cycle of uncertainty and endless waiting. Their physical and mental wellbeing suffers dramatically as they wait for an answer, living in the constant fear of homelessness.
Our friends are forced to seek respite by sleeping on night buses to escape the streets of London, rely on friends for a night or two, or risk the exploitation sometimes associated with an offer of temporary shelter.
The security of a home to return to in the midst of this debilitating uncertainty allows JRS’s refugee friends to live with dignity – not constantly in a state of worry about where to sleep or find food. These seemingly basic concerns can be all-consuming and prevent our refugee friends from thinking strategically about important decisions ahead.
One refugee guest, who has been hosted twice through JRS UK’s hosting scheme, told us: “Hosting was like I was escaping. I didn’t expect too much… I just want the certainly of a place where there will be peace and you will be considered as a human being.”
Being hosted offers peace of mind and an opportunity to strengthen a sense of self-worth and inherent dignity. Suddenly, refugee guests find they are able to progress their lives and engage with their cases. Some even find their new-found confidence allows them to participate in meaningful community volunteering.
One refugee friend put this in to words, describing his host family: “The comfort was present. All was for my peace of mind. Their children gave [me] respect and sympathy. We all were really close to each other.”
This Saturday, on the World Day of Social Justice, may we be reminded of the inherent value of our fellow human beings. May we open our hearts and our eyes to the injustices of destitution, perpetuated by an asylum system which robs so many of their basic right to human dignity. May we find it in our hearts to bring about change for those seeking sanctuary.
Picture: Fr Bart of St Thomas More RC Church, London, enjoys a cup of tea and a biscuit with refugee guest, Abdul, through JRS UK’s ‘At Home’ scheme. (Mazur/cbcew.org.uk).