Meet the families living with refugees

Anna Walker

We meet the volunteers opening their homes and their hearts to refugees, thanks to Glasgow-based charity Positive Action in Housing

Len and Karen Abrams, hosting Grace, 36,
from Malawi
in Caterham, Surrey


Len and Karen describe Grace as “part of the family”

For Len, an ordained priest and civil engineer and his librarian wife Karen, the time to act came when the photo of Alan Kurdi—the three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on Turkish shores—hit the papers. 

“It seemed such a terrible situation,” Karen recalls. “One feels so powerless. I thought hosting could be a small way of helping because the crisis is so overwhelming you just wonder, What can I do?” 

The couple was initially matched up with a young man from Afghanistan. He arrived in Surrey with nothing more than a plastic packet, which contained all his worldly possessions. 

“He was a Muslim, so on the afternoon of his arrival you’d have found me in my dog collar hunting all over for Halal food,” laughs Len, who also downloaded a Qibla app to show their guest the direction to Mecca. 

“Growing up in Afghanistan there was a lot of talk of the evil West, but he told us that those two gestures ended 18 years of propaganda.

“When folk come into your home from that sort of environment, you suddenly see all your stuff through other people’s eyes,” Len explains. “It makes you revalue it all. We’ve been at least as blessed by having folk here as they are being here.” 

Having found their first experience so rewarding, the couple are now hosting their second guest. Grace is an upbeat 36-year-old from Malawi, with an irrepressibly contagious laugh and obvious affection for her hosts and the home they share.

“Hosting is the best thing anyone has done for me,” she explains. “When I was living on my own, I felt like I was always running, but now I have a place to stay, I am free.”

“Our two adult children have left now,” says Len, “So there’s only two of us in this great big house and it’s nice for Karen to have company, because I often travel for work.” 

"My heart was broken. The moment you become homeless your friends turn their phones off"

Indeed, in Len’s absence Karen and Grace have taken excursions to Penshurst Place, enjoyed walks in the forest and even taken a day trip to London’s Globe Theatre.

“We bought tickets to see Much Ado About Nothing—I can never persuade Len to go—and it was a beautiful day,” Karen shares. 

Before Grace signed up to the refugee-hosting programme, she was homeless for three months, sleeping in parks, shopping centres and even on buses. 

“I had friends. A lot of friends. But when I became homeless I saw their true colours. My heart was broken. The moment you become homeless your friends turn their phones off, they say they’re always busy. It’s just another way for them to say, ‘Don’t call me back.’ 

“Sometimes, when they see you arriving, they will hide their things. Just because you no longer have a job [Grace lost her right to work because of her asylum-seeker status] they think, This one doesn’t have money, she’s going to steal from me.

Grace discovered Positive Action through a friend, who dragged her across London in an effort to sign her up. Although she was desperate to find shelter so that she could continue volunteering (Grace’s volunteering has seen her receive an award from the Mayor of London and meet Prince Harry), she was initially nervous to meet the Abrams family.

“When I met Len and Karen for the first time and realised that they were such lovely people, the fear went right away.

“You have to trust in your hosts and ask, ‘God, please be with me, help me trust this family.’ It’s hard for someone to offer you a place free of charge. Out of 100, there are very few people who would open their houses to those who don’t have anywhere to stay.”

Karen is keen to explain how much the couple’s faith has deepened through their relationship with their guest. 

“Grace has such a positive spirit and her faith is so strong despite difficult circumstances. She’s been such a good influence on other people, using her talents to help in so many ways.”

Says Len, “My brother-in-law recently said, ‘You’re doing something that I respect, but I could never do it myself’. I think most people probably think hosting is a relationship of condescendence and charity, but that just wouldn’t work. You have to have respect. It has to be a mutual relationship.

“Rather than seeing it as an act of duty or conscience, know that [in not hosting] you’re actually just missing out on an enormous blessing.”

Claire and Robert Milne, hosting Meron, 21,
from Eritrea
in central London


Claire and Robert felt able to host refugees when their youngest son left home

"My family on both sides were originally Jews in Eastern Europe, which wasn’t a very good place for Jews to be,” explains telecoms consultant Claire Milne.

“Because of my background I’ve always been very aware of the needs of people who can’t stay in their own countries. I wouldn’t exist if my parents and grandparents hadn’t moved around the world, so I know how important it is and always felt it would be nice to help people in that situation.”

The opportunity to help arose for Claire, 66, and her husband Robert, 69, who first met while studying at Cambridge 42 years ago, when their youngest child flew the nest. 

“He completed his PhD studies and decided the time had come for some independence. That meant we had extra space, and it was the perfect time to offer it to someone in need.”

Twenty-one-year-old Meron, who had to flee her home country Eritrea due to religious persecution, is the third guest the Milnes have hosted and moved in in July last year. Meron is shy and chooses her few words carefully, but she clearly feels safe around Claire. She explains that on her first day with the Milnes, “I felt better. I like it here. I like the freedom.”

“Meron is incredibly self-reliant. She’s without family here and had to leave her husband behind back in Africa. She doesn’t know where he is, which must be such a terrible wrench,” explains Claire. 

"I wouldn’t exist if my parents and grandparents hadn’t moved around the world, so I know how important it is"

Meron has joined a church in London, where she can practise her Pentecostal Christian faith free of the persecution so many suffer in her homeland, and has made friends with some fellow Eritreans there. She explains that it’s important for her to have friends who understand where she has come from. 

“Our first guest was a young Muslim gent from Sudan,” says Claire. “He was here during Ramadan, and although I’ve visited Muslim countries during Ramadan, I’ve never lived with somebody actually keeping it. It was like having somebody in hibernation for the whole period, I was quite worried about him!”

This concern is typical of Claire, who clearly takes a maternal approach to her care for the refugees who stay in her home.  

“I’ve noticed that Meron often calls me ‘Mummy’ and I guess that I am a sort of mother figure to her. It’s not so different to how it was when my son was living here. He was independent and out a lot but he knew he could always come and see me if he wanted to. I hope it’s the same for Meron.” 

Coming from Eritrea, where the average temperature in January is a pleasant 22C, Meron explains that the English winters are something she’s struggled to adapt to in the two years she’s been in London. 

The hallway to the Milnes’ home is lined with packages that Claire reveals are full of pieces of transparent plastic. She intends to line the windows of Meron’s room—a cosy space with her own kitchenette—while she’s at church on Sunday, to help keep the warmth in when the colder months roll around. 

“Hosting is a big responsibility,” Claire admits, “but it feels so worthwhile for anyone who’s like us and has some space to spare that they don’t need to make money out of.

“I think it’s wrong that there are homes for these people only thanks to volunteers. Hosting isn’t like taking anybody from a homeless shelter in, because homeless people in this country often have some sort of problem like drug abuse, or difficult family backgrounds, which I wouldn’t feel capable of helping with.

“Refugees, however, are just like anybody else. They don’t need anything more than the support that an ordinary family can give.”

 

Jo Haythornthwaite, hosting Nabeela, 51,
from Pakistan
in Glasgow, Scotland

At 79, retired academic Jo Haythornthwaite has been sharing her home with destitute refugee women for over ten years. Fifty-one-year-old Nabeela is her eleventh guest. 

“One day I was walking past a newspaper stand and I saw a copy of The Daily Mail with a very nasty, pejorative, anti-refugee headline and it made me so angry.

“I wanted to do something. Offering a room is my small contribution to try and make things a bit better.”

Nabeela first arrived in Scotland in 2010. “I had a problem and couldn’t go back to Pakistan. I went back once, in 2014, but the problems were worse and my husband said I shouldn’t stay. I said ‘OK.’ So I was alone here, with no home.”

Eventually she was brought to Jo. Finding reliable shelter—they’ve now been living together for two years—was an immense relief. “I thanked God. I’m so comfortable here. There’s no problem sleeping, working, going out and coming home. I am happy.”

“Nabeela is a sensitive guest,” Jo explains. “She’s very thoughtful and helpful so that makes it easy.

“Before I hosted I thought about it long and hard. I wanted to retain my privacy. I didn’t want to share my life with somebody. Nabeela and I have separate lives and that suits us both.”

Nabeela’s days are largely taken up with English classes—a study she takes seriously because she didn’t speak a word before she arrived in the country. “I was blind the first time I came here. It was difficult—I thought, Oh my gosh, this is too much. My life is full of problems, but manage for yourself, Nabeela, please.

“I would spend every day going to classes. In one place a class would finish and I’d go off to another place and then another one, because I needed further lessons. It’s getting better now. If I don’t go to classes, I spend too much time thinking and that doesn’t feel good. Wondering why I’m here, feeling alone…” 

"Offering a room is my small contribution to try and make things a bit better"

Despite this busy schedule, she also finds time for singing in a choir and her passion—charity shopping.

“Whenever she has a tiny bit of money, Nabeela is very good at finding bargains,” Jo divulges. “She’ll come in and say, ‘Look what I’ve got!’ ” She waves her arms to demonstrate, “ ‘I only paid £1.95 for this!’ ”

Nabeela’s eye for shopping has fuelled another passion—helping others. 

“Yesterday I helped a Syrian woman. She doesn’t understand English, she’s pregnant and she’s alone here. She needed clothes, so I said, ‘OK,’ and when I came home I put a jacket, scarf, socks and everything in a bag and gave them to her. I help as many people as I can.” 

In the years she’s hosted women in need, Jo’s neighbours have supported her by donating clothes and furniture. 

In fact, the neighbours saved the day when Nabeela was detained at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre for three months, and Jo needed to travel to stand her bail. 

“I told them, ‘The travel is going to be a bit expensive and I wondered if you’d help me with ten pounds each?’ And they all did! Except for one man, who’s a bit of a wind-up merchant. He said, ‘Jo, I’m not going to give you ten pounds. I’m going to pay your airfare.’ ” They both giggle. 

Eight years on from her first arrival in the UK, Nabeela’s favourite thing about Scotland is somewhat surprising.

“Snow!” she exclaims, her eyes lighting up at the thought. “I love the snow, I love the winter here.”

“And I hate it,” chirps Jo, laughing. “She’s out there dancing in the snow and I’m inside turning up the heat!”

 

For more information on Positive Action in Housing, to donate or to volunteer your own spare room, visit paih.org