Last year we hosted a refugee – now I can’t imagine Christmas without her

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Last year we hosted a refugee – now I can’t imagine Christmas without her

Laura and her guest holding a Christmas card (Picture: Laura Proffitt)

Lots of people have friends and family to stay over the Christmas period, but what’s it like when your house guest is a refugee?

In late 2017, my partner Alex and I decided to become hosts through the charity Refugees at Home – meaning that we would welcome refugee and asylum seeker guests into our home for stays of anything between several weeks and several months.

After seeing the refugee crisis unfold across Europe in the summer of that year, we recognised that we, with our comfortable flat, stable jobs, and relatively peaceful existence were in a privileged position. We had a spare bedroom in our home, and felt that we needed to do something practical to help those in need.

Guests tend to fall into two groups: asylum seekers in the process of making a claim, who don’t qualify for government support yet, and those who have recently been granted refugee status.

What I didn’t realise before hosting is that once someone’s refugee status is confirmed they have the legal right to stay in the UK, but only have 28 days to leave their accommodation and are suddenly judged able to support themselves, often with no job and possibly with limited English skills.

At this point, refugees are incredibly vulnerable.

Our hosting application was approved in mid-December last year, meaning that we welcomed our first guest just days before Christmas.

Maria*, an asylum seeker and victim of human trafficking, arrived carrying all her belongings in a small holdall, tired and disoriented having just been released from immigration detention.

Our current guest is Helen*, a delightful lady from Eritrea, who fled her home country after government violence and persecution, and made the treacherous Mediterranean crossing in an inflatable boat.

On Christmas Day, three days into her stay, still wary of new people and not wishing to impose, she set out on foot in the cold to visit friends three miles away. As she was leaving, I ran down the street after her, and called her a taxi!

We needed to put aside our naïve expectations that she would join us for lunch – understandably, she wanted to spend the day with familiar faces, to speak her own language, and eat traditional food.

She’s living in NASS housing (government-funded asylum seeker accommodation) now, but we’re still great friends. When I told her I was writing this article, she said, ‘It was the best Christmas of my life, because I was a few hours away from being homeless, and you made me feel comfortable, and warm and safe, as though you’d known me for a long time.’

This year, we have a big meal planned. Maria will be joining us for the whole day, as will her current housemate from NASS housing. Our second guest, Hana*, a young Somali medical student who lived with us for four months over the summer, will hopefully drop by, now that she’s on winter break from her studies at UCL.

Our current guest is Helen*, a delightful lady from Eritrea, who fled her home country after government violence and persecution, and made the treacherous Mediterranean crossing in an inflatable boat.

She has graciously offered to give up her bed for two days to make space for my parents, who will also be joining us this year, and we will all sit down to lunch together. She misses her parents and daughter, who are still in Eritrea, terribly, so we hope that a family event will help her homesickness.

Hosting has given me a real sense of how lucky I am to have the basics of life – a roof, food, a job. If we’re hosting next Christmas, I hope that we will have more guests at the table alongside the three wonderful people we have hosted so far. Moreover, I’m hoping that 2019 brings some good news for our asylum-seeker guests who are still waiting for decisions.

Taking in a destitute person at this time of year is obviously symbolic – yet hosting’s real impact lies in keeping vulnerable people safe and off the streets during the depths of winter. Hosting during the holiday season isn’t just fun – it’s a lifesaver.

You can find out more about Refugees At Home here.

*Names have been changed

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