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Befriending lonely refugees makes communities better places for everyone

The Home Office backlog currently stands at 117,000 (Alamy)

4 min read

“I can’t believe how much things have changed since I met Chloe,” asylum seeker Shoaib tells me. “I can’t rate her highly enough.”

Away from the often angry narrative around asylum seekers, sympathetic citizens are quietly getting on with welcoming new arrivals to our communities. For isolated, traumatised people stuck in grim hotels, a chance at friendship can be transformative.

A young man who was ready to start a career, with a degree in animal nutrition, Shoaib has now been stranded in a Brent Cross hotel room for a year, unable to work in the United Kingdom. “It’s very hard to live here when you are all alone,” he says. “I stayed in the hotel for weeks at a time without going out.”

Shoaib is one of 37,000 people housed in UK hotels, according to Home Office figures, waiting on edge for news on their asylum claims. With his emotional health plummeting, Shoaib needed a friend. That’s where we stepped in. HostNation was founded five years ago to offer friendship to asylum seekers and refugees; a way into our society through the kindness of local residents.

We match friendly locals, checked and screened, to refugees referred to us by a range of organisations in London, Manchester and Newcastle. HostNation has become a wide family of flourishing social connections.

We set no formula for friendship. People go for walks, meet over coffee, talk football. Both sides benefit. As one befriender said, echoing many: “It’s an enriching experience and a relationship of equals.” It is proof that our foundational idea was correct – there is a huge reservoir of goodwill out there. Last year we even had to shut temporarily to new befrienders in London, such was the surge in interest.

We matched Shoaib with Chloe, a paralegal who signed up online to our befriender database. “It’s been really great to spend time with him,” she says. She fulfilled his lifelong dream of going to a football match at Wembley. Wrapped in an England flag, Shoaib loved every minute. “I never imagined that one day I would actually go to Wembley Stadium. It was truly one of the highlights of my whole life.”

It is positive that Shoaib now has such a good friend. But the crowding, uncertainty and despair caused by Britain’s asylum accommodation, if it deserves such a title, bring levels of distress that are hard to imagine. It is a poor return on the £5m-plus per day that these hotels cost the taxpayer.

“We often think that once asylum seekers arrive in the UK, that’s where the trauma ends,” says another befriender. “In fact they live out that trauma every single day.”

Newer arrivals feel terrorised by the threat of being sent to Rwanda. “We have all sacrificed so much to get here,” one tells me. “Many were lost along the way. The idea that we could be sent to Rwanda after all that is making people think of ending their lives.”

With the Home Office backlog at 117,000, too many are left trapped in inhumane circumstances. When a befriendee of ours named Jennifer arrived in London alone, nearly nine months pregnant, she was placed in a hotel crowded with single men. “It made me feel very uncomfortable,” she explains.

We introduced her online to Emma. Just a week later, Jennifer went into labour. “Emma came to hospital straightaway,” says Jennifer. “What surprised me was that she stayed with me all the way until my baby popped out. She really stood by me.”

Our befrienders find the current refugee situation unacceptable. And so they act, in the face of a chaotic and degrading system, to show compassion and respect for human dignity. Statistics become human beings – and we are all better for it.

Harriet Paterson is Communications Manager for HostNation.

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