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Safe houses for refugees

Abigail Frymann Rouch London
November 6, 2016

More and more safe houses for refugees are springing up across the UK. But as Abigail Frymann Rouch reports from London, not everyone is impressed.

Großbritannien Flüchtlinge Refugees Welcome
Image: James Asfa

We've had a lot of hate mail, says Steve Chalke, three weeks after he opened a safe house for refugee children from the Calais "Jungle" camp at the request of the British government.

Chalke was not surprised by tweets such as "Send these people home" and "Why are you helping these people?" He cannot disclose where in London the safe house is - journalists may not visit - he will only say that the young people come from "warzones" and "have many physical and psychological needs." The Home Office and the local authority, which are part-funding the safe house, have asked him and his organization, the Oasis Trust, not to disclose more, and, as he told DW, he fears "bricks through the windows or paparazzi with long lenses" if the location of the safe house becomes known.

Since the French authorities began to demolish the Calais camp, around 300 young refugees have been brought to Britain, among them Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans. Several hundred more of the camp's estimated 1,600 minors are expected. Those who have relatives here will be reunited with them, others will be placed with foster parents.

Calais Räumung
Hundreds of young refugees from the "Jungle" camp in Calais have already arrived in the UKImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Camus

But the response to the refugees has been mixed. Right-wing newspapers called for dental checks to prove the refugees were under 18; left-leaning papers condemned Paris and London for leaving the remaining children to shelter in transport containers. The refugee question as a whole has proved especially divisive because it asks who may be part of Britain, at a time of global social change.

Lobbying for refugees

However, there is a substantial movement lobbying the government in favor of refugees. Much of it is coordinated by Citizens UK, a community organizing network, which helps its member groups persuade local governments to house refugee families, especially since 2015 when then-Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to take in 20,000 Syrians over five years. Citizens UK estimates it represents around 500,000 people through its members, who include churches, mosques and synagogues, schools, trade unions and individuals.

Neil Jameson, executive director of Citizens, says groups of people up and down the country are quietly offering all sorts of help. Citizens volunteers furnish properties landlords have offered to councils at below-market rates, and help the new arrivals settle in. They also run a befriending team at the reception center in south London. Jameson reels off people in Devon, west Wales and Birmingham who have offered accommodation, starting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Welby welcomed a Syrian family of six to his London residence, Lambeth Palace, in early summer, having criticized Cameron's 20,000 pledge as a "very slim response" when compared to that of Germany.

Nonetheless, Barbara Wilson, a retired civil servant, a Catholic and co-chair of South London Citizens, criticized the Home Office for bussing in the young people at a pace that was "less than urgent." Her concern is personal: mentioning a Syrian family that has already arrived in the borough of Lambeth, she told DW: "My parents were refugees from Poland at the end of the Second World War. There's a young couple from Syria with a new baby, he's in his mid-30s, she's in her 20s - which is exactly like my family [was]. Her mother and mother-in-law are in Jordan and all the older women you need when you're a young mum aren't there." 

In the same boat

A sense that "it could have been me" and a religious motivation are common among volunteers. Esmat Jeraj, 27, a member of the South London Mosque, said her mosque was offering the council two flats it owned for refugees. "God has very much encouraged us to help everyone," she says. "The majority of my community are East African Indians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s, so we're also a refugee community," she told DW. Seeing images of refugee crisis on television "brings home those memories and feelings of helplessness and being unwanted." Hosting a meal for Syrian Sunni refugees in their Shia mosque, she says, was "no issue."

Regarding the age of the Calais refugees, she believes the young people's experiences have aged them. "Give it two hours after you've fed them and played games … they all look four to five years younger."

Großbritannien Flüchtlinge Refugees Welcome
Those who volunteer to help refugees find their work extremely rewardingImage: Helen Hayes

Alice Aphandry, 30, chair of trustees at the South London Liberal Synagogue, said that the refugee crisis gave the congregation, some of whom had been welcomed as refugees, an opportunity to "pay it forward." Her congregation is refurbishing a flat attached to the synagogue for a refugee family. She said that many of them worked in teaching and healthcare, and were aware that an influx of refugees would create short-term challenges for local infrastructure, but she added, "[upholding] the dignity of the human person is a more compelling argument."

For Isam (not his real name), finding people who "treated me like a human being with feelings and a family and so on" eased an uncertain and isolated year. He fled Damascus in 2015 and a couple he met - through a Syrian-born Anglican priest and Citizens -let him stay with them before he received state accommodation. They told him to keep their door-key; he even spent part of last Christmas with them. They have become firm friends. 

Chalke says that those who volunteer to help and work with refugees find it very satisfying in terms of the response they get. "Everybody who has volunteered or worked [at the safe house] says they've found it incredibly rewarding. The young people, to see their smiles, you know they feel secure," he said.