Helping refugees to feel ‘At Home’

Members of the Jesuit community and friends at lunch
Members of the Jesuit community and friends at lunch

“At present the refugees are survivors. An essential part of my job is to help them to do more than survive – to help them to live as free men and women.” This is how the late Fr William Yeomans SJ described the mission of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) worldwide. We are called upon to accompany, serve as companions and advocate for refugees by reaffirming the innate human dignity and value of each person. Yet what can we do when survival itself is a challenge for refugees and migrants in the UK today?

The refugees served by JRS UK are the target of government policy that calls for a ‘hostile environment’ geared at making them feel unwanted and unwelcome. Every day, our work at JRS brings us into contact with refugees for whom the search for food and shelter weighs heavily on the mind. Deprived of the right to work and precluded from accessing public funding, our refugee friends rely on charity to meet their most basic needs. Further restrictions leave them unable to hold a driving licence or open a bank account, severely restricting their ability to survive.

The lack of accommodation remains one of the greatest challenges faced by the refugees we encounter through our weekly Day Centre. In response, the JRS ‘At Home’ hosting scheme aims to match our destitute refugee friends to families, parishes and religious communities who are willing to offer accommodation for a three-month period.

We have seen the change that hosting makes to the host and the refugee guest alike. For refugees who have spent nights nodding off on the night bus or searching for a nook where they can bed down for the night, having a roof over their heads brings peace of mind and the opportunity to recuperate from the affronts to their dignity they experience on a daily basis. Receiving hospitality as opposed to hostility recalls and affirms their humanity and dignity. Equally, hosts often say that, despite their initial apprehension about welcoming a stranger into their space, they find hosting to be a fruitful experience. It enables them to encounter a fellow human being and appreciate that behind the label ‘refugee’ is a person with a story, with hopes, dreams and fears, who is seeking to get on with their life, much like the rest of us.

The hosting experience

Fr Michael Smith SJ, former Superior of the Jesuit community at Clapham hosted one of our refugee friends at the community house. Here he shares the community’s experience of joining the scheme:

“We are a community of Jesuits, seven in all, and we had been wondering about whether we could host a refugee for a while.  As we went about our daily work, we'd all seen homeless people, and we knew that many of them are refugees fleeing from persecution and suffering. We contacted JRS to see how their At Home scheme would work for us. Nicolette came to our house for supper and explained that we would provide a home for a refugee for three months – that was clearly laid down for the refugee and us before we went any further – and answered all the questions we had.  Then she left us to make our decision. We prayed about it and each person said what they thought, both the reasons why we should and the reasons why we shouldn't.  We all agreed that we should welcome a refugee, and so we met our new friend.

“He was a lovely person, and was no trouble at all.  All our concerns had been groundless.  He was out most days, going to one of the refugee day centres in London, and had breakfast and supper with us.  We really felt for him during Ramadan, when he had to get up for a really early breakfast before dawn and have supper late at night, and fast for the rest of the day.  

“It was a sad moment for us all when he had to go at the end of his time with us.  We all saw him off, and bought him a present.  We'd already decided that we would have someone for a second three months. I work at JRS one day per week, and have seen how a placement like this can make a refugee so radiantly happy.  Three months of welcome, security, warmth and food means so much to them in what otherwise must be a very bleak life.”

Who is a refugee?

The legal definition of a refugee is set out in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, an international treaty which forms part of the UK’s legal framework. When refugees approach the authorities to claim safe haven, their situation is assessed to determine whether they have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group”.

Catholic Social Teaching gifts us with a much broader definition of who a refugee is, recognising other forced migrants who face serious threats to their life and liberty and affronts to their human dignity. It calls for the protection of “de facto refugees” to include ‘victims of armed conflicts, erroneous economic policy or natural disasters’, and those ‘who flee economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety’.

GET INVOLVED

Through the JRS At Home hosting scheme, JRS will facilitate the encounter between host and guest, providing support each step of the way. If you’re feeling inspired by this article and wish to host one of our refugee friends in the Greater London area, please contact JRS on [email protected].