Sunday Herald, February 14, 2016
Scotland took pride in offering a home to a disproportionate number of refugees when the UK Government agreed to house 1,000 of those fleeing from the Syrian crisis at the end of last year.
However, away from the spotlight of those forced to flee the fighting in the Middle East, a record number of asylum seekers who were already here in the UK are being left destitute and without adequate access to food, while housing support for refugees may be completely stopped by the UK Government if a claim is refused.
The British Red Cross sent out that stark warning last month as it revealed that even those who have been granted a legal right to stay here can end up destitute as a result of difficulties in accessing benefits and bank accounts.
It is in this context that Robina Qureshi, director of Glasgow-based charity Positive Action in Housing (PAIH), a scheme to help volunteers offer rooms to destitute asylum seekers and refugees, has claimed that the UK Government is failing those of have been forced to seek refuge here.
Qureshi, said: “We see it as being a force for good in the current context of the refugee crisis. We have housed people in Scotland, England and Wales. We have 2,800 hosts who have volunteered as of February 2016 and the numbers are still going up.”
But she added: “The only reason these schemes need to exist is because governments have failed people.”
Qureshi said PAIH is planning to expand the Rooms for Refugees initiative internationally to countries such as the US, France and Canada.
The scheme was originally set up in 2004 as a response to help asylum seekers and refugees left without any financial support or accommodation. The recent plight of refugees enduring dangerous journeys to try to make their way to a new life in Europe has inspired people, including many here in Scotland, to offer space in their own home.
Qureshi added: “We use an online system to safely match up people who are refugees to hosts. We will increase the level of checking depending on who is vulnerable – for example, if there are children in the home.
“We have had years of experience of this and never had anything that suggested this scheme is not safe. Our priority as a charity to make sure it is safe for everybody involved.”
Qureshi said potential hosts in other countries had expressed interest in the scheme and it was hoped to expand it to New York in the first instance. A fundraising scheme is currently underway to enable the appointment of a dedicated co-ordinator for the project in the UK and abroad.
She said: “We are making links with refugee organisations in other countries to see how it could be adapted. We want to take it to New York and build up links with organisations that have contact with people who are homeless, and haven’t got recourse to funds or support, and see on a case-by-case basis if it can work.
“If it can work we will start to grow it in key cities in America.”
Here some of the Scots who have opened their doors as part of the Rooms for Refugees scheme and their guests tell their stories:
Alison Cannibal, a primary school teacher and her husband Dr Gen Cannibal, an environmental consultant, decided to offer the use of a room in their house in Glasgow last autumn. Cannibal, 48, said she was inspired to do something to help after seeing news reports on the refugee crisis.
She said: “I just thought there has to be something I can do – and if it just takes me to open my home and offer a room to someone, if that helps them to get where they need to be, then at least I am doing something.”
Cannibal admitted she was “a bit apprehensive” before the first guest arrived, but added: “I would like to think we are open-minded enough to adapt to anything that is thrown at us.”
Hamid Mohammadi, 37, who arrived in the UK nine years ago from Iran and has been seeking political asylum in the UK, has been staying with the Cannibals since December.
He had previously been living with a friend, but was left homeless and having to sleep in emergency night shelters after his friend’s circumstances changed.
Cannibal said: “What I didn’t realise before he came to live with us is just how awful things are for people claiming asylum. It is a terrible situation for any human being to be in.
“Having him here has been brilliant, he has been integrated as part of the family and we are kind of his surrogate Scottish parents. Quite often we sit and eat together in the evening and he had his first experience of Christmas with us, which was great.”
She added: “I am happy in the knowledge that I am helping somebody because you don’t know what is round the corner – you don’t know if you would ever be in that situation or if your children would be in that situation for whatever reason.
“I think before anything you have to be a human being – you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and think I have done what I can to help and try to encourage other people to do the same.
“It is easy to say the government should be helping, but if there were more people who were willing to be broad minded and open their hearts and their home, then maybe the world wouldn’t be as bigoted and angry as it is.”
Mohammadi, who is in the process of applying for a fresh asylum claim, said he had turned to PAIH for help as he was having difficulty finding a place to stay after a knee operation.
“It meant I couldn’t walk up stairs or anything like that,” he said. “I had nowhere to stay and no support.
“They are a very good family and I do feel part of the family now. It has been a huge help for me.”
Edith Facenna, 61, has been offering space to refugees in her home in Glasgow for six years and has hosted around 30 people in that time, from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, China, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Ghana, Nigeria, Iraq and Somalia,
She decided to participate in the scheme after reading about how asylum seeker were treated in the UK.
She said: “Before the first guest I was quite nervous – some people when I told them what I was going to be doing said ‘Are you mad? You will have a stranger in your house, they will steal off you and so on.
“I have three sons and they were all very supportive, but I was also really lucky as the first person who came through from Somalia, I am still good friends with her.
“When she arrived she had a black bag with her which had all her bits and pieces were in.
“It dawned on me that anything she could steal off me was insured and it wouldn’t be the end of the world – whereas everything she owned was in that black bag. And it was great from then on.”
She added: “There is so much misinformation about what asylum seekers and refugees get, which is all rubbish. There is a lot of fearmongering about all these people that are going to come here and we are not going to be able to cope with them.”
Facenna said she had hosted people for varying lengths of time, from a few days to five months. She said she had heard some harrowing stories, including a couple from Afghanistan who had lost a child in an accident shortly before they arrived to stay.
She said: “They have two children now and I am their adopted granny now. There was also a woman from Somalia who had seen some of her family blown to pieces. It is very, very tough for people.”
She added: “I have met some really nice people I am still friends with, and it makes you feel good doing something for other people. I thought if I am going to pay all this money in bills for the house, I might as well share it with someone.
“You have to be quite easy going and not get too stressed about things. But things I used to worry about before, I don’t worry about now – as you know people who have nothing, who have lost all contact with their family in a foreign country. You just think about walking in their shoes for five minutes.”
Among those who have stayed with Facenna include Zuyin Lin, 52 and his wife Yu Mei Mei, 49, who left China due to the risk of persecution for being a member of the country’s “underground” Roman Catholic Church.
The couple were homeless before they went to stay with Edith for five months in 2013, but have now got their own flat after being given permission to stay in the UK.
After securing work in a restaurant as a kitchen hand, one of the first things Lin did was to donate £100 to PAIH to help others.
When asked to sum up what it meant to be able to stay in Facenna’s home, Lin, who has limited English, simply said: “My shelter is Edith.”
Katriona, 64, who does not want her real name to be used to protect her guest, became involved in the Rooms for Refugees scheme after she retired. Over the past four years she has hosted people from China, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Eritrea.
She said: “My first guest was by far the most difficult – he was a Chinese gentlemen who didn’t speak any English at all. He wasn’t very well and he didn’t stay very long, maybe three weeks.
“But overall for me it has been an amazing experience. I think my home is big enough that we are not on top of each other – I think that is important, especially when you are starting off as strangers.
“It has just added a whole extra dimension to life, meeting different people and hearing their stories, which have been very different.”
For the past 18 months she has been hosting Lisa, a woman from Eritrea in her 30s who did not want to be identified, who has been in the UK for the past three years and has been refused asylum.
Lisa had arrived home from college one day to find the locks on her accommodation had been changed and her belongings had been removed – which left her only with the clothes she was wearing on the streets of Glasgow. At the time, she couldn’t read English well and so did not understand any warning letters that her support was being cut off because of her failed asylum claim.
Katriona said: “I am very fond of her – she is an orphan and I feel like her mother.”
But she also stressed she wanted to enable guests to be independent when staying in her home.
“I am offering someone a home, so I give them a cupboard in the kitchen and they can cook for themselves,” she said. “It is very difficult to be dependent on someone else and she doesn’t really want me to be feeding her because that will cost me money.
“When I have been away for the weekend she even turned the heating off to save me money.”
She added: “She has nothing, she is not allowed to work – it is kind of unimaginable. It is no life for a young woman.”
Katriona said she would recommend taking part in the Rooms for Refugee scheme to anyone that had the space to do so.
“It is a scandal that people are destitute in Glasgow and I am totally shocked by it,” she said.
For Lisa, who is in the process of applying for asylum again, the support Katriona has given has been invaluable. She said: “She is like my family now.”
For more information or to donate to the Rooms for Refugees scheme visit: roomforrefugees.com or mydonate.bt.com/events/wehaveroomforrefugees/245242