Len and Karen Abrams, hosting Grace, 36, from Malawi in Caterham, Surrey
For Len, an ordained priest and civil engineer and his librarian wife Karen, the time to act came when the photo of Alan Kurdi—the three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on Turkish shores—hit the papers.
“It seemed such a terrible situation,” Karen recalls. “One feels so powerless. I thought hosting could be a small way of helping because the crisis is so overwhelming you just wonder, What can I do?”
The couple was initially matched up with a young man from Afghanistan. He arrived in Surrey with nothing more than a plastic packet, which contained all his worldly possessions.
“He was a Muslim, so on the afternoon of his arrival you’d have found me in my dog collar hunting all over for Halal food,” laughs Len, who also downloaded a Qibla app to show their guest the direction to Mecca.
“Growing up in Afghanistan there was a lot of talk of the evil West, but he told us that those two gestures ended 18 years of propaganda.
“When folk come into your home from that sort of environment, you suddenly see all your stuff through other people’s eyes,” Len explains. “It makes you revalue it all. We’ve been at least as blessed by having folk here as they are being here.”
Having found their first experience so rewarding, the couple are now hosting their second guest. Grace is an upbeat 36-year-old from Malawi, with an irrepressibly contagious laugh and obvious affection for her hosts and the home they share.
“Hosting is the best thing anyone has done for me,” she explains. “When I was living on my own, I felt like I was always running, but now I have a place to stay, I am free.”
Len and Karen describe Grace as “part of the family”
“Our two adult children have left now,” says Len, “So there’s only two of us in this great big house and it’s nice for Karen to have company, because I often travel for work.”
"My heart was broken. The moment you become homeless your friends turn their phones off"
Indeed, in Len’s absence Karen and Grace have taken excursions to Penshurst Place, enjoyed walks in the forest and even taken a day trip to London’s Globe Theatre.
“We bought tickets to see Much Ado About Nothing—I can never persuade Len to go—and it was a beautiful day,” Karen shares.
Before Grace signed up to the refugee-hosting programme, she was homeless for three months, sleeping in parks, shopping centres and even on buses.
“I had friends. A lot of friends. But when I became homeless I saw their true colours. My heart was broken. The moment you become homeless your friends turn their phones off, they say they’re always busy. It’s just another way for them to say, ‘Don’t call me back.’
“Sometimes, when they see you arriving, they will hide their things. Just because you no longer have a job [Grace lost her right to work because of her asylum-seeker status] they think, This one doesn’t have money, she’s going to steal from me.”
Grace discovered Positive Action through a friend, who dragged her across London in an effort to sign her up. Although she was desperate to find shelter so that she could continue volunteering (Grace’s volunteering has seen her receive an award from the Mayor of London and meet Prince Harry), she was initially nervous to meet the Abrams family.
“When I met Len and Karen for the first time and realised that they were such lovely people, the fear went right away.
“You have to trust in your hosts and ask, ‘God, please be with me, help me trust this family.’ It’s hard for someone to offer you a place free of charge. Out of 100, there are very few people who would open their houses to those who don’t have anywhere to stay.”
Karen is keen to explain how much the couple’s faith has deepened through their relationship with their guest.
“Grace has such a positive spirit and her faith is so strong despite difficult circumstances. She’s been such a good influence on other people, using her talents to help in so many ways.”
My brother-in-law recently said, ‘You’re doing something that I respect, but I could never do it myself’. I think most people probably think hosting is a relationship of condescendence and charity, but that just wouldn’t work. You have to have respect. It has to be a mutual relationship. Rather than seeing it as an act of duty or conscience, know that [in not hosting] you’re actually just missing out on an enormous blessing.