LONDON–For many Europeans, the migrant crisis conjures up images of people in boats in the Mediterranean, on the shores of Greek islands or the tip of Italy’s boot, or even in camps in Calais. At the moment Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the places where most people are fleeing while the countries taking the most refugees are Turkey (with 10 million), Pakistan (1.5 million), Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.
Across Europe, the debate rages over quotas (it was announced last week that the European Union was launching legal proceedings against Poland, Hungry and the Czech Republic for not taking in refugees) yet the refugee crisis that started two summers ago does not show any signs of dissipating.
But what happens after these refugees and asylum seekers reach safety? In many countries, including Britain– where currently there are over 117,000 refugees in Britain (the total across the globe, according to the British Red Cross, is just over 64 million)– the aftermath of the journey can be tough, too. While the physical danger of the journey may have passed, the loneliness of being a stranger in a strange land can be a huge challenge.
It was thinking about the isolation faced by those arriving in Britain that led Londoner Anneke Elwes to found HostNation. Having worked trying to connect refugees and asylum seekers with locals for years, Ms. Elwes knew that there was a huge reservoir of goodwill among people who wanted to help recent arrivals but didn’t know how. While British charities and government agencies can help with food and lodging, there weren’t many ways for refugees and asylum seekers to begin to make friends in their new homes.
HostNation is Ms. Elwes’ brainchild: a digital “befriending” service that matches refugees with Britons who wish to spend time with them, over the course of three months. The idea: the site will incubate friendships, matching one host and one recent arrival, who will meet at least a couple of times a month, to talk, drink tea, or explore the city together. With HostNation’s crowdfunding campaign launching June 20, in honor of World Refugee Day; she-files’ friend Carla Power spoke with Ms. Elwes about the power of creating bonds:
ELWES: It was a combination of things. I’d been volunteering for an organization called Freedom From Torture. Through this work, I became aware of how a lot of refugees and asylum seekers’ problems start when they get here. All the focus was on people fleeing, on trying to get into the U.K. It seemed to me that there are a lot of people who have got here and have put in their claims for asylum, but they’re just lost souls.
Well, they have to live on £5 a day. The Home Office asylum system is genuinely Kafka-esque and dysfunctional, so they often have to wait a decade in limbo before they get an answer to their asylum application. They are housed in really sub-standard accommodation. I know people living in rat-infested hostels, which they’re having to share with drunks, and in homeless shelters. You’ve got dignified women who have been sexually abused and raped while they’ve been escaping war zones, and they are terrified.
What can a befriender do to help?
Friendship can be so transformative. I think that these people are really lonely because social opportunities are rare and they know very few people. Many are separated from their families. They don’t have anyone to laugh with, to smile with, to share a cup of tea with. To me, friendship is about a face to face companionship. It’s having someone that you can talk to, walk with, and share new experiences with. The idea is to kickstart friendships–it’s something most people take for granted.
So it’s about getting to know someone as a person versus through the lens of “refugee” or “asylum seeker,” labels that dehumanize people.
If people are separated from their own social groups, it’s really hard to replicate. But friendship is the basis of humanity. The system is pretty inhumane and a lot of refugees and asylum seekers have become so marginalised that they expect to be ignored. Yet these are good, kind and thoughtful people. They need someone who will look them in the eye and treat them as an equal and a valued individual. Friendship puts the “human” back in “humanitarian.”
Where are you rolling this out?
Right now, we’re starting this in Greater London–we’re only a small group, staffed by volunteers. Later, we’d like to take it across Britain.
Carla Power is an award-winning journalist and author of “If The Oceans Were Ink,” a memoir of reading the Quran with a traditional Muslim scholar, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 and the National Book Award in 2015. She holds an M.Phil. from St. Antony’s College, Oxford University in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, as well as degrees from Yale and Columbia. She is also a HostNation volunteer.
Photos: 1) Syrian family fleeing, courtesy Shutterstock; 2) Refugees in Turkey, courtesy Shutterstock