Refugees At Home founder Sara Nathan talks to us about Gary Lineker and the importance of the last banana
A Wimbledon High School alumna, Sara Nathan OBE has packed a lot into a career as a journalist and broadcaster. A BBC journalist for 15 years, she was the editor of Radio 5 Live’s first morning programme and was the first female editor of a TV network news programme when she became editor of Channel 4 news in 1995. She has also had a portfolio of public appointments including on the Ofcom board, Judicial Appointments Commission, as a Public Appointments Assessor and as a tribunal chair at the Nursing & Midwifery Council.
In 2015, Sara co-founded Refugees At Home, a UK charity which connects those with a spare room in their home to refugees and asylum seekers in need of somewhere to stay.
We spoke to Sara via Zoom, on a rainy November afternoon when London was in lockdown, and asked her what inspired her to establish Refugees At Home.
“It was at a time when there was a lot of news about refugees, and I was looking for something to do without having to go to Calais or Lesbos; something that was compatible with our lives. I kept having conversations about it with my brother, Timothy, and sister-in-law, Nina. We were all empty-nesters, with grown-up children who had left home, and we were all casting about wondering what to do next.”
Her grandparents, she says, had hosted refugees from Nazi Germany under the Kindertransport scheme while the late mother of her sister-in-law had fled occupied Vienna around the same time.
“Taking people in was something that we knew we could do,” she explains. “My brother looked into hosting refugees, and tried to find organisations that would set that up, and he discovered that there was really nothing around. Eventually we sat down and said, ‘No-one is doing this, and somebody has to. I suppose it had better be us.’ It wasn’t really that we wanted to do it, we all had very full lives, but it was something we felt we had to do.”
“We sat down and said, ‘No-one is doing this, and somebody has to. I suppose it had better be us.’”
Refugees At Home piloted towards the end of 2015 and began operating formally in February 2016. Today they have almost 900 hosts on their books nationwide. In total, those hosts have taken in 2,315 refugees for some 179,000 nights over the past five years. All refugees are vetted and referred by other charities, such as the Red Cross or the Refugee Council. Hosts range in age from 20 to over 90, and may be students, retired people, the single or widowed. Occasionally—very occasionally—they are premiership footballers.
At the end of last year, Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker hosted a refugee via Refugees At Home at his home in Surrey. The former England footballer had long been critical of the Government’s response to the migrant crisis, prompting many to ask whether he was prepared to put his words into action and offer a bed in his home. In response he got in touch with Refugees At Home, and Rasheed, a law student from the Balochistan region which straddles Pakistan and Iran, stayed with him and his sons for three weeks.
Did their high-profile host mean an increase in applications to get involved?
Sara laughs, “When he applied, our manager was on honeymoon, and I was on holiday. It did go slightly mad with interest from all over the place. We do a lot of host recruitment on social media, so if someone in the public eye shows an interest in hosting, or even just retweets something, the amplification of the message is really powerful.”
If hosts come from all walks of life, and live in cities all over the UK, what sort of people are the guests that Refugees At Home support?
“The one thing my guests have is common is that they have all been chaps,” Sara says.
“We have many more male guests, 70% are young men, and I prefer hosting men. I’ve had five Syrians, a couple of Iranians and Sudanese, a Pakistani, Somali, Afghanistan, Eritrean. The range of educational attainment is very wide. One of my current guests is studying law, my first guest had run a bar near his home town in Idlib in Syria and had no English whatsoever, and is now a very successful Deliveroo driver with his own accommodation. I’ve hosted construction banksmen; students; an Iranian tailor; someone who is now doing a PHD in Pharmacology; Mo, who now run’s Mo’s Eggs, a Syrian brunch pop up.
“Our guests tend to be from one of two groups: either people who have been refused asylum and haven’t got back in the system yet, or people who have been granted refugee status and have nowhere to go because they are being evicted from Home Office accommodation. We seldom take people who have just arrived.”
From March 2020, with the country in a national lockdown and us all encouraged to stay at home, and keep at least two metres away from any other person, finding temporary homes for refugees must have a been a bit of a struggle.
“Lockdown is not wholly conducive to hosting a random stranger in your home, so we didn’t make any placements for about ten weeks, but then when the initial lockdown lifted in June, we started again”, Sara explains.
“We have had hosts who have said they don’t know how they would have got through lockdown without their guests. Guests are amazing foragers. You don’t get to the UK as a refugee unless you are amazingly enterprising and resilient, clever and determined. Houses with refugee guests do not run out of oil or loo paper, because in a city there is always an Arabic or Farsi speaking shop around the corner, and they will find it.”
“Houses with refugee guests do not run out of oil or loo paper”
The benefits to the guests are clear, but they are also abundant for the hosts, Sara says,
“It is a really interesting and engaging thing to do. You are meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet and hearing about things you wouldn’t otherwise hear about. Both about where they come from, and about your own country. There are things that I—a well-educated, middle-class woman in her 60s—have never come across in this country and now I have. It is so important that we understand what people are having to face, and they are facing it with poor English, not understanding how Britain works, and if you can be their advocate and mediator to some extent then that is so productive.
“And I haven’t told you about the food yet,” she smiles. “Anyone would host once they had tried Moha’s grandmother’s recipe for cauliflower! It involves baking a whole cauliflower, and uses tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses. It is utterly delicious.”
For someone considering hosting with Refugees At Home, what are they being asked to do?
“The expectation is only that you provide somewhere for someone to sleep, and access to a bathroom and a kitchen. All you need is a spare room with a door that closes, and a reasonably open mind and generous heart. You don’t need anything else and you are not expected to do anything else. If you want to provide food and conversation, that is only going to enrich everybody’s experience, but you don’t have to.”
Having hosted 23 young men in the last five years, does Sara have a set of rules she expects them to follow?
“Most hosts have basic house rules, and it’s amazing how the trivial things matter, not the big things. When we started it was: no pork, no seafood, no smoking in the house, and no playing loud music. Those seemed really important and they still are, but there are two really important ones I added later: if you drink the last of the milk or eat the last banana, for God’s sake tell me before midnight.”
Talking to Sara towards the end of 2020, it’s hard to imagine what the UK will look like in a year’s time, but what does the future hold for Refugees At Home?
“It’s hard to think strategically beyond the end of the pandemic. What we actually want is not to be needed at all. If the Home Office policies changed to the extent that people could work while they claim asylum, and they weren’t evicted, or universal credit kicked in earlier. If the system were not so punitive and hostile, we would not need to exist at all.”
For more information on Refugees At Home, visit www.refugeesathome.org
Meet The Host
Cordelia Smith is an alumna of Northampton High School, and is currently part way through a training contract with a London law firm. She will qualify as a solicitor later this year, and has been hosting with Refugees At Home since 2017.
How did you become a host with Refugees at Home?
In 2017 I moved to Manchester for work, and I thought that I might rent out my spare room on Air BnB for some extra pocket money. Then I read about Refugees at Home, and hosting just seemed like a more useful use of my spare room than anything else.
How was your first hosting experience?
My first guest stayed with me for about a month. His English was extremely basic, which I knew before he arrived, but I had managed to get a Sorani Kurish-English dictionary out of Manchester Central Library. We were quite similar in personality, so we got on, despite the language barrier. We got through a lot of Masterchef, which meant that we talked a lot about food, and what sort of things we both like to cook. It was one of those things that, as soon as you do it, you think, “Why haven’t I done this before?”.
How did you feel before he arrived?
I was quite nervous, because it was man who I had never met, and I had said he could come and live in my house for a month. But I had references from a family who had hosted him previously, and he had far more to lose than a stranger who booked the room via Air BnB.
Have you hosted again?
I had another guy stay who stayed for another month; his English was great, so we could talk a lot more. It was a much sadder hosting experience, because he was able to really talk to me. He told me, “I am treated like a problem, most of the time, but you are actually treating me like a person.”
I haven’t hosted since I moved to London, because my spare room is currently my office, but I hope to when I no longer have to work from home.
What is the best thing about hosting?
That it is such a tiny thing for you to do, but it will make such a massive material and emotional difference to somebody.
What advice would you give to a new host?
Don’t be put off by other people who are worried on your behalf. My mum was really worried—which I completely understand!—but it’s not just a random man; it’s someone that you have references for, and there is support available if you need it.