‘Despite the headlines, people care’ say team behind new refugee befriending scheme

Kelsi Farrington

Londoners are being asked to take part in a befriending scheme that matches people with spare time and goodwill, to asylum seekers and refugees who are in need of friendship

A befriending scheme has been launched to match Londoners who have spare time and goodwill, with asylum seekers and refugees in need of friendship.

HostNation, which launched a pilot scheme in Greater London in March and hopes to expand across the UK by 2018, would like to hear from volunteers willing to befriend newcomers to the city. Anneke Elwes, who came up with the concept of HostNation after studying for a master’s degree in Anthropology of Development, has worked with refugees and asylum seekers for more than five years. Her dissertation titled Humanitarianism at Home, looked into the private practice of hosting refugees and asylum seekers.


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“I’m acutely aware of how desperately lonely and bored so many of them are,” Elwes told Positive News. “They are stuck in substandard accommodation on the fringes of our cities, often with only £5 of vouchers to see them through the day. When I asked a conversation group I run how they could improve their English, they said ‘make an English friend’ but when I asked how they would do that, they were at a loss. It’s not easy.”

So far, more than 100 volunteers are registered as ‘befrienders’ – indicating that they are willing to help refugees and asylum seekers through their first three months in new communities. They will offer help such as weekly phone calls and outings such as spending an afternoon walking, sightseeing, or simply helping them practice their English through talking. “Compassionate citizens want to help,” said Elwes, “but don’t know how”.

From weekly phone calls, to afternoons spent sightseeing, volunteers can help refugees feel at home

She points to research that suggests social inclusion is most likely to succeed when it comes from grassroots engagement with local people and civil society. HostNation, which is a Community Interest Company, offers a web-based referral process, and online training and support. Volunteers will be screened, and the project team is particularly keen to hear from people with experience of supporting refugees and vulnerable people, or with backgrounds in social care and volunteering

“There are a lot of refugees who come to the UK, particularly unaccompanied young people, who have had a very traumatic journey here,” said one volunteer, who has taken part in a similar befriending scheme. “I just felt that actually, you need some help in situations like that – some kind of support.”

Compassionate citizens want to help but don’t know how

Some befrienders have already developed lifelong friendships with the people and families they have helped resettle in to their new lives in the UK – friendships that will “go on for as long as we live” noted a volunteer.

HostNation is also designed to work alongside other initiatives and projects specialising in supporting refugees, from other befriending initiatives and refugee services, to support groups.

The overall objective is to instill in refugees and asylum seekers a sense of value and welcome from people in the UK. “Despite the headlines,” said Elwes, “people care”.

Find out more about HostNation here


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