I read about Refugees at Home in the Times early last year. I thought it was a great idea that might assist people who wanted to help the huge numbers of people fleeing Syria. There was an outpouring of sympathy from many people who had rooms or space of some sort.
I found it very frustrating that so many Local Authorities did not seem to be harnessing these offers. Bureaucracy made it more difficult for people to help not less. It was good to see a charity stepping in. Refugees at Home carry out checks on the refugees they are helping, and on the people who volunteer accommodation.
The civil war in Syria has always weighed heavily with me. Intervention in Middle Eastern conflict is a very vexed subject in this country. But that terrible war has in my view been made worse by the West not doing enough, and leaving the conflict clear for Russia to intervene on the side of the barbarous Assad to kill innocent civilians young and old and make millions of people homeless.
I wanted to do something, so when I read about Refugees at Home I decided to get involved. I found the charity to be thorough and efficient, they visited my home in Stourbridge and interviewed me. They took up two references and approved me as a potential host. Several months passed and nothing happened, I had been told that refugees gravitated to big cities where there was generally more support available so I wasn’t surprised.
Then, out of the blue, I received an email from Refugees at Home saying a young man in Birmingham had to leave his temporary accommodation with nowhere to go, sorry for the short notice, but he was well known to both themselves and the Children’s Society and they could vouch for him. It was slightly unnerving as I was away and had to arrange access for someone I wouldn’t meet for another week.
But I decided to get a grip, after all I had offered to help and it would have been poor to have fallen at the first hurdle. There is no doubt that the sheer professionalism of Refugees at Home and the reputation of the Children’s Society played a big part in my decision to agree.
Reza* arrived with his mentor and a good friend with a key let him into my house. All seemed to go well and my friend reported back that Reza seemed very nice and most appreciative of his new accommodation.
Reza and I got to know each other a bit on WhatsApp. I had been disappointed at first that I was not helping a Syrian but I banished that thought from my mind, as it really shouldn’t matter where someone is from. Hassan is Iranian, a country about which I have been fascinated and learned a lot about in recent years, ever since I flew over it and its beauty took my breath away.
Reza has a very different take. As the eldest son of politically active Sunni parents, he was glad to see the back of Iran, escaping after his father was killed and his mother disappeared and making his way by foot, sea and rail across Europe. He seems never to want to see the country of his birth again.
The following week I arrived back to my home in Stourbridge late on a Thursday night. Reza tried to wait up but went to bed in the end. It was a very odd situation going to bed at midnight, with a man I’d never met in the spare room. Our meeting the next morning was surreal. It turned out that we were both early risers and I heard him come downstairs as I was making my tea at 6.00am. He appeared in the kitchen, shy but with the most engaging smile.
I immediately checked any nerves I might have had, by remembering how much more challenging it must have been for him. I was yet another person in whom he had no choice but to place his trust, on what I found had been a three or four-year journey since leaving Iran.
Reza is a delightful young man. His education has been adversely affected by his experience but he has at least benefitted from English lessons and other support from yet another excellent charity, the Prince’s Trust. I was determined to help him more on this front.
Through my work, I had previously been on the governing body of Stourbridge College, now part of Birmingham Metropolitan College. Reza is very interested in cars and wants to train as a mechanic. I was delighted with the reaction of the College who were very positive and offered Reza a place on their foundation course in mechanics, including English and Maths, starting last September.
Reza has done really well in his first year. He has an excellent attendance record, has made friends and received great reports from his teachers. I am really proud of him.
Whatever concerns I had about hosting never materialised. Helping to bring some stability to Reza’s life has been a very rewarding experience and although he will be moving on soon, I intend always to be there as a mentor for him as he builds his new life in Britain.
Margot James is the Conservative MP for Stourbridge
Refugee Week, the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees, celebrates its 20th anniversary between 18-24 June. For more information on Refugee Week and their Simple Acts initiative, visit the Refugee Week website