Gary Lineker 1, Sara Nathan 27 but it's win-win for the hosts and their migrant visitors

Co-founder of Refugees at Home says benefits from UK residents taking in displaced are profound, but she laments they are blocked from helping thousands of Afghans in need

Sara Nathan, co-founder of Refugees at Home, and Syrian accountant Mohamad, her latest guest. Mark Chilvers for The National
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In a semi-detached Edwardian house on a quiet street in West London, Sara Nathan is filled with mixed emotions at the sight of two carrier bags balanced on top of some small suitcases standing in the hallway.

They contain the worldly possessions of Mohamad, an accountant from Syria, who Ms Nathan and her husband Malcolm Singer have hosted for the past five months through her charity, Refugees at Home.

Although the couple have taken in 26 other migrants over the years, the partings do not get any easier.

“I am always torn when a guest leaves as they have quickly become part of our family and our lives,” Ms Nathan tells The National.

“But we know we are part of a transition into life here, and Mohamad is moving on to a real job and at last proper opportunities after a Herculean effort. I am pleased he has done so well."

Mohamad, 32, a vocal opponent of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad, who was denounced to the authorities, has finally gained refugee status and, with it, the right to stay in Britain for the next five years.

After helping him load his luggage into the back of her car, Ms Nathan drove to the home of Mohamad's new host, nearer to where, after more than 400 job applications, he has just begun work as a production account assistant at Netflix.

Without the help, security and support provided by Ms Nathan and Mr Singer, he cannot bear to think about where he would be now.

“I owe her and Malcolm so much,” he says. “They have changed my life.”

Ms Nathan, a former senior journalist at Radio 5 Live and editor of Channel 4 News, is a remarkable woman, full of energy and compassion.

Including her own personal contribution, Refugees at Home has provided 198,337 nights of accommodation for 2,579 people and counting since the charity was established in 2015.

The migrants, by far most of whom are Muslim, come mainly from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

They have been hosted by a network of like-minded people, all at no cost, in cities across the UK but mainly London.

Despite juggling three other public appointment roles alongside the charity’s work, Ms Nathan is ready to host more migrants, not least those who have reached the country as part of the government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.

Under the scheme, more than 7,000 people have been relocated after the emergency evacuation in Afghanistan last August and the resurgence of the Taliban.

But she says that Home Office red tape and the sheer volume of cases mean that people and families who would benefit from the support of Refugees at Home have instead been confined for months in hotels at enormous cost to the British taxpayer, and often to their own wellbeing and mental health.

Her sense of frustration is palpable, and she is not alone. When the distressing headlines of the rapid withdrawal by America and Britain from Afghanistan and the ensuing humanitarian crisis hit news headlines, 1,600 volunteers immediately came forward to offer spare rooms and annexes.

To date, not one has been able to host any of the migrants because of rules and regulations that mean any Afghans who leave their hotel to accept such hospitality risk forfeiting resettlement rights and financial support provided by the Home Office.

“It is completely disadvantageous for people to move,” Ms Nathan says. “People aren’t being stopped from coming to a family but effectively they are told: ‘If you do this, you will lose everything.’ That is the implication.”

We are so frustrated. The Home Office is chaotic and overwhelmed.

The situation is scandalous, she says, when these migrants are not here illegally but at the invitation of the government and have status under immigration law.

Hosted accommodation gives migrants the opportunity to integrate into British life, establish themselves within a community, practice their English and receive assistance with signing up to essential services, such as the NHS, and applying for jobs.

The government provides grants of £20,520 ($27,767) over three years to local authorities for helping and housing each Afghan recognised as having a legal right to live in the UK. There is, therefore, much at stake.

“We have a responsibility to Afghanistan because we were there, our soldiers, our diplomats and businesses, and we have contributed to, if not enabled, some of the traumas,” Ms Nathan says.

“We are so frustrated. The Home Office is chaotic and overwhelmed. People arrive, go into quarantine and are then decanted into these hotels. The idea is that those people are dispersed to different local authorities, each of whom will take a number of families.”

Ms Nathan, though, does not attribute the delay to malice or a deliberate policy on the part of the Home Office. It is, she says, just that the scale of the situation is immense.

“We are a ready-made temporary solution," she says. "We feel we can bridge the gap. We are not offering [migrants their] own front doors.

"We are offering a transition between the hotels — which, for families, are usually not great and where they don’t know anyone around — and a more permanent local authority solution.

“It is ridiculous and unnecessary to throw stumbling blocks in front of those who could make a great contribution to our society.”

Unless the matter is resolved, Refugees at Home is losing potential hosts, who are missing out on a life-enhancing experience.

As Ms Nathan and thousands of others have discovered, the act of hosting has many significant positives for those who take in migrants.

“We learn about each other, different cultures, food,“ she says. “Britain has a proud history of welcoming refugees, from the Huguenots to Jews from the pogroms, and Ugandan Asians.

"As Jews, we have a tradition and a history of being refugees. Way back, my grandparents hosted a Kindertransport child. My sister-in-law’s mother was a refugee from Nazi Vienna.

“Our hosts are disproportionately Jewish, Quaker and LGBT, as we all have experience of oppression and a commitment to relieving it. The history thing for us is important.

"Whenever any refugee story shows people suffering, people come forward. When Gary Lineker stepped forward to help, there was a massive surge in people offering assistance because it was big news.

“Almost none of our guests have ever met a Jew before. It has not been a problem. It has been enlightening for both sides.

"Ahmad, who is now a trustee of Refugees at Home, says he was brought up to see Jews as demons. You live with somebody and you find they are just people.”

'I'll do it again': Lineker

About 18 months ago, when a member of staff at Refugees at Home took a call from Lineker offering to provide temporary accommodation, the name did not ring any bells.

One of England's all-time greatest footballers had been moved to take in a migrant after being accused of virtue signalling on the issue of immigration.

The realisation came as to who he was, but Lineker was still subjected to the same assessment as any other applicant.

In the summer of 2020, Rasheed, from Balochistan, spent nearly three weeks at the Surrey mansion of the Match of the Day presenter and his four sons.

At the time, Lineker said: "It's been fascinating and a real education for my boys as well, because obviously they're privileged — they know they're privileged.

"But then to hear this guy's story. And he was brilliant with them. I'll definitely do it again."

When he left, to go to Ms Nathan's home as it turns out, Rasheed wrote a letter of thanks.

"I can never forget your hospitality, love and company that you and your lovely respectful children gave to me," he wrote.

"There is a saying in Balochi language, that if you give me a glass of water, I owe you my entire life. In fact you did more."

Given Lineker's high public profile, it is perhaps understandable that Refugees at Home is waiting for the right time, person and circumstances before placing a second guest with him.

Torrent at its height

Ms Nathan was moved to set up the charity six years ago when the torrent of migrants from Syria was at its height.

She, her brother and his wife had reached “an empty-nest stage” but still had responsibilities that prevented them from, for instance, spending weeks volunteering in the migrant encampment in Calais.

“In London, at the time there was nothing really available for refugees. So we looked at each other and thought: ‘Nobody is doing this, somebody should be doing this, so why should it not be us?’”

For those like Mohamad, it is fortunate that they did. Having come to England in 2019 to study, he at one time found himself homeless and was advised by a friend to contact Refugees at Home.

Subsequently, the room at the top of the stairs in Ms Nathan's house was to become a haven while he rebuilt his life.

As he prepared to depart, carefully packing clothes and personal effects into the suitcases lying open on a blue rug on the floor, he could not help reflecting on his gratitude for his hosts.

“They will,” Mohamad says, “be friends forever.”

Updated: February 08, 2022, 3:48 PM