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April 13, 2010

Tragedy sheds light on community warmth

The circumstances that led to the family of asylum seekers committing suicide highlighted a disturbing lack of compassion in the system.  While the temporary glare of the national media provided some telling insights into the day to day pressures of being an asylum seeker, it also shed some light on local projects that provide them with much needed support  – such as Positive Action in Housing whose volunteers open up their homes in order to prevent asylum seekers becoming homeless

Positive Action in Housing Ltd is a Scottish wide charity working with communities, housing providers, voluntary organisations and faith groups to enable everyone to have an equal chance to live in good quality, affordable and safe homes, free from discrimination and the fear of racial harassment and violence.

We offer advice, information and support to people from new migrant, refugee and minority ethnic communities. We run a free, confidential and impartial casework service for those facing poverty, homelessness, racism or poor housing. We run a Hardship Fund and provide emergency shelter and practical resources for destitute asylum seekers and their families.

We provide volunteering and sessional work opportunities. We support human rights and anti-racist campaigns. We inform social policy from a user-led perspective. We offer training, consultancy and best practice guidance to Registered Social Landlords, voluntary organisations and minority ethnic/refugee organisations.

A volunteers perspective….

Alison Swinfen is an education professor at the University of Glasgow, researching languages and intercultural studies. Over the last few years she has provided accommodation to a number of destitute asylum seekers, and spoke to us about her experiences.

 “I’ve been volunteering for two or three years now. The first person who came was actually with us for about 5 months which I think is Positive Action’s record, and they sent us a lovely box of chocolates after that. And then we had a couple of folk for just two or three weeks, then someone else longer term and then another for about 6 weeks. “Being in the house when Joyce was reunited with her sons in Kenya whom she’d lost touch with was incredibly special. It was just such a happy moment and to be able to share that was a huge privilege. “Watching Shah Lin’s English get better and better too was amazing. When she first arrived she could barely speak but by the time she left she was much more confident, and we’re seeing the same thing with Rima at the moment, who’s just turned 17. She’s brought High School Musical and Dawson’s Creek into our lives. We just love having her around and learning how to look after a teenager. She’s learning to cook now so the house is full of the smell of lovely Eritrean food. “
Obviously when people stay they kind of want to give you something back so we’ve eaten some really amazing stuff.  Shah Lin was incredible, when she got her money from Positive Action in Housing she used to go to the  Chinese supermarket and cook amazing stuff for us in the evenings. We’d come in from work at the end  of the week and there’d be this fabulous food waiting. We used to say ‘no, we’ll cook this week’ but it was really important to her. I think it gave her a sense of worth that she was able to do that. “It’s not  that people are coming with terrible stories. They may have terrible stories or they may not, that’s not the point. They’re just sharing a home, which means different music, different books, different conversations. Initially people have taken a little bit of time to settle and gradually developed a structure and routine around ours. And then gradually we’d involve them a bit more, and then started eating together and cooking together. That’s just really special, to have people from diff rent parts of the world with us and sharing their stories. And we do have a lot of laughter in the house. “It was lovely at Christmas, we had a couple of people back who’d stayed with us previously. It was a really special day. We just sat round sharing, telling stories and remembering things that happened when they were here, just things that were funny. “I would absolutely recommend volunteering, it’s transforming in all the best ways. Keeping a good routine and normal structure I think is important, not stepping out of your own routine and not going overboard. Keep things kind of normal so people don’t feel that they have to behave like guests because that can get quite heavy, it’s a lot heavier being a guest than being a host. Good patterns and rules around washing up and so on are important, the kind of things you’d have with your kids or your partner or anyone. People will want to contribute, to give you something back. What’s important is that you give a rhythm and structure to life. Some of the folk I stayed in touch with will probably be friends for life.”

An asylum seekers perspective….

Clive, 39, a Minister from Zimbabwe, was made destitute, while his claim to asylum was still unresolved. He is forbidden to work, access benefits or even stay in homeless shelters. Having slept rough with nothing to eat, he approached us for assistance. He now receives basic emergency accommodation and food vouchers, while waiting for his case to be properly considered.

“When I first approached the Refugee Council after being made destitute, they had nowhere for me to stay, so I had literally nowhere. I would sleep in the street, and go without food. The Home Office said that before I was granted Section 4 they couldn’t help me. But I needed food and shelter, my health was not good. Since I’ve found Positive Action, I’ve never really been stuck.

“Staying with volunteers is better than hostels. In hostels I would share a dorm and someone would nick your toothpaste or your towel or soap, and that’s all you have. If someone steals that from you you’re stuck. In one hostel, after paying for my three nights, I was forced to clean the toilets, forced to make beds. The guy said ‘if you don’t do it, get out’. So I had no choice. I was also once put in a mixed dorm. People would go out to clubs and come back at 3am, they wouldn’t care. For 2 nights I couldn’t sleep.

“I stayed with volunteers on three occasions, first with a couple in North Queensferry. Then I stayed with a lady for a week in Edinburgh, then again with a lady in Glasgow for about two weeks.

“I was free to use the facilities, the kitchen and whatever I needed. I really felt at home. There was an  incident in North Queensferry. I have a heart condition, and at the time I didn’t have any medication. I collapsed and the couple took me to the hospital out of their own concern. I’m really grateful because if that had happened and I was alone, I wouldn’t be here. “We’d socialise, going for walks or to the beach. I honestly didn’t expect that, I’d expected to stay in my room and that’s it. I’m actually still in contact with them. We went to a football match, I’d never seen one before. They support St Mirren so we went to Paisley to see them play Hibs. “It’s a real comfort to know there is hope for people who are going through what I went through. I’ve been fortunate, but some people out there are not fortunate enough.”