Host Nation: Befriending Refugees In London

London is a much friendlier city when you have a Londoner by your side. At the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, Londoners of all creeds and colours got together. But why wait for a crisis?

Anneke Elwes, founder of HostNation, tells us how her life was transformed by befriending Abu from Sudan.

London is one of the greatest and most potentially inclusive places on earth, but it has become two cities. For refugees and asylum seekers, it can be intimidating, lonely and isolating. Today’s refugees are facing unprecedented challenges, and existing services are struggling to cope.  Cities across the UK are crying out for social integration projects as few of the big refugee organisations have been able to sustain initiatives aimed at the emotional well being of their service users. Existing services focus on service provision; HostNation focus on social provision.

Host Nation started in Spring 2017 with a small team, working pro bono.  They all bought significant knowledge and experience of social provision in both refugee and host sectors. They  developed a new online befriending scheme to match refugees with volunteer befrienders online in their area, to meet, chat and explore the city.  They utilise match-making technology to help them do this at scale.

New friends at recent Host Nation event. Photo credit: Host Nation

Host Nation offers friendship to all in need of a friend, regardless of whether they live in a tower block or a mansion, are Muslim or Christian, believer or non-believer, British-born or refugee. HostNation believes friendship is at the heart of humanitarianism and they want to help make the city more welcoming and human.

“HostNation believes friendship is at the heart of humanitarianism and they want to help make the city more welcoming and human.”

So far, 75 befriender and befriendee matches have been made – including football-crazy young men from Africa, devout Christians from the DRC, post-graduate students from Sudan, young single mothers, a chef from the Ukraine, a keen cyclist from the Congo, Sri Lankans passionate about South Asian food, an Afghan doctor, resettled Syrian refugees and a painter from China – and many firm friendships are emerging from these encounters.

Some thoughts:

“YES I love having a befriender – I’m not feeling lonely anymore: it makes me feel really good to have her in my life… Someone who cares… who calls me: “lets go out for a coffee” or a walk …” Things like this make you feel human again.”

– Sarah, Uganda, asylum seeker

 “I like everything and the British culture. He is the same age and he is my best friend.  He understands everything I say and I speak better now. Talking talking talking and learning English slang like ‘hanging out’ “

–Yadu, Sri Lanka, asylum seeker

HostNation is innovation and community spirit at its best. This is a winning combination of old-fashioned hospitality and cutting-edge technology. They use a web based referral process, automated search and matching algorithms, online training and support systems to match volunteer befrienders to asylum seekers and refugees. This allows them to automate the cumbersome, information-heavy, logistical processes of profiling, screening, checking, communicating and match making befrienders and befriendees. Paul Hamlyn Ideas and Pioneers Fund had enabled them to employ a digital architect to develop most of this. They took legal advice from Freshfields and built in safeguards, privacy and data protection protocols.

Anneke and her team has been overwhelmed by the level of support and positive feedback they’ve received. Within 6 months, they had 150 registered, checked and screened befrienders across the capital’s boroughs. Many are young, many are female and many have been working on the frontline: in the camps in France and Greece.  All are committed to putting the human back into humanitarianism back home. They are looking to expand to develop their online model and yet ensuring they maintain a personal, hands-on approach. They’re looking to fund two-part-time staff members.

If you believe in their vision, please consider donating to make this vision a reality. They’ve achieved a phenomenal amount in just over a year. Regular donations – £5 or £10 a month – would make all the difference to making HostNation sustainable and there for the people that really need it.

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After 20 years of running a market research consultancy and 6 years of voluntary work in the refugee...

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