What have we learnt from helping to house a refugee family?

Arthur Tsang is Director of Communities at Bournville Village Trust
Arthur Tsang is Director of Communities at Bournville Village Trust

Arthur Tsang, 07 February 2020

‘If you can, why don’t you?’ This was the question we were asked when approached by the Birmingham District of the Methodist Church in Britain to house the only Syrian refuge family to have settled in Birmingham as part of the Community Sponsorship programme.

As social landlords, none of us are strangers to housing and supporting vulnerable people in our communities, and families escaping Syria are among the most vulnerable. According to The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 5.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country since 2011. Those fleeing face poverty, poor living conditions, inadequate medical care and disruption to their children’s education.

In response, the government introduced the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for Syrian nationals, and in February 2018 the first Syrian family were welcomed to Birmingham by the Methodist Churches.

Originally from Homs, the family had been living in refugee accommodation in Jordan, and after arriving in the UK, were housed by the Methodists. The family had settled into the community and were ready to move into permanent accommodation, somewhere they could really call home, but were struggling to find anywhere.

We’re really pleased that the family will shortly move into one of our homes and, in keeping with our mission of creating and sustaining communities where people can thrive, we’ll be working closely with Birmingham Methodists to make sure they feel part of a strong and inclusive community. 

So what have we learnt from the process? 

Flexibility is really important

Our lettings policy allows us management discretion to make a decision (outside of existing allocations criteria) to immediately house someone, where there is a significant need or where it will significantly improve someone’s housing situation. In this case, the family couldn’t complete an application form for housing in the city because they couldn’t provide a postcode for the time spent in refugee accommodation, blocking them from bidding for properties in the usual way. Our flexible but fair approach allowed us to treat the family as individuals by exercising the right approach at the right time.

Working in partnership achieves great things

Partners come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s important to be open to conversations with all. In this case we worked indirectly with the local authority, the Resettlement Scheme and directly with the Methodist Church. Each are different in scale and stature but all share the aim of working together to help a family in need. We’re not perfect at this (and the Birmingham Methodists had to shout loudly at us) but we’re learning and partnership is now one of our core values.

Champion the person not the ‘risk’

Housing a refugee family could be considered by some to be a risk. They may be targeted by other members of the community, there may be a language barrier or they may struggle to integrate. We believe that removing barriers (rather than counting them) allows people to reach their full potential. In this case, we’ll work closely with the family and the church for the first 12 months and our Community team will also help them to engage in their neighbourhood in order to feel part of the wider community.

I hope that sharing our experience is useful. Maybe you have your own experiences of working with refugee families that you would be willing to share with us so we can learn.

Either way I leave you with the question I started this blog with, ‘If you can, why don’t you?

Related

Housing Matters podcast: Refugee Week 2019 

Who to speak to

Claudia Esseen-Jayes, Communications Officer