The doorbell rang just as Rachel Mantell had finished putting clean sheets on the bed in the spare room at her South London home, which she shares with her partner and young son.
Rather than dashing excitedly downstairs to greet her guest, Rachel panicked. ‘I thought: “I’ve got a nice house and a nice life. What on earth am I thinking?”’
It was too late for any such reservations, however.
And so, Rachel, 42, opened her front door to find a complete stranger standing on her doorstep — a Syrian, in his late 20s, who’d spend the next year living with her and her partner Chris, and their two-year-old son.
This was no lodger — Rachel would receive zero payment for his stay — but a refugee.
Sara Nathan, 64, and husband Malcolm Singer, 67, set up Refugees at Home in 2015. Pictured: Sara Nathan, husband Malcolm and refugee Moha
Because in what was a truly benevolent act, Rachel had opened her home to a desperate young man driven from his homeland.
There’s no escaping the fact that some people would express concern about the wisdom of the whole idea. Yet all doubts evaporated when Rachel, a human resources executive, opened that door. There, she saw only a self-conscious, utterly exhausted young man.
The ‘refugee’ was a person, with a name — Hassan Akkad — and feelings that were all too understandable.
‘I remember thinking, “If it’s scary for me, when I have my own house and speak English, when I understand how things work in this country, how must he feel?”
‘He had been given an address in South London and told to knock on the door, that somebody there would be kind to him. That’s such a vulnerable position. My worries about whether we’d have queues for the shower felt so silly by comparison. He was just a human being, who’d simply had different luck to you or me.’
Five years down the line, Rachel — who lives with partner Chris Swales, 48, and son Joe — has hosted eight more refugees.
Rachel Mantell, 42, who lives in South London with partner Chris Swales, 48, and son Joe, (pictured) has hosted more than eight refugees
And what of Hassan? Now 32, he is living independently with friends, and, amazingly, has a Bafta award under his belt, for a film he made about his treacherous journey from Syria to the UK.
Hassan had led a thoroughly middle-class life in Damascus, working as a teacher and in television production, before being arrested and tortured after speaking out against the country’s authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Desperate, he escaped in 2013, embarking on a 3,000-mile 87-day trek across the Middle East and Europe. His journey involved a perilous dinghy crossing from Turkey to Greece, and two months in Calais’ notorious ‘Jungle’, where thousands of asylum seekers lived in tents.
Eventually, in 2015, he boarded a flight from Brussels to Heathrow on a fake Bulgarian passport, seeking asylum in the UK. He won refugee status later that year. It takes around six months for an asylum seeker to be granted refugee status after arriving in the UK. Applicants are usually able to work only when they have been given refugee status.
While Rachel’s act of kindness was certainly exemplary, she’s far from the only person to make such a major commitment.
Dr Rosie Townsend, 34, shared her two-bedroom South London flat with asylum seeker Abdil (pictured) from Ethiopia, during the pandemic
Earlier this month footballer Gary Lineker revealed how he’d housed a refugee for a month at his £4 million Surrey mansion.
The 59-year-old footballer had been critical of the Government’s response to the migrant crisis, prompting many to ask, rather cynically, whether he was prepared to put his words into action and offer someone a bed in his vast home. He was.
Which is more than others have done, including MP Yvette Cooper and singer Lily Allen who’ve been quick to criticise, but not so fast to take anyone in.
Plenty of others have though: single women, those with young children, even pensioners in their 90s have all been willing to open their doors to refugees.
The situation is undoubtedly contentious, inciting widely conflicting feelings of among the British public. In the year up to June 2020, there were 32,423 asylum applications in the UK. More than 7,400 people stepped into small boats to cross the English Channel in 2020 — a journey which has cost six people their lives, including a young family, with three children aged nine, six and a 15-month-old baby, last month.
Rachel has faced concerns expressed by worried friends.
Rachel became a host via the charity Refugees at home, after developing a desire to help when she returned from volunteering in Calais’ ‘Jungle’. Pictured: Rachel and son Joe
‘But when you bring up a child you are trusting strangers, from childminders to teachers, with them the whole time,’ argues Rachel. ‘We’re always there. It’s just there’s often somebody else here, too.
‘If I ever thought hosting was bad for Joe, we wouldn’t do it. But it’s been brilliant.
‘Joe will eat anything because he’s had Syrian, Sudanese and Eritrean food put in front of him from such a young age,’ says Rachel — and he’s had a lesson in philanthropy, too.
She says: ‘We’re incredibly lucky with a big house in Brixton — a semi with four bedrooms. It didn’t seem fair not to share our luck.’
Rachel’s journey to becoming a host began in 2015, when she was between jobs and volunteering in Calais’ ‘Jungle’.
When she returned home to her demanding career with a financial technology company, she decided she wanted to keep helping. And so — with her partner’s blessing — she agreed to become a host via the charity Refugees At Home.
Among those welcomed to their home were an Eritrean couple, whose baby was six weeks old on arrival in 2017. When they moved on early last year, she was 18 months.
The baby took her first steps and spoke her first words — both in English and Eritrean — under Rachel’s roof. She still misses the family.
Sara revealed her family have a history of helping refugees. Pictured: Sara Nathan with husband Malcolm and refugee Moha
Recently she took in an ‘age disputed’ boy, again from Eritrea, who was sleeping rough in a graveyard. He had been turfed out by foster parents ‘without so much as a coat’ after a social worker questioned whether he was, in fact, an adult.
‘He turned up soaking wet and freezing cold,’ recalls Rachel. ‘I gasped when I first saw him because when you hear “age disputed” you think he must be a strapping lad. But he was a skinny boy in a wet jacket.
‘I’d made a spaghetti bolognese and have never seen so much food eaten so quickly. He stood in the shower for 45 minutes afterwards, washing away the dirt from sleeping outdoors, and then slept for a day and a half.
‘He was just a kid and seemed so lost. We went to court with him and it was eventually accepted he was “substantially less” than 18 when he arrived in the UK. He stayed with us for two weeks before being taken in by a youth worker.’
Refugees At Home is the brainchild of Sara Nathan, 64, and husband Malcolm Singer, 67, who set it up in 2015 after discovering nothing like it existed in the UK.
Sara’s family has a history of helping refugees: her grandparents took in a ‘Kindertransport’ boy, one of the 10,000 predominantly Jewish children rescued from the Nazis during the months preceding World War II.
Sara revealed only two of their hosts have ever had cause for complaint, including one who had an alarm clock taken when the guest moved out. Pictured: Sara and Nathan with a guest
Today, they have almost 900 hosts on their books nationwide. In total, those hosts have taken in 2,300 refugees for some 175,000 nights over the past five years. The youngest host was just 18 while the eldest was 93. All refugees are vetted and referred by other reputable charities, including The Refugee Council or Red Cross. Only two hosts have ever had cause for complaint — one, when a guest took an alarm clock when he moved out, having understood it to be a gift, not a loan.
The second concerned a refugee who took a host’s credit card and spent £100 after his own account was frozen by his bank. It had suspected money laundering when he was awarded compensation for illegal detention.
‘He was quite unwell and depressed,’ says Sara. ‘They were exceptional circumstances but he returned the money and it was all resolved.
‘Our guests are very law-abiding. They have fled horrible regimes, wars or persecution. The last thing they want is to be in trouble here and get deported.
‘Refugee status is only granted to those with a well-founded fear of persecution. They have that status for up to five years before they’re able to apply for indefinite leave to remain. Only some time after that can they apply for citizenship. With a criminal record, it’s unlikely to be granted.’
The couple practise what they preach and think nothing of going away for weeks at a time, leaving refugee guests in their £1.3 million West London semi, custodians to all their worldly goods.
Sara and Malcolm (pictured) began helping refugees after their two grown-up children moved out of their home
Sara, who also chairs tribunals for Social Work England, the profession’s regulator, and Malcolm, a composer and conductor, have two grown-up children. It was when the kids moved out that they decided to help refugees. Since then, they’ve had 22 guests from around the world. The first arrived on December 23, 2016.
‘He had only enough English to say his name and “I come from Syria. I claim asylum”, and after that it was all smiles and Google translate,’ says Sara. ‘On the 24th we had a massive Hanukkah-cum-Christmas Eve party. He had never even met anyone Jewish before! Then a traditional Christmas Day. On Boxing Day, he went to the Arsenal home game with my husband and son. He stayed with us for nine months.’
Their current guest, Moha, 39, from Egypt, was due to start renting a room in March, but it fell through when lockdown began.
‘Refugees are the most resourceful people so, in those early days, when everyone was panicking about running out of essential supplies, we felt very reassured to be sharing our home with Moha,’ says Sara, fondly.
‘We couldn’t find hand sanitiser, antibacterial wipes or tinned chickpeas anywhere, until Moha came home one day laden down with everything we needed, found in an Arab shop.’
Dr Rosie (pictured) revealed her first guest was a 22-year-old gay man who fled Morocco because his father tried to kill him
Despite her demanding role as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in an NHS hospital, Dr Rosie Townsend, 34, has also happily shared her two-bedroom South London flat throughout the pandemic with an asylum seeker. Abdil, a maths student, came to the UK after fleeing violence in Ethiopia, which left him with a serious injury to his leg.
Despite living alone, Rosie decided she wanted to open her home to refugees after treating many of them as patients.
‘There was a lot of eyebrow raising from my family and friends,’ says Rosie, amused. ‘But I’ve travelled widely. They know I can take care of myself. Colleagues have said: “That’s brave”, but you’re only brave if you’re doing something you’re scared of.’
Rosie’s first guest, a 22-year-old gay man, fled Morocco after his own father, angered by his sexuality, tried to kill him.
He stayed for two months while his paperwork was processed. A pastry chef in his own country, he made so many cakes that Rosie recalls affectionately that she couldn’t help but gain weight.
Some hosts have to fight to conquer their nerves about it all.
Niki Groom, 44, (pictured) from Bristol, admits she was nervous when she welcomed a guest from Ghana
Like Niki Groom, 44, an illustrator from Bristol, who volunteered as an emergency host, after a 2017 stint helping in the Calais Jungle.
‘I told the charity: “I want to help but I’m nervous. I’m on my own, so would it be a stupid thing for me to do?”
‘I was only nervous in the same way I’d be about taking in any male lodger I didn’t know. It’s natural to have concerns.’
Her first guest, three years ago, was from Ghana. ‘The night before he arrived, I did panic, thinking: “Oh my God, I’m inviting a strange man into my house”, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable once he was here,’ recalls Niki. ‘He was very respectful about being in a woman’s house. He’d call upstairs to ask: “Is it OK for me to come up and use the bathroom?”.’
Regular hosts, like Rachel Mantell, develop such close bonds with their guests, many feel like family by the time they move on.
‘It’s lovely seeing them, after such a difficult start, ready to stand on their own two feet,’ says Rachel. ‘But there’s usually lots of tears as we say goodbye.’