Essay
Change
Surviving Christmas
7 min read

An Acton nativity and a new crisis at Christmas time

Inspired by a Christmas visit of Jose and Maria, West London churches aiding asylum seekers now expect a wave of evictions, Robert Wright discovers.

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.

 

clients of a charity queue beside a table of suppliers in a church
Ease clients select groceries.

It was the arrival of a single, memorable couple that prompted churches in East Acton, West London, to recognise their responsibility to care for the growing numbers of asylum seekers being housed in the area, according to Jon Westall. The husband of the pair, who had fled persecution in El Salvador, in central America, was named José (Joseph), according to Westall, a Church of England vicar in the area.  José was accompanied by his wife María (Mary), who was, Westall recalls, “heavily pregnant”.  The couple arrived at one of the area’s churches for their Christmas services in 2021. 

When they came to the church, Westall says, José and María were among 400 people living in a local hostel turned into housing for people awaiting decisions on their requests for refugee status. The status, which allows recipients permanent leave to remain in the UK, is awarded to those that prove they have fled danger or persecution. The couple’s arrival struck local Christians thanks to its clear symbolism, Westall recalls. But it also left them initially unsure what best to do. 

Nearly two years on, the church that José and María visited hosts a weekly drop-in for asylum seekers organised by East Acton Support Enterprise, a new charity set up with the backing of a local support group for would-be refugees. Westall, who is a trustee, says that Ease’s volunteers are a “right old mixture” of people of different faiths and none. The group seeks to support the hundreds of people in the Acton and Ealing areas housed in hostels and hotels while awaiting rulings on their asylum applications. Since the summer, it has also been grappling with the effects of new Home Office policies that mean people who succeed in their asylum claims often find themselves evicted from their temporary accommodation with as little as seven days’ notice. 

“It’s the whole community. These people are very passionate, very enthusiastic. They listen. They talk.” 

The effort in Acton is one of scores across the UK helping refugees that is hosted in a local church and that draws heavily on church volunteers. Westall says that, from church people’s point of view, they became involved in the nascent project because it touched them “quite deeply really” to meet José and María at Christmas. Ease prefers not to publicise the location of its drop-in, to avoid attracting attention from demonstrators against migration. 

“Jesus is a refugee,” Westall says. “There were just resonances really.” 

One of his clearest recent memories is of being called to help a man from Syria who had just been evicted from accommodation in the nearby west London neighbourhood of Hillingdon, with only five days’ notice. 

“He was standing on the street corner in Hillingdon with all his bags, absolutely paralysed with fear, this guy in his mid to late fifties,” Westall recalls. 

Sara Nathan, another trustee of Ease, says the drop-in opened at a critical time. She approached the church about using its facilities in January 2022, shortly after José and María’s first visit, after being asked by West London Welcome, another support group, to set up a drop-in in Acton. A new facility was needed to relieve strain West London Welcome’s facility in Hammersmith. Nathan, an active member of West London Synagogue, says the first Ease drop-in session, in February 2022, took place just in time for a surge in demand to help refugees. 

“We set up to start and the day we started was the day Putin invaded Ukraine,” she says. 

The group has been “running to stand still” ever since, under Lissa Pelham, the group’s co-ordinator, Nathan adds. 

“It has been growing considerably,” she says, adding that the group became a stand-alone charity, separate from West London Welcome, in September this year. 

One regular attender at the drop-in, Sobhan, an engineer from Afghanistan, says he values the mix of practical help and emotional support on offer. Sobhan – not his real name - was studying in the UK for a master’s degree when Kabul fell to the Taliban. Because his family was closely involved in the previous Afghan government, his life would be in danger if he returned, he says. 

He adds that it is “very nice” of Ease to organise the drop-in centre, which offers people staying in local hotels and other refugee accommodation free food, sanitary products and other help. The support supplements the £45 a week living allowance that those awaiting decisions receive from the Home Office. 

However, the drop-in is “more than just the help”, Sobhan says. 

“It’s the whole community,” he says. “These people are very passionate, very enthusiastic. They listen. They talk.” 

Involvement in Ease has made her more aware of the real nature of the problems facing people awaiting asylum decisions and more anxious to do something about them.

The complexity of the challenges facing Ease is clear at a drop-in session when Pelham holds her weekly briefing for the 20 volunteers present to help around 100 clients. Pelham starts by asking volunteers to ensure anyone new attending the drop-in is resident in Ealing. The checks are necessary because supplies are limited and there is a risk that asylum seekers travelling from other boroughs will take what is on offer and leave none for the people most dependent on Ease. 

Pelham goes on to impress on volunteers the rules about evictions from asylum accommodation. The warning is necessary because a Home Office drive to clear the hotels housing many of the tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum rulings has prompted a cut in the notice given to successful applicants – those granted leave to settle in the UK - to leave the place they have been housed. 

Successful applicants used to have 28 days from the issuing of their residence permit to leave the accommodation – already a demanding timeline given the need to secure a bank account, deposit for rent and means of paying the rent. Since August this year, however, they have been given only seven days from the issuing of the decision. Because the decision is issued by letter to people living in often crowded and chaotic hotels, if applicants receive their letters late or not at all, as with the Syrian man that Westall helped, the notice period can be shorter or non-existent. 

The change of policy is likely to affect many of the drop-in centre’s clients because as many as 68 per cent of initial decisions on asylum claims in 2022 decided that the person had a genuine claim to asylum. A substantial further proportion are likely to win the status on appeal – around half of completed appeals were successful in some recent years. 

Pelham reminds the volunteers that at times of freezing weather landlords are obliged to give tenants an extra three days’ notice of eviction. She also reminds volunteers that there should be no evictions over the Christmas period, between December 23 and January 2. 

However, there is a resigned recognition that some landlords will ignore the rules. Nathan has brought to the drop-in session a compact tent to hand out to anyone with no better option. A group of 10 Eritrean refugees have been sleeping under a nearby road flyover, she says. She has also been working to house evicted refugees through Refugees at Home, a charity that places refugees in volunteers’ homes. Nathan herself helped to establish Refugees at Home in 2016 and says new volunteers have come forward as a result of the surge in evictions. 

Pelham asks volunteers to ensure the details of any clients reduced to sleeping on the streets are recorded. 

“It keeps getting worse,” Pelham tells them. “It really feels that way.” 

The difficult circumstances and challenging policy background do not noticeably damp the atmosphere at the drop-in, however. In front of a side altar in the church, one would-be refugee uses a borrowed guitar to serenade those present with a string of classic songs such as Elvis Presley’s Baby, 'Let’s Play House'. Some attendees attend an art therapy session, while others work at their English. 

One Christian volunteer, Charlotte Aldridge, says involvement in Ease has made her more aware of the real nature of the problems facing people awaiting asylum decisions and more anxious to do something about them. 

“I suppose from a Christian point of view, I feel it puts the gospel into practice,” Aldridge says. “It’s nice to be part of a positive project that’s doing something practical to help people in the area.” 

“They’re in the UK now. If a British person is nice to them then understands them, that’s a very relieving thing mentally.”

Westall acknowledges that asylum-seekers’ problems are a matter of acute political controversy. There are people among the attendees at the drop-in who made clandestine crossings to the UK by means such as small boats to lodge their asylum claims. 

The vicar insists the asylum-seekers he meets have not come to the UK just in search of a better life but have genuinely fled trauma and situations that would prompt anyone to flee. He reports few complaints from local people about the church’s work. 

“There aren’t many people who stop me and say they shouldn’t be here,” Westall says, adding that the congregation of the church that hosts the drop-in has been “very supportive”. 

Sobhan, who has just received refugee status and is looking for work, says it is a “great thing” that Ease offers companionship to refugees living in the area. 

“They’re in the UK now,” he says of the refugees. “If a British person is nice to them then understands them, that’s a very relieving thing mentally.” 

Westall, meanwhile, along with his wife, is a godparent to José and María’s baby. The family are now living elsewhere in the UK. 

The vicar says, however, that the meeting with the couple provided a window for local Christians onto a world they had not known at all. 

“I’ve learned a huge amount from the people I’ve met and the people I’m getting to know,” he says.

Column
Change
Character
Psychology
1 min read

Look out for the outliers

Seeing the good qualities in others lifts them, benefits us, and makes the world better.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A office worker wearing headphones looks out of a hectic and loud office space around which people are moving
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

I was talking to someone the other day. She is a website developer and she’s just changed jobs. She is not a loud person, but anyone who meets her knows she is a person of quality, of depth and presence. She emanates a humble confidence. In her old job, she worked in a quiet, fairly sedate, office where she was given the space and the time to bring all her creativity to bear on whatever brief she was given. She was known and appreciated. 

But her new job – the job she started last week – is a bit different. Her new colleagues are loud and outspoken. Silence is unknown in their office. They like to work to a soundtrack. The drum and bass keep thumping, and the banter never stops flowing. She’s finding it hard to fit in with her new team. And things weren’t made any easier when, after a few days, her new boss took her aside for a pep talk.  

What was the problem? She was ‘too quiet’.  

It hurt to hear that. It broke my heart to think that anyone could be so blind. How shortsighted do you have to be, to view the grace and peace someone carries as a problem to be solved? In a world of distressing noise and clamour, she is precisely the kind of person every office needs to temper the insanity.  

I’m not worried about her. She’s bright and innovative. She’ll work it out. Either her new boss will see sense, or she’ll leave. And if she does, the queue of employers looking for someone just like her stretches round the block. She’ll be okay. 

But it got me thinking about the kind of psychology I study. In my research, she would be called an outlier.  One of those people in a team or a family who don’t quite fit in. Not because they are weird or awkward, but because they possess some positive quality the rest of the gang don’t have. They are the creative exuberant in a team who prefer doing things by the book. The hilarious joker in a pack who like to take things seriously. The conscientious worker trying to get on with the job in an office that would rather play now and work later. The kind one in a family of cutthroat competitors.

At the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated.

The thing is we all have a unique contribution to make to the world, a one-off fingerprint of strengths and abilities never to be repeated in anyone else. In research these have been called Signature Strengths, the unique combination of positive qualities that make you you. And the weird thing is that we don’t have to try that hard to be them. If you are naturally kind, or wise, or grateful, or disciplined you won’t be able to stop yourself being that way. They come effortlessly to us. And if someone tries to stop us being the loving thoughtful faithful person we know ourselves to be, it is like losing a limb. If we find ourselves in a context where the most beautiful things about us are unwelcome – like my friend the website developer – it is like being rejected, right to the core.  

But here’s the cool thing. If we can live by our Signature Strengths – if we can wake up each morning and ask the question, how can I use my unique positive qualities in a new way today? – it leads to remarkable improvements in wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that those who live like this, thinking about how they can bring what is best in them to the opportunities and obstacles of each day, report increased happiness in living. Not only that, but they also show reduced anxiety, stress and depression. It turns out being good is good for us. Who knew. 

That’s not the whole story though. To really be our best, we need other people to spot these strengths in us. If they don’t, we feel confined, unable to be ourselves in some way. When I ask people what it is like not to be able to bring their best qualities to the people around them, they come up with some pretty dark images. It is lonely, isolating, a desert, a fog, a prison, like being trapped in a cage. And when researchers ask people why they consider leaving their current job, their answers often reflect something like this. Work-life balance and salary are no doubt important, but often, at the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated. Something good we wanted to give has not been received. We feel unseen. 

So that’s why I say: look out for the outliers. Who is it in your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, who goes underappreciated? Who do you know who has something good to give, but needs some help to give it? Because if we can learn to see those invisible beautiful qualities in the people around us, we not only give them the joy of being known, we also invite more light and flavour into the world. Life becomes a little less grey. 

I just hope my friend’s new boss can learn this while he still has the chance. It is tough for her to feel so misunderstood, but it’s worse for him. She can move on, but he has to remain in an office deprived of the humble compassion she would have brought to it. It’s a question worth asking. What gift of beauty and goodness are we excluding from the world because we failed to see past the packaging?