Community groups supported by North London Citizens, part of Citizens UK, are holding an Open House this Thursday to show landlords that renting homes to Syrian refugees families can be a life-changing experience for everyone involved - and make financial sense.
Paul Eedle of Muswell Hill Methodist Church, which is working to bring a Syrian family to the UK under the government’s new Community Sponsorship scheme, and Atia Lokhat-Hafezjee, a landlord who has rented a flat to a newly-arrived Syrian family in Tottenham, have organised the event to confront head-on the suspicions which many landlords have of renting to families on housing benefit.
They have invited landlords, lettings agents and community groups to Muswell Hill to meet Atia and her Syrian tenants, taste some Syrian food and hear at first hand what renting to Syrian refugees is really like.
“My first experience of renting to a Syrian family has moved me beyond words,” Atia said. “It’s a decision I would never regret, as a landlord or as a human being who wanted to make a difference.”
Atia is a landlord and teacher whose time volunteering with children in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp last summer motivated her to change the stereotypes around refugees. She rented her flat three weeks ago to Sheghaf and Khaled and their toddler Dania, who were driven from their home in Aleppo by the civil war. Atia’s children Eesa, Deen and Aayat and husband Mash all pitched in to clean and prepare the flat, and friends gave furnishings and a fridge full of groceries.
“I'm so delighted by the outcome that I have started the process of resettling a second family already,” Atia said. “My eldest son said to me, ‘I never knew that just a few minutes of my time and the little bit of effort I made with the flat would help so many people in the way it did'. That realisation coming from a 15-year-old was worth it!"
Atia’s readiness to take on the family has transformed their prospects. “I can feel safe, hopeful and happy now that we've got our own place,” says Sheghaf, an architect who used to teach at Aleppo university. “We had to move several times from house to house and from country to another till we reached London. Finally we've settled down and started our new life. I'm happy because my daughter can now sleep safely, play, go to the nursery and do what every child can do without any fears.”
Khaled used to work as a manager in a bank in Aleppo and as soon as he arrived in London, he started applying for jobs in banking and finance. “The hardest part for me after we left our country was to provide a safe place for my family,” he said. “I searched a lot for a suitable house but we had to stay in a single room in shared accommodation until we connected with Atia and she offered us her flat. Now we are in the third week in this flat, I feel my life has changed. I can search for a job. I can find more opportunities for a better life.”
Paul Eedle, a North London Citizens leader who has been involved in the Middle East as a journalist and filmmaker since he went to learn Arabic in Syria 40 years ago, says that people who rely on housing benefit face big challenges finding a home in London’s overheated housing market. Market rents are well above the housing benefit level, and landlords and lettings agents see benefit recipients as high risk tenants.
“Renting to newly arrived Syrian families can be much more attractive than landlords might imagine,” Paul said. “The Syrians are grateful to be in London and are determined to build new lives. As community groups supporting the Syrians, we can offer assurances that rent will be paid regularly and help with furniture and refurbishment.”