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Great British Welcome highlights refugees and their hosts across Britain

Charles Elliott, 61, and wife Catharine, 55, have been hosting Hussein, 20, from Ethiopia since October 2016. Hussein fled because his father is a political prisoner. Charles’ parents were refugees from Germany, so hosting people in need of international protection resonates strongly with him. “The big smiles and gratitude, it’s beautiful to live with. You just learn how to communicate even if you don’t speak the same language,” Charles said. Image © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

On show until 16 March at St Martin-the-Fields, London, Aubrey Wade's exhibition Great British Welcome shows refugees who have found new homes in the UK

Shot in peoples’ homes, these intimate portraits and their accompanying captions show how refugees and their hosts in Britain have learned to live together – and how both have benefitted from the arrangement. From a Syrian teenager who found a new home in Epsom, to a 72-year-old Eritrean saved from a life on the streets by a Birmingham couple, the collection shows acts of compassion – but also the human face of a refugee crisis so often portrayed in negative stereotypes. 

These refugees have brought warmth and happiness to their new homes, say the hosts involved in the project. “Even after everything he has been through he is such a gentle soul and such a lovely, positive person,” says Shoshana of Faraj, a devout young Muslim forced to flee Aleppo and now living with her and her family in Cambridge.

“The most lovely, surprising thing that happened is that we became friends,” says Emily Reynolds, on her experience of hosting Areej from Sudan.

Australian social worker Emily Reynolds and her boyfriend Gijs Van Amelsvoort are hosting Areej, from Sudan. The three spend time together watching movies and sharing meals. “This is one of the best things that happened to me,” said Areej. “I feel at home.” A 30-year-old refugee from Sudan, Areej became an asylum seeker in 2015, and received refugee status the following year. “It’s almost harder being a refugee because, as an asylum seeker you get housing and three meals a day, but as a refugee you are completely on your own after 28 days,” she said. Areej moved in Emily and Gijs in August 2016. Image © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

“The enduring impression this project has left on me is the way in which the lives of both the hosts and the refugees are positively enriched by the experience of living with each other,” says Aubrey Wade, the photographer who shot the images. “It really is win-win.”

Great British Welcome is now on show in central London, put into the public space via an outdoor exhibition system developed by Wade’s agency, Panos Pictures, and Studio Hardie. But it is part of a larger series called No Stranger Place, which shows refugees and their host families across Europe, and which was developed and photographed by Wade in partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“More than two years after the drowning of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, thousands of people have come together to bridge cultural divides and language barriers, embracing compassion, hope and humanity – even as some European governments continue to build obstacles,” says UNHCR of the project. “Their generosity is an example to the world.”

Great British Welcome is on show until 16 March, 2018 in the courtyard of St Martin-the-Fields, London www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/event/great-british-welcome-exhibition-unhcr-panos-pictures/ BJP previously published an interview with Aubrey Wade in 2016 looking at his project No Stranger Thing, from which Great British Welcome evolved  http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/12/wade-no-stranger/

Judith McCann is a community nurse, who lives in East London with her daughter, Connie, 27, a teacher, and Shannan*, 22, from Aleppo. Judith’s husband, who has now passed away, was a refugee from Chile in the 1970s, and Judith and her daughter talk a lot about the difference between how people saw refugees then and how they see them now. “Refugees used to get a very solid welcome and we wanted to show that warmth to others now,” Judith said. Shannan moved in with the McCanns in August 2016, and works at a Lebanese restaurant in the evenings. “People are all curious about him but he is like any 22-year old. He likes clothes, eats rubbish, sleeps all day and works in the evening,” Judith said. *Names have been changed to protect the individuals. Image © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

Ingrid Van Loo Plowman, a volunteer and former doctor, hosts three refugees in her home in Epsom, near London. Her two eldest children have moved out and 14-year-old Ross still lives at home. Her guests are Isak, 18, from Ethiopia, 19-year-old Abdul, from Syria, and a 31-year-old engineer from the Middle East who declined to be identified for security reasons. Ingrid said they felt like her own children. Ingrid met Abdul at a hotel for asylum-seekers in Birmingham; they stayed in contact and Ingrid invited him to visit her and her son. The teenagers got on so well that she invited Abdul to move in with them after he was given asylum. Abdul fled Syria in 2014 when a bomb flattened his neighborhood and rockets destroyed his home. He found his way to the UK after spending four weeks in Calais’ notorious migrant camp, The Jungle. “People literally died around us in Calais, it was very scary and dangerous,” he said. Image © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

Hamish Dunlop, 26, a bridge engineer, and Tamsin Chowdry, 25, social work student, have been hosting 27-year-old Hassan from Damascus since March 2017. Hassan and Hamish enjoy watching sports together. “I think that is the thing that really surprised us the most, that despite everything, Hassan is so gentle, so polite, and calm.” Hamish and Tamsin used to let out their spare room to bed-and-breakfast visitors until one weekend they visited a family friend who was hosting a refugee. Within a few hours, Hamish and Tamsin signed up to do the same via the organisation Refugees At Home. Hassan is a former agricultural engineering student at Damascus University, who fled the conflict in his home country. Image © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

Simon Goldhill, professor of Greek literature at King’s College, Cambridge, his wife Shoshana, a lawyer, and their daughter, Sarah, 27, who is studying medicine, are hosting Faraj, 21, from Aleppo in their Cambridge home. Since he moved in September 2016, they have become extremely close, always cooking and spending time together. Shoshana says Faraj is “very open-minded. Even after everything he has been through he is such a gentle soul and such a lovely, positive person.” Faraj, 21, fled war-torn Aleppo in 2012 with his family. They went first to Egypt and a few months later, Faraj travelled alone to Turkey, where he had friends and where he was able to work in a factory in Ankara for two years. Barely making ends meet, he left for Europe with a cousin and made it to the United Kingdom in August 2015. He was granted refugee status three months later. Image © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

Hilary Parle, 63, a retired GP and her husband, Jim, a professor of family medicine at Birmingham University, are hosting Yonasskindis*, a 72-year-old Eritrean. Yonasskindis* has been in the United Kingdom for eight years and with them since January 2017. He is a voracious reader with excellent English. “They are like my brother and sister,” Yonasskindis says of his hosts. “This feels like my home, they are like my family. I have the keys, no restrictions no nothing. If it wasn’t for them I would be on the street.” Yonasskindis* is a former bar owner and accountant who fled his home country after receiving death threats. He supported the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), the country’s main independence movement, and has been in the UK for eight years. *Names have been changed to protect the individuals. Image © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade