Each room is clean, with wifi and a TV. Each room holds a person or a family trapped in a small space with no control over their life, few ways to keep occupied or feel productive and no knowledge of how long they will stay there or what the future holds. No one expected to end up living long term in a hotel. But because of Covid, approximately 20,000 people from all over the world, exist in this strange in-between world of government appointed hotel living.
When people seeking asylum first checked in, they received zero financial assistance beyond room and board. If they arrived without sufficiently warm clothes (which many did), needed lotion for dry skin or toys for their children, most were unable to purchase it. If they needed assistance of any kind, they were told to consult informational brochures (mostly in English) or to call Migrant Advice, a government hotline, where after a long wait time, all issues are logged and reported, but rarely resolved.
Eventually, under pressure, the government began to give people seeking asylum £8 a week, and in Bristol at least, to allow charities into the hotel to assist people. Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) and The Haven (a medical practice dedicated to refugees and people seeking asylum) went to work.
Every week Alice and Andrew from BRR go into the hotel. They set up a desk in the hall and try to untangle the complex jumble of problems most residents face. Many of the issues people want solved; they can’t actually help with. People say: I just want my case resolved. I need more money. I want to bring my children. I want to bring my wife. And Andrew, the drop in manager, has to be the person who says there’s nothing BRR can do about that. Some people come every day, worried about family members in a refugee camp back home where there is a war, who they can’t get a hold of. Sometimes people just want someone to talk to, to hear their story. One man from Syria expected his asylum application to move quickly, but a year on and he hasn’t even received a date for his initial interview, (the first step in the application process). Back in Turkey where his family waits, they’ve run out of money and the landlord is asking his wife for ‘favours’ in order to pay the rent.
Another man in his late 30’s from Eritrea was very distressed because his wife and children called from a refugee camp in Tigray to tell him they were moving somewhere else, but he missed the call and had no credit on his phone to call them back. Thankfully, this was something BRR could help with. They got him phone credit so he could call his family and then referred him to the Red Cross for family tracing.
The staff from Bristol Refugee Rights help people to get signed up for health and dental services, to get phone credits, and phones that can access the internet so they can attend English, Well-Being and fitness classes. They work to get the phones confiscated from people seeking asylum on arrival by the government, returned. They link people to solicitors, help register children for school, and tell residents about any local services that could be helpful. Over time this kind of assistance has helped to build trust among the residents, many of whom were too terrified to speak to anyone in the beginning or to accept help.
Although most residents are grateful for any assistance and very aware how much better their situation is compared to their families in refugee camps, or those in the UK, who are placed in detention camps, it’s still very difficult. Many find the lack of control, especially around food disheartening. One Middle Eastern woman called Safiye often talked about how much she missed cooking. It was the activity that used to provide structure to her day. The scent and taste of the bread she would bake each morning gave her the feeling of home and safety. English bread doesn’t taste the same, she tells Alice, on her way to pick up her lunch meal, which will be one of the three very basic dishes the hotel continually rotates through.
There is no common area or group activities and people must eat meals in their own room, where visits from other residents are not allowed. This results in a close proximity with a large number of strangers from other countries, languages and cultures, while not allowing space or opportunity for any social interactions or connection.
Some families are finally starting to check out from the hotel. Safiye and her family, who fled political persecution, arrived after a two-year journey across dangerous borders and through squalid refugee camps. They spent one year living in the hotel, which their six-year-old son Ismail found particularly difficult. He was very lonely, and had nowhere to play. When he was finally enrolled in school, they didn’t have money for the uniform and Ismail spoke little English so he felt like a complete outsider. BRR helped his family to get him the correct uniform, gave the family two phones so that both mother and son could work on their English and bought Ismail a scooter so he could get to school easier. It took time, but eventually Ismail started to feel more comfortable. Now the family has been assigned a place in shared housing, which means Safiye gets to cook her own food again. And she gets to make bread. It will be the first step towards building a settled life, towards feeling at home.
By Tannith Perry
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