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Navigating in the dark

Dave Smith, Founder of the Boaz Trust and speaker at our AGM shares his story:

I first started working with asylum seekers in December 1999 while at Mustard Tree in Manchester – a charity I’d set up to support homeless people in the area by providing second hand clothing and bedding. I remember meeting one man who came in hadn’t received any benefits in three months. A mother of four from Zimbabwe had been without heating or hot water for two weeks. I began to find out there was a lot wrong with the asylum system.

The Boaz Trust is born

In 2003, we set up our hosting project. Originally this meant someone sleeping on my sofa bed but very soon it got so big that I left Mustard Tree and established the Boaz Trust. We had no money, just good, committed people.

One day I went to a lunchtime meeting of church leaders. During a talk on the Trust, I said ‘if anyone’s got a house to give us, see me afterwards’ – and the chap sitting next to me did!

This week we’re taking on our 17th house in Manchester. We have twelve for refused asylum seekers and five for refugees who have got their ‘status’, with the latter providing a small amount of income.

The No Accommodation Network

Back in 2006, I started talking to a number of other organisations running accommodation projects in North England. We held our first conference that year and about 30 people came. We’ve held a conference every year since, calling ourselves NACCOM – the No Accommodation Network.

We became a registered charity two years ago and now have 75 member organisations. This year NACCOM was one of three UK charities tackling youth homelessness and refugee destitution to be supported by the Guardian and Observer charity appeal. Nearly half a million pounds came in as a result which is allowing us to do a lot more to support our member charities.

Navigating in the dark

We’ve made lots of progress, but the other day I worked out roughly how long it would take at current rate of progress before we’ve accommodated all the refused asylum seekers in the UK. The answer was 2150 – and that’s assuming the number of asylum seekers stays at the level it’s at now. So our model isn’t necessarily the answer, but it is the answer for the people we’re helping.

I met a lady from Rwanda who a few years back who told me that the most important thing of all was not having a roof over her head, but having friends. That’s one of the things I’ve learnt – how essential it is that refugees and asylum seekers have people to listen to them and stand beside them.

If you’re in the ocean without a map and it’s dark, it’s incredibly difficult to navigate. That’s what it can be like for an asylum seeker in this country – no one tells them how the system works and they’re very much in the dark. They need someone to help them navigate and then things start to happen for them.

Dave has written two books on his experiences – the Book of Boaz and Refugee Stories.