Portraits challenge Britain to see refugees as family

Ingrid Van Loo Plowman and her youngest son Ross, who host three refugees in their home in Epsom, near London, pose in this portrait exhibited in Feb. 2017 as part of Great British Welcome, an exposition at London's St Martin-in-the-Fields church. - Thomson Reuters Foundation

LONDON - When Syrian teenager Abdulaziz Alkhaleed first arrived in Britain in 2015, he could not speak a word of English and even going to the supermarket made him nervous.

"I wasn't able to communicate," he said. "My first six months in this country I was isolated from everyone".

His life turned around when Ingrid Van Loo, a 51-year-old mother-of-three, welcomed him into her house in Epsom, near London, as part of a scheme run by Refugees at Home, a charity matching refugees with volunteer hosts.

The family made him feel accepted and spurred him to learn English by talking, said Alkhaleed, who is now completing college studies.

Van Loo and Alkhaleed are among the subjects of a new photo exhibition, Great British Welcome, in London's St Martin-in-the-Fields church until March which shows refugees with host families in Europe and hopes to encourage more people to help.

"I hope (viewers) take away the idea that refugees are human beings, they are people just like us," said photographer Aubrey Wade at a private viewing this week.

Almost 120,000 refugees are estimated to live Britain, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). The country granted asylum to 15,618 people in the year ending in September 2017, government figures show.

But tough asylum procedures, limited job opportunities and a shortage of homes have pushed thousands into homelessness, which can spiral into labor abuses and sexual exploitation, aid groups say.

"Asylum-seekers and refugees can face real challenges finding suitable housing. And that can add to their sense of isolation and negatively affect their chances of integrating," UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh said in an e-mail.

The photographs styled as family portraits show refugees, sharing a sofa with their hosts or sitting in their living-room to push viewers see them as family, not strangers, Wade said.

Refugees At Home said it has provided accommodation for 540 people since it started in 2015.

James Parle and his wife Hilary, who have been sharing their Birmingham house with a 72-year-old Eritrean man for more than one year, said hosting a refugee was no big deal.

"It's like having an older brother in the house," said Parle. "You bicker about things - you want the kettle put down like this or the spoons put away in that draw ... we have little things like that but they are not important... it's normal." - Thomson Reuters Foundation