A small and fairly hidden building on an industrial site in Bristol is home to an organisation providing housing and skills to refugees.
Ashley Community Housing is one of the market leaders in ensuring refugees get access to housing. But it does not stop there – also providing specialist training to help them learn English, write CVs and develop ICT skills.
It currently has around 130 tenants in Bristol with around 400 in total, although the number changes regularly. It rents out houses at housing benefit levels, renovating large six bedroom properties and turning them into double bedrooms with shared bathroom, kitchen and lounge area.
When being showed around one of these houses, which was just off the street of the original office (aptly called Ashley Street), it was great to hear about the sense of community.
Most tenants have come from traumatic backgrounds, fleeing conflict zones for example.
Ashley Community Housing gives them a lifeline to start afresh and use the skills they have to good use in this country.
And the tenants rewards Ashley Housing by not overstaying their welcome. There is no policy on how long tenants stay in these houses, but more often than not the tenant will look to move in 18 months to two years to free up the space for someone who needs it more.
Mariam Sayed is one of the tenants who has been given a new lease of life since being with Ashley Housing.
She was originally from the African country of Eritrea and has now been living in the UK for two years.
Given English lessons and ICT skills since coming to Ashley Community Housing, she has now gone on to become a care worker, something she says makes her “very happy.”
She said: “The teachers I have had are very kind and have helped with anything when I ask. They have pushed me onto work and do volunteering.
“The job I have is great. I am now able to practice what I have studied. I can now write and read and improve on my course – thanks to Ashley Housing.”
We spoke to two other tenants, Mohammed and Ahmed which you can see in the video below, about their experiences too.
Mohammed found himself in the UK after fleeing civil war in Sudan and now wants to train to be a dentist. Ahmed also fled from Sudan after civil war.
They both spoke highly of the organisation, just for simply giving them a chance and providing simple English lessons which have enabled them to give back to society.
What is most striking though is the sense of family. Interviewed all at different times, the three tenants all said they “felt like part of a family” at Ashley Housing and they all said they regard the people in the organisation as part of their “second family”.
Sayed, who showed us around the house mentioned earlier, has nearly been at Ashley Housing since the start and has a passion for helping others.
When asked about the work Ashley have done for refugees, he cannot stop himself from smiling, obviously proud of the work he has done.
Many of the old tenants have moved into the private sector and are in full-time employment, a massive success for Ashley.
He prides himself on the work the organisation has done in terms of renovating properties and giving a home to those who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.
The roots of the organisation start with its chief executive, Fuad Mohamed, who fled the UK with his mum and three young brothers from Somalia.
Knowing what it is like to arrive in a country and not know the language, Fuad was determined to make life easier for future refugees when they entered the country.
Fuad sets out why he set up the organisation: “We don’t like the term ‘vulnerable’ to describe refugees. Often they are a lot more than that. We should see them as resources.
“If we can upskill the refugees who come over to this country they can give back to the economy. Some of those fleeing Syria for example are doctors and dentists.
“Just because they don’t have English, doesn’t mean they don’t have skills. It costs less to teach someone English than to get a student through medical school. People that are coming to us want to learn and want to work.”
The organisation is now looking to branch out from its Bristol hub and move further into Wolverhampton and Birmingham. Here, the housing provider has found properties are cheaper and therefore more people can be helped.
It is also keen to carry on with its ‘rethinking refugee’ campaign – working with national and local government to show the good impact refugees can have on the economy and society.
“We want to assess how the government works with refugees,” says Fuad. “And improve it.”