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How one open door can change a life

For the past 18 months, Sidy (not his real name) has lived with Roland and Juliet and their two sons in East London, not as a tenant but as a welcome guest while he waits to find out whether he will be sent back to the country he left 40 years ago and where his life would be at risk.

Sidy, who is soft spoken and reserved, was born near Conakry in Guinea, West Africa, 72 years ago. Educated at a primary school alongside children from around the world, he has travelled throughout his life for education and work. Sidy studied for a baccalaureate in Germany and hoped to pursue economics, but his father pressed for something ‘more practical’. Having completed a mechanical engineering course in Guinea, he secured a job with Air France in Algeria before moving to Paris to study social economics. Unfortunately, he could not complete the course when he could no longer afford the fees.

“As a student I worked in shops in France. I went back to Guinea and opened a tiling and bathroom business, but back home not many people had the money to spend on such things.” Later, Sidy moved to Canada for work and then, having secured a visa, back to France, arriving in the UK in the late 1990s.

“I worked in a factory on all-night shifts. One day, I was late and was sacked. A friend told me he could get me a fake ID card so I could get another job, which he did.” By now in his 50s, Sidy paid tax even though his National Insurance number “could not have been right.” “Then I developed a problem with my foot and struggled to walk and work. I had to have my toe amputated.”

When given a blood test in hospital Sidy found out he was HIV-positive. He also has heart problems. “I did not tell people about the HIV as they would run away from me. In the Black community, there is still massive stigma about HIV, which became such a big part of my life. I feel like a pariah. I was staying with a friend who was also from Guinea but, when she saw correspondence about my HIV treatment, she asked me to leave.”

Desperately worried about his future, and with no money or home, Sidy contacted Praxis, which every year provides expert support to around 2,000 migrants and refugees in the UK. Taking a holistic approach, it recognises that people and their problems, which can include homelessness, isolation and destitution, are complex.

Two days before Sidy was due to leave his accommodation, Positive Action in Housing (of which Praxis is a referral partner) found him a place to stay. In April 2021, the charity had over 8,000 registered host families who offer breathing space to families and individuals so that they can begin the process of rebuilding their lives. Hosts decide for how long they can offer refuge and referrals are screened to ensure a safe match.

In September 2020, Sidy was introduced to Roland and Juliet. Roland explains: “We approached Positive Action in Housing as we were interested in hosting. They put us in touch with Sidy, who moved into his own room at the top of the house.

“We were anxious and wanted to ensure that we took any precautions needed in relation to HIV, which we did not know enough about. We got really useful advice from the hospital consultant, who gave us confidence that we could make Sidy comfortable.” Sidy was also nervous. “You do not know if they are going to accept you. I have my own demons in my head, my depression. But they have been so kind and understanding.”

At the time of this interview, Sidy’s application to stay in the UK had just been refused. “I could not understand. I felt completely lost and was shaking, my heart was racing. I am vulnerable if I leave this country. I won’t be able to get the medicines I need, and I will die. In Guinea, I don’t have anyone and there’s still a massive stigma about HIV.”

For Roland and Juliet, the motivation to host was a fundamental appreciation of how lucky they are; this was deepened by the pandemic, which underlined the vastly different circumstances and resources of people in our society. For Roland, there is also a family tradition of helping people. “My grandmother was in the Netherlands during the Second World War. Her family looked after a Jewish girl, protecting her from the Nazis by inventing a ‘maid’ who lived with them. Their home was machine-gunned and my grandfather’s leg was injured. The family later moved to Scotland, while the young girl went to Israel. Years later they tracked her down in Jerusalem and were awarded the Jewish Award for Gentiles. If someone needs help and you can help, then you should. We are lucky, and frustrated by the politics around refugees.”

Sidy will remain with the family, where he has both company and privacy when needed, while Praxis helps to prepare his appeal. “I am so lucky. One person in a million would do what they have done. They are so kind and treat me with such respect and generosity. It is something to take a stranger into your home, to open your door…”

Sidy and Roland agreed to talk to us to encourage others to host people in need.

  • To find out more about Praxis, visit: praxis.org.uk
  • To find out more about Positive Action in Housing, visit: paih.org

Rachel O’Brien is the Commissioning Editor of RSA Journal.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 1 2022.

Follow Rachel O'Brien on Twitter here: @racobrien

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