LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Giving a home to a refugee -
Joanne MacInnes with Mohammed al-Mustafa
Date of photography: 8th June 2018
Coming from a family of social activists, Joanne was attracted by the initiative, ‘Giving a Home to a Refugee’. Through Positive Action in Housing, she offered homeless, stateless Mohammed the spare room in her comfortable home. In addition, Joanne has worked with Mohammed’s lawyers, liaising with the Home Office in an endeavour to bring his case to a satisfactory conclusion. She has also opened West London Welcome: this is a free, drop-in centre for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, a weekly meeting place where they can access essential support services, socialise, learn new skills and, above all, feel that they have a place, however temporary, where they are welcome and there is some sense of belonging. By contrast, Theresa May’s infamous “hostile environment”, quite deliberately fashioned in the Home Office and allegedly designed to impact solely upon illegal immigrants, has been shown, for example in the treatment meted out to the ‘Windrush Generation’, to have infected UK immigration policy and practice across the board, encouraging officials to dispense arbitrary judgements with sometimes breathtaking callousness and vindictiveness. The victims of this harsh, unjust and inhuman regime will no doubt continue to grow in numbers and Joanne might well expect her hands (and her spare room) to be fully occupied for many years to come.
Through the kindness of people at Exiled Writers Ink, I learned about the fascinating, and deeply disturbing, story of Mohammed, a young Palestinian man, whose tragic tale was published in The Guardian and also featured on ITV and LBC. After his older brother was killed, the five year-old Mohammed al-Mustafa escaped with his parents from Gaza; apparently, they were forced to flee without papers. His father died in Syria and he and his mother later moved to Egypt, where his mother died. Mohammed then moved to Libya, where he was successful in getting a place on a boat, thus taking what was already a well-established route for migrants seeking to get from North Africa to Europe. In Italy, he was processed by the Red Cross and then continued his flight through France to the port of Dunkirk, and then on to Calais, from where, after several failed or abortive attempts, he succeeded in reaching our shores in 2010; here, he sought asylum as a Palestinian man. However, like so many others, he arrived to Britain with no paperwork to prove his past Palestinian citizenship nor any document to indicate his place of birth.
The Home Office rejected his asylum application on the grounds that if he were indeed a Palestinian, his life would not be in danger if he returned there; thus, his status as a refugee was not recognised. Mohammed claims to have attempted repatriation to Gaza twice, in 2010 and in 2016, but on both occasions the Palestinian authorities in London refused to grant him entry, for he had no valid papers to travel and the authorities were not prepared to provide him with the right of residency on the basis of his word alone. Now, without accommodation, without the right to any state support and, indeed, without the right to work, Mohammed was effectively living in the UK illegally. He was therefore obliged to sleep rough on London’s streets and in churchyards, surviving only thanks to the good offices of several charities for the homeless. He even tried to smuggle himself out on several occasions but was stopped by the Border Police.
Effectively stateless, Mohammed had no choice but to submit, in 2016, a new claim to the Home Office for asylum as a stateless person. It is worth noting the comment made by Cynthia Orchard, Legal Policy Officer for Asylum Aid: “Generally, if someone is accepted as being from Palestine and they haven’t been granted refugee status elsewhere, they should be recognised and granted refugee status as a stateless person in the UK, because the UK doesn’t recognise Palestine as a state.”
Mohammed had no such luck, with the Home Office expressing serious doubts as to whether he was Palestinian at all, either by ethnicity or by birth. Their decision was based on an interview which, it was claimed, demonstrated that Mohammed had answered incorrectly the questions about his alleged ‘mother country’, Palestine, questions such as, ‘What is the Palestinian national dish?’ His case subsequently went to appeal and the Appeal Tribunal accepted that the Home Office had based its decision on answers to questions which someone who had left Palestine as a small child would be unlikely to be able to answer. His case is now back with the Home Office, awaiting further decision; however, since 2013, only 5% of applicants have been recognised as genuinely stateless and thus granted leave to remain in UK.
Sadly, the workings of the Home Office, with its opaque and arcane procedures, are increasingly being seen as Byzantine and dysfunctional: this is particularly so with regard to stateless people where procedures have been seen by many as Kafka-esque. This dysfunctionality has been most recently highlighted by the increasingly shocking revelations of the Windrush scandal and the resignation of a Home Secretary over the setting of targets for the removal of illegal immigrants. Without documents, how is one to prove to the authorities one’s identity, one’s ethnicity or one’s nationality when such authorities are almost always (perhaps not surprisingly) sceptical and are put under considerable political pressure to deliver a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants permitted into the UK? It is almost to be expected that officials should strive to use every opportunity to prove that asylum seekers are not telling the truth, deliberately setting out to deceive officials in order to gain refugee status. I highlighted some of these issues in two other topics in this project: Asylum seeker fearing for his life and Life as a fugitive.
Courtesy of the Home Office, Mohammed’s life continues to be filled with tense uncertainty but thanks to the work of Positive Action in Housing, he no longer has to live, from hand to mouth, on the streets. Mohammed now occupies a spare room in the comfortable west London home of actor and activist, Joanne MacInnes, a home to which I was cordially invited to meet them both and to learn something of the important and deeply humanitarian initiative, Giving a home to a refugee. Joanne had hosted six others before Mohammed but he has stayed the longest - indeed, it is over two years now since he moved in. In addition to giving him shelter, Joanne also works with Mohammed’s legal representative in an endeavour to progress his case with the Home Office and ideally bring it to a satisfactory conclusion when Mohammed’s status can be clarified and, it is to be hoped, he can start building a new life in the UK.
After the photography was completed, I took the opportunity to interview Joanne and to ask her to tell me something about her background, about her professional life and, above all, about her life as an activist.
“Milan, I was born into a family of nonconformists and social activists. They were living in London when I was born and, at that stage, I had one elder brother. My father was an architect and my mother, while she devoted her time to raising her family, always dreamed of being able to travel and to explore. Britain in the early 1970’s was certainly not any kind of promised land and we were, to be honest, almost impecunious. Then the prospect of a job in the Congo came up for my father and the family started to get ready for the momentous move to Africa, except that the opportunity finally failed to materialise: poised for major change, my parents decided to emigrate to Canada instead. I was two years old. We arrived in Canada with very little money, settling in a small village. My father struggled to get back into his proper professional role and had to settle for work doing up and fixing people’s houses. Two of my younger brothers were born in Canada.”
Joanne continues: “As you could well imagine, being English and living in a small Canadian village, we stood out a mile from the very outset. As I mentioned earlier, my parents had always been activists in one way or another: we always had foster children in the family and we also sponsored what were then called the ‘Vietnamese Boat People’ - from the age of seven, I remember visiting a Vietnamese family, regularly every night, and enjoying their cooking. We were also perceived by other people as a bit alternative, always socially aware, and this has continued to be the guiding light in my life right up to today.
At one point, my parents moved from this very small, rural community to a university town and this new domicile gave them the opportunity to become politically active in a more significant way. I remember going with my parents when they took part in protest marches and road blockades: we campaigned against the infamous ‘Star Wars’ Missile Defense System, against US Foreign policy, in support of nuclear disarmament - you name it, we were there protesting about it.” I asked Joanne if she would have described them as good, old-fashioned lefties and she replied with a broad smile: “Absolutely! So? Since those days, I’ve also tried always to be strong, to fight for justice, to fight for those who are oppressed by the deeds or policies of others. I especially love the theatricality of protest marches and, being a trained actor, I am good at it. Strangely, none of my brothers ever bothered to get involved in protest; I am the only one to take over the baton from our parents.”
Asked about her schooling and education, Joanne replied: “There is nothing exceptional about my education, really. I went to local primary and secondary schools and I did well, and my teenage years, so troublesome for some, seemed in my case to pass by in relative calm. I had no reason to rebel against my parents, largely because what they stood for chimed in many ways with the way I felt about the world too. Although my parents did separate later on, I think of them and that early period in my life, with great fondness.”
“From an early age, I decided to be an actor. I participated in all the amateur plays in school and in the community too, and then, at the age of 18, I had the privilege of studying for three years at the National Theatre School of Canada, in Montreal, and I went on to work professionally for three years after graduation.” When she was 24, Joanne felt that London might offer greater opportunities to a young actor and, professionally, this decision proved to be a wise one. As she already held British citizenship, the move was easy. In 1991, she was playing Maude in a TV film about Alexander Graham Bell, called, The Sound and the Silence; in 1993, she played Messenger in Ordinary Magic; in 1994, she was in the TV series, The Men from Auntie; in 1995, she starred in Casualty; and in 1996, she worked on the very successful TV series, Our Friends in the North. And the list doesn’t end there. Joanne went on to have two daughters - they are now teenagers - and she lived for a period of time in Somerset.
I had recognised Joanne from a high-profile campaign of a few years back, a campaign aimed at securing the release of Shaker Aamer from the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, so I was keen to learn how she’d got involved. “Since I moved back to Landon, which is some years ago now, my need for activism was re-awakened and I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that I am now more active than ever before. I am always motivated by guilt and a sense of personal responsibility.” And, I asked, perhaps anger too? “No, not really, not anger so much as social responsibility: the desire to help others, those who need it most, those who are excluded from society, those who have lost everything and who are struggling to keep afloat. I help people to change and I work for change in society too; I work for a better world, whenever I can.” I asked if she believed that through shear determination and by focussing enough collective energy we can change the world and, without a moment’s hesitation, she replied: “Oh YES, I believe we can. I always remember the famous saying, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing’. If you can do something, anything, you MUST! Every little helps and even the smallest good thing one can do will make the world a better place.”
Together with Andy Worthington, Joanne formed the campaign, We Stand With Shaker, which, somewhat surprisingly, even received backing from The Daily Mail - this was a newspaper that had, so many times in the past, spilled on to its pages so much hatred of Muslims domiciled in Britain. Shaker Aamer was the last British resident and Muslim man to be trapped in the nightmare camp at Guantánamo Bay where he had languished for 13 years without being charged. “I always had serious reservations about the effectiveness of petitions, but I was convinced that by injecting some powerful imagery and theatricality into the campaign, we would attract greater media attention; that proved to be the case. We built a giant, four-metre high inflatable Shaker Aamer and engaged a huge number of MPs and celebrities to stand and be photographer next to it - hence the campaign name, ‘We Stand with Shaker’. Shaker was duly freed and returned to London on 30th October 2015.
“Concurrently, I was also doing work with the refugees trapped in the European migratory nightmare, just across the channel in Calais. I also became aware of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees who have fallen through the safety net and who only survive on handouts, sleeping mostly on the streets and in the shop doorways of our cities. A Glasgow-based charity, called Positive Action, helps and supports refugees and migrants much further afield than Scotland and it was they who connected me with Mohammed; he was on their list, and he is still here with us, occupying the spare room in our house.” I asked Joanne if it wasn’t rather a daunting task to invite a total stranger to live with you in your home: “Well, not quite: Positive Action does all the checks before it accepts someone on to their list and initially I met Mohammed together with his Case Worker - all the parties involved must feel completely comfortable with the arrangement. My own daughters, who were reaching puberty at the time, needed to be reassured but they too welcomed Mohammed when he turned up, clutching his modest bundle of possessions. Positive Action also have a support line for all those who act as hosts, should an unexpected problem arise. It is essential that people who are housed start to feel that, at last, they are in a place where they are safe, and where they can begin to have a modicum of private life. Often, such individuals are lonely, traumatised, disorientated and disconnected from the new world in which they find themselves, but they will also be grieving for the world and the people they’ve had to leave behind.”
“I believe that here, Mohammed feels he can start to live his own life a little, without always feeling that he is imposing on us. Of course, he is not in a position to pay any rent, nor is he expected to, but, in any case, it is not just about having a roof about your head; it is also about your having a place of your own where your sense of dignity can be restored. Mohammed is an adult but being classified as stateless and fearing constantly what the future will bring is, of course, both soul-destroying and destructive of one’s adult confidence and self-esteem. To be honest, I find quite offensive the notion that just because someone here is labelled an illegal immigrant, they do not even deserve to be treated like a human being; in fact, I object to the term ‘illegal’ being applied to human beings at all.”
London is a city where large numbers of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants desperately need accommodation but the numbers of hosts, like Joanne, people who have a spare room and who are able and willing to offer it to others, is relatively small. The two principal charities working in this field, Positive Action and Room for Refugees, have a constant shortage of suitable accommodation for their clients. There is a greater availability of such accommodation outside London but, understandably, refugees are often reluctant to move out of the capital; this is largely because here they have access to a variety of support networks and many have by now made friends with people who have a similar ethnic background or who speak the same language. The value of such networks must not be underestimated, especially to individuals who are already acutely disorientated.
Joanne continues: “Our system is totally insane in other ways too. When asylum seekers are duly recognised, granted refugee status and given leave to remain in the UK, they are asked to vacate Home Office sponsored accommodation within 30 days of their ‘right to stay’ papers being signed. Ludicrously, they then have to wait two months before they can receive any benefits, funds that will enable them to find somewhere to live. A bizarre assumption is made that a refugee who, up to this point, has not been allowed to work at all, will be successful in finding suitable paid employment and begin earning an adequate income without delay - this is hardly ever the case, of course. It is therefore unsurprising, though it is deeply ironic, that many of the people who have successfully secured their right to remain in the UK end up sleeping on the capital’s streets.”
Mohammed has been with Joanne for over two years now, and in this he could be seen perhaps as exceptional but people who can provide hosting for a single night, for a few days, or for a month or so are all desperately needed by the facilitating charities.
Of course, as one might have guessed, Joanne is also involved in other humanitarian activities. Since last year, she has opened West London Welcome: this is a free, drop-in centre in West London, for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, a weekly meeting place where they have access to a range of essential support services, somewhere to socialise, to learn new skills and, above all, to give them the feeling that they do have a place, however temporary, where they can feel they are welcome and find again some sense of belonging.
The term, “hostile environment”, quite deliberately fashioned in Theresa May’s Home Office, is hardly ever out of the news these days. Allegedly designed to impact solely upon those seeking to settle in Britain illegally, it has been shown, in the context of the treatment meted out to the ‘Windrush Generation’ for example, to have infected immigration policy and practice across the board and to have encouraged officials to dispense arbitrary judgements with sometimes breathtaking callousness and vindictiveness. It may well be that for reasons of political expediency, such harsh terminology will henceforth be mitigated but, given the mind-set now well-established in the Home Office, it would be unsurprising if the actual experience of all kinds of political and economic migrants did not continue to be, like the Government’s very own Detention Centres, very harsh indeed. This attitude of the right-wing, popular press towards all immigrants prevails simply because it is seen as an essential deterrent to any others who might be contemplating a future life in the United Kingdom. The numbers of victims of this harsh, unjust and inhuman regime will no doubt continue to grow and Joanne might well expect her hands (and her spare room) to be fully occupied for many a long year to come. Similarly, those charities that focus on this area of work will continue to depend on the generosity and altruism of ordinary British people in offering temporary accommodation and support to those recently arrived upon our shores. After all, these are people who have nothing, who are not allowed to work, who have nowhere to live, and who are often trapped in an impenetrable maze of regulation and administration that is truly Byzantine. Their longing for a normal life, a job and a home can be frustrated for years by a UK immigration policy which is often hopelessly inefficient, vindictive and cruel; like the deliberate creation of a ‘hostile environment’, it is very much a manifestation of the rank xenophobia that is so shockingly apparent in our media and our public discourse.
Text edited 23rd June 2018
To learn more about the work of Joanne’s West London Welcome and perhaps how to contribute or to participate, please go to :
You are encouraged to look at the work of the two major charities operating in this field, Positive Action in Housing and Room for Refugees. You can find out more about them, offer support or perhaps even consider taking part in a hosting programme by visiting the following links:
Page modified: 9th April 2019