A forest of hands
A packed public meeting was underway in Wimborne Minster one chill evening in 2016. The Baptist Minister, Robert Jones, stood at the front of the church and pitched an important question to his public congregation; “Can everybody who thinks it is a good idea to welcome refugees, put their hands up.” A forest of hands went up.
It was here, at this public meeting in the historic Minster, that the idea for an ethical investment partnership was conceived. Safe Haven Wessex LLP set out to purchase accommodation that could be leased to provide sanctuary for refugee families coming into the conurbation. It started out as a discussion between the Baptist Minister and the Chair of the Liberal Jewish Congregation for Wessex Gillian Dawson - two and a half years later, with approximately forty-two investors - their vision has been delivered.
“I’m sure the overwhelming majority came to the meeting because they are concerned. And they followed through with their money and support.”
“What’s been interesting about this is just how many people there are who really hate our attitudes to refugees” said Sharen Green, one of four designated Partners leading the project. “I’m sure the overwhelming majority came to the meeting because they are concerned. And they followed through with their money and support.”
Sharen herself has a personal connection to the project, having worked in Jordan in the late sixties after the Six-Day War. “Jordan is a poor country. They already had a large body of refugees from 1948 following Israel’s War of Independence but after the Six-Day War they had another influx of refugees from the West Bank and Gaza. Then they an influx of Iraqi refugees after the Iraq War and now they’ve got Syrian refugees,” she explained. “The truth is, there are far more refugees in poor countries nearby the conflicts than there ever are in all of Europe.”
A wholly inadequate response in a time of great need
For Sharen, the UK government’s commitment to the resettlement of 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years, was a wholly inadequate response in a time of great need. She also laments that the Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset councils elected not to participate in the scheme at the beginning. “It was no, no, no from all three of them. Poole wouldn’t partake, Bournemouth wouldn’t partake and Dorset wouldn’t partake.”
The inciting incident for Sharen came when Colin Brady, Social Justice Officer for the Salisbury Diocese, stood up in the Minster and said that there were two families settled in Salisbury but there were none in Dorset. “That got me going for a start.”
After a further public meeting she put together a lobby pack for constituents to write to their councillors and now all three councils partake in the scheme. There are now fourteen families resettled in Dorset. She hopes that this house will provide resettlement for the fifteenth family and for further families over the five years that the investment partnership is in operation.
Keys to the property
Safe Haven Wessex received the keys to the property this November and are letting the house to the Bournemouth refugee charity International Care Network (ICN), who are equipped with the relevant expertise and experience to organise the resettlement and support the families that come to live under the sanctuary of the Safe Haven Wessex partnership.
The unique ethical investment model works like this: the 42 partners invest in the property for five years, after which, the house will be sold and the money will then be divided up according to what each investor put in. They get their money back, plus or minus any profit or loss proportionally . And for those five years, the house will be leased to ICN, who will lease it to refugee families while they need a place to get on their feet. There’s even the possibility that the partners may collectively choose to roll over the money for further years of investment in the property if the market fares favourably.
We’re sitting in the quiet upstairs room of a cafe in Wimborne, not far from where the project all began. The waitress brings us a portable heater to stave off the draughty December cold that cloaks the room in quiet, quite apart from the bustling cafe chatter that continues downstairs. Sharen tells me why it is significant that the project started in Wimborne. The town has a history of offering sanctuary to refugees. The Wimborne Refugee Trust, now dissolved, offered refuge for Vietnamese families fleeing from the Vietnam War back in the late seventies and early eighties. The families have now moved on to live in bigger Vietnamese communities elsewhere in the UK and the houses were recently sold. The money went to ICN to further support local refugees.
Welcome and welcome again
Sharen is remarkably candid about the project - it was never intended as a charitable gesture, but it's hard to miss the colourful stories of generosity and kindness that punctuate our conversation.
“I want to bake them a cake and put flowers in there and make up the beds.” Her enthusiasm is also glaringly apparent. She says something in Arabic; “It means ‘welcome and welcome again’. I want my friend with an Arabic keyboard to send me an attachment in that alphabet so I can print it, laminate it, if they (the refugees moving in) speak Arabic.” She also emphasises that “our house is for refugees or asylum seekers or migrants, so we don’t differentiate”.
“our house is for refugees or asylum seekers or migrants, so we don’t differentiate”
But others have made warm gestures of welcome too. An elderly local resident who was moving into a care home, saw Sharen’s piece in the Echo and donated all her furniture for the house. “It’s such a well-equipped kitchen. Most of it came from that one lady - a microwave and this beautiful fridge-freezer which looks like it has never been used.”
There will be a party in celebration for all the partners, the staff at ICN who have supported the project, the solicitors and the local elderly lady who now lives in a care home, as well as their significant others. The sit down lunch is being hosted for free by a local church in Colehill, as a generous gesture from the vicar. Another wonderful example of community support and welcome.
But it wasn’t only members of the local community who invested. There are partners who live in the North of England and even someone from the US who heard about the project from a newsletter and decided to invest. Not only has it unexpectedly attracted an international pledge, but it also drew support from people of different faiths. “I think it’s nice that it’s interfaith - we didn’t set out to be interfaith, but that’s how it panned out.” The four designated partners themselves are an excellent example of this interfaith element; “One of us is Christian, one of us is a Muslim, one of us is a Jew and one of us is an agnostic/atheist.”
The project itself also embodies a welcome investment ethos. While there was initial discussion on a ‘minimum investment’, concerns were raised that the partnership would exclude people of goodwill who would be unable to commit to the required level of investment. “The poorest people want to help, so let them,” Sharen expressed. As a result, there were diverse levels of investment, and every pledge brought them closer to their target.
A labour of love?
Despite its eventual success, Sharen is hesitant to recommend the model, explaining; “it’s so much work and you aren’t helping many refugees at the end of it.” She is keen to be honest about the challenges. “I felt like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill at times.”
And there have indeed been setbacks. The first thing that's obvious is that the project has taken nearly three years from start to finish - a labour of love?
“It ain’t easy,” she admits, “but to me it has been worth it.” And whilst the project has had its difficulties, she’s extremely grateful to the solicitors who were “very patient, they’ve been marvellous.” She bills finding such patient solicitors as key to the new model’s delivery.
While Sharen doesn’t wholly endorse the model for future projects, she is happy sharing her experience and advice with others keen to replicate or run similar schemes. She gives me a quick run-down of the major obstacles.
Getting a bank account was top of her list - it took five months before they had one and even then, they wouldn’t lend the group a mortgage - fortunately it wasn’t needed thanks to generous investment. She also advises that flats are to be avoided since there are restrictive regulations on what you can do with the lease. They found out the hard way after investing time and money on bidding for a flat. They could buy to let but the tenant – in this case ICN – could not legally sublet.. Houses have no such restrictions.
The house was left by its previous tenant in a “beautiful condition” where she had recently redecorated. She had even left pots of paint labelled for the various rooms. With the furniture all moved in and the house now ready for its new residents, I wonder what Sharen plans next. She smiles and confides; “I have a cunning plan for the next refugees which won’t be on that model.” New housing solutions? More lobbying? Whatever her plans entail, I’m with no doubt they’ll create new opportunities to warmly welcome refugees, migrants and asylum seekers into our communities and inspire more people to do the same.
“It ain’t easy,” she admits, “but to me it has been worth it.”
The first refugee family to use the house moved in, in July 2019. Having heard Sharen speak at an event in Wimborne, another group is looking to replicate the model and provide more housing for refugees here in Dorset.