'Challenging perceptions of refugees will help us to make a difference.'
Fuad Mahamed, the chief executive of Ashley Community Housing, explains how his organisation set about changing hearts and minds on refugees with an award-winning campaign.
We’re currently facing the most serious refugee crisis of modern times, with the highest number of displaced people since World War Two. At the same time, several factors including Brexit, major infrastructure projects and an ageing population create the challenge of skills shortages in many sectors which threaten to hold back economic growth.
Too often the refugee issue is portrayed as a burden to society and at best, a humanitarian and charitable issue. A humanitarian response designed for the short-term too often ends up administering long-term misery and wasted opportunity for both refugees and society. Rather than transitioning from emergency relief to long-term integration, refugee populations too often sadly get trapped within the system. Instead we can show that investing in the skills, network and enterprise of refugees can be to the advantage of everyone.
While there is undoubtedly a humanitarian angle to refugee resettlement, we look beyond the short-term response. We see refugees as people with talents, skills, and aspirations, assets which will boost our economy and enrich our communities. We don’t focus on the story on how they came to be here, we focus on where they want to be.
In August 2015 our #RethinkingRefugee campaign was born, as a reaction to the negative portrayal of refugees in the media as problems to be dealt with or even 'swarms'. In July 2016 the campaign changed direction from working to change public perception, to a more targeted approach addressing the need we had for more landlords in Bristol. We operate on a leasehold model and rely on landlords to lease us properties on long term leases. In Bristol the high demand for property leads to high prices and we can’t always pay market rate, instead relying on landlords with a more ethical outlook. We used the campaign to address this issue, with our Bristol #RethinkingRefugee Conference and media coverage successfully gaining us more properties from private landlords and Bristol City Council.
Housing is important but it is not enough to ensure integration as engagement in the economy and civic society is also essential. The campaign therefore evolved in early 2017 to fit within the skills agenda being pushed by central government and the new combined authorities and to reflect the expressed views of the business community. The new aim was to change the perception of refugees amongst employer organisations such as Business in the Community, Institute of Directors and Local Enterprise Partnerships, as well as local authorities and education providers. We can demonstrate that refugees are people with skills and ambitions but need training, support or access to networks to unlock their potential. Although by definition, they are seeking refugee from life-threatening situations, they are not looking for our pity, they are looking for jobs to enable them to support their families, and are assets to employers and local communities.
The #RethinkingRefugee brand enables us to have this discourse. It is the message we use to engage, enabling us to talk about what we do with less confusion. We don’t have the marketing budget for a large consumer facing campaign, so we target our audiences more directly.
Thus the campaign has evolved. Of course, we still face challenges. We live in a post-Brexit country where there can still be negative perceptions of refugees coming here either to live on benefits or steal our jobs. We get trolled on social media about this from time-to-time. And where we are new to market we still need to work at making sure people properly understand what we do.
But we have made a difference. From changing the perception of landlords to enable us to access more accommodation for our tenants, to changing the perception of refugees amongst employers, local authorities, and education providers, #RethinkingRefugee drives our marketing activity and helps us continue to transform lives.
Ashley Community Housing was established in 2008 to support refugees and other vulnerable homeless people by offering them affordable housing, along with training and education, to help them integrate into UK society.
Fuad Mahamed is the chief executive of Ashley Community Housing.