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Syria war: Would you invite a refugee to live with you?

Abdullah and Heather's daughter Imo Image copyright Heather Alston
Image caption Abdullah, a refugee from Syria, pictured here with Imo Alston, is a guest of the family

Many Britons moved by the plight of Syrians feel powerless to help those affected, but some families have found ways to show their support.

With six children and a Syrian refugee under her roof this Christmas, Heather Alston admits her house is "chaotic" and "not exactly stress-free".

Abdullah, 35, from Damascus, has been living with Heather and her husband Dominic, both architects, in Hammersmith, London since February.

"At first my teenagers said, 'whoah Mum, are you really doing this?'" says Heather, who has five daughters and a son between the ages of 14 and 22.

"I partly said yes so it would open their eyes a little."

Image copyright Heather Alston
Image caption Heather, left, celebrating Abdullah's birthday with two of her children

Reports from the city of Aleppo have prompted people across the world to express their solidarity on social media, with many joining demonstrations and donating money to relief efforts.

For her part, Heather says the crisis in Syria had been "lingering in the back of my mind for a long while" before she decided to hand Abdullah a front door key.

They met through Housing Justice, a London charity that has matched 26 refugees and hosts.

They usually meet at a local coffee shop first, after which either one can say yes or no.


What's happening in Aleppo?

Migrant crisis: What is the UK doing to help?


"I'll never forget that meeting," Abdullah says. "I was so surprised that this stranger wanted to let me in."

Heather recalls he was "quiet and nervous" when they met. "I was probably chatty and nervous," she remembers.

"It was history that made me think," she says. "In the Second World War children were evacuated to the countryside and they lived with hosts.

"It is now these refugees who need homes. I needed to do something."

A trained electrical engineer, Abdullah has been unable to legally work since he arrived in the UK in 2012 and gets £56 a week for living expenses.

He is one of an estimated 4.8 million people to have fled abroad since civil war broke out in 2011, according to the UN.

"I have brothers, sisters, close friends back home," he says. "I text them to make sure they are alive and when they get a connection they reply."

Abdullah says he "carries on with life" but feels trapped in a "prison-like" existence because he cannot work.

He spends his time cooking with the Alstons and learning English, in which he is now fluent.

Living with the Alstons has "given me some hope", he says.

"Abdullah is really part of the family," adds Heather. "We are all looking forward to our first Christmas together, he's already mastered cooking a roast."


The crisis in numbers

  • 2,539 applications for UK asylum were made by Syrian nationals in the year to March, making them the sixth-largest group of applicants, the Home Office says
  • 20,000: The number of Syrian refugees the British government has promised to resettle under its "vulnerable person resettlement scheme"
  • 4.8 million people have left Syria, according to the Red Cross

Julian Prior, who set up a similar charity in Newcastle, says it is important that hosts "go in with their eyes open and are aware".

Action Foundation, which houses 14 refugees - including two people from Syria - sends hosts on a course and criminal record-checks the refugees.

"People who volunteer are compassionate, but may also be naive," says Mr Prior. "We make sure hosts set house rules and are aware of cultural sensitivities."

Other efforts to help have included a cyclist pedalling to Aleppo, a couple who bought a house for refugees, and a seven-year-old schoolboy who asked Santa for peace in Syria as his only Christmas present.

Image copyright David Charles
Image caption Caz and David pedalled 2,200km from London to Vienna this year, and plan to complete their journey in Syria

Caz and David Charles, from London, are cycling to the Syria-Turkey border this summer.

They hope to raise money and tell the stories of those living in migrant camps.

"I'll see how far I get before it becomes too sketchy," David says.

"Caz hasn't fully committed but will definitely come along for some of it."

They have already completed the first leg - a 2,200km ride to Vienna that Caz, 25, a translator, and writer David, 34, began in their home city this year.

"We stopped off in towns in France, Belgium and Germany, talking to residents and refugees alike about migration," David says.

The pair have raised £1,000 for the Bike Project, a charity in Denmark Hill which repairs and donates second hand bicycles to refugees living in London.

Image copyright David Charles
Image caption Caz preparing breakfast at a bus terminal in Germany

"I've been helping them for a couple of years, fixing up bikes," David says.

"Asylum seekers often have lots of appointments around London but no money to travel."

"These people can't work but they desperately want to be part of society," he says.

"That said, there is tremendous optimism for the future."


More efforts for Syria

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMaariya Aslam began memorising the Islamic holy book at the age of five
  • A group of British, American and Syrian doctors raised £100,000 online and will travel to the Syrian border on Saturday with medical supplies needed to build a children's hospital
  • Natasha Frost let her daughter Mirielle, 6, choose her outfits for a week - wearing a clown wig and belly dancer's belt to her work as a therapist in schools
  • Eight-year-old Maariya Islam, from Luton, memorised the Koran in Arabic, raising thousands of pounds for children in Syria
  • Birmingham couple Matthew and Steph Neville bought a three-bedroom house for refugees

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