LONDON — Many refugees experience social isolation and loneliness in their new countries; finding local friends and expanding social circles can be challenging. In order to fight refugees’ loneliness, the social enterprise HostNation matches them with volunteer befrienders in their neighborhood.
When the charity The Forum conducted a small-scale survey among refugees in London in 2014, 58 percent of the participants named loneliness and social isolation as the biggest challenge they faced in their new home. Twenty-seven percent even started to experience mental or physical health problems as a result of their loneliness. This is not an issue specific to refugees resettled in England’s capital; it is widely-spread among migrants all over Europe, as research suggests.
Most refugees confront similar challenges affecting refugees’ loneliness, including language barriers and cultural differences, the loss of a support system of old friends and family as well as stigma and discrimination in their new communities.
Research finds that social isolation and the perceived feeling of loneliness can have serious health implications. According to a Brigham Young University study, loneliness and social isolation heighten the mortality of those affected. They have been linked to high blood pressure, cognitive decline, coronary heart disease and stroke, and weaken the immune system. Mental health is also affected: lonely people experience more depression and anxiety and are at a higher risk of developing dementia.
Additionally, loneliness can affect a person’s behavior and is linked to cigarette consumption, lack of exercise and poor sleep.
Turhan Canli, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Stony Brook University, writes that “social isolation may turn into a concern of epidemic proportions for the health care system of host nations, which need to be addressed with proper interventions and policy-actions.”
Anneke Elwes, the founder of the social enterprise HostNation, tries to address refugees’ loneliness by fostering contacts between newcomers and locals. In an interview with Reuters, she said: “There are a huge number of really lonely and socially isolated people out there, particularly refugees, and I know a lot of people who really want to help them and offer them friendship, but it’s really difficult for them to meet.”
To bring these potential friends together, HostNation applies the technology behind dating websites to match people in geographical proximity, taking criteria like language skills, gender and common interests into consideration.
A pilot version launched in March for the Greater London area, and Elwes hopes to expand HostNation across the U.K. by 2018. She gained inspiration to start the service by her own six-year-old friendship with Abu Haron, a refugee from Sudan.
The volunteers signing up for the program initially commit to regular contact and meet-ups for three months, which can range from exploring the city or countryside and cultural activities, introductions to social groups and gatherings, or help with practical issues like learning English or opening a bank account – depending on the participants’ wishes and needs.
HostNation hopes to increase refugees’ integration into their communities, broaden their social networks, improve their confidence and independence, or simply implement a feeling of normality into their disrupted lives. Ideally, the first months of contact develop into a longer-lasting connection.
Haron, who acts as a consultant for HostNation now, says that having someone in their lives, who supports them – not with material goods but with conversations and advice – can help migrants significantly: “It gives you some confidence. You are not alone. You have someone in your life and that’s a big difference.”
– Lena Riebl