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Christmas away from Home

By December 24, 2023January 31st, 2024Blog post

Hundreds of millions of people around the world are getting ready to celebrate one of the most important dates on the calendar. People across the globe celebrate Christmas with various traditions and festivities. It’s the time people laugh, eat and cherish togetherness, but unfortunately, it’s not the same for many, including people seeking asylum in the UK.

During Christmas, most people seeking asylum likely experience heightened feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly if they are separated from their families and are in a strange environment with the flavour of hostility. This experience is even worse for people in contingency hotels. People in the asylum system are not allowed to work, so the only source of income is a very small amount of asylum support they receive from the Home Office. Limited financial means make it more challenging to participate in holiday activities, like for Jose and his family.

They are from Venezuela and came to the UK in February 2022 to seek safety. He has two school-age children: one girl and one boy. Jose was targeted because he didn’t stand still in the face of injustice, and that put him at risk of mistreatment and arbitrary imprisonment.

“In Venezuela, you don’t need to be part of the opposition or any political party to be considered an ‘enemy’,” Jose said. He was an organiser for a civil group and is a human rights defender. “Day in and day out, human rights are violated by the government; I fought for collective rights: the right to access basic needs like food, clean drinking water and basic human rights.”

When it comes to human and civil rights, Venezuela doesn’t have the best track record. The authorities target any organisations or groups and individuals who “investigate, denounce or attempt to address human rights or social and economic problems in the country, and individuals who interfere or are perceived to interfere with the interests of government actors.”

Since the beginning of March 2022, when he claimed asylum, Jose and his family were dispersed into a contingency hotel in Birmingham, where it was far from a comfortable life. The family of four was housed in two small rooms for one year and six months, which was very difficult for them, especially for the children. Serco, one of the Home Office’s private subcontractors, runs this hotel. Jose and his family, like many other asylum seekers, had very bad experiences in the hotel: “The food quality was awful, and my children could barely eat the food, but unfortunately, we didn’t have a choice. It was very unhealthy and greasy with a minimum of fresh ingredients. I raised the issue with Refugee Action, and they successfully helped me to move out of the hotel. In terms of hygiene, it wasn’t the cleanest place and the hotel was located in an unsafe neighbourhood.”

Jose’s first Xmas in the UK was the saddest and the worst Christmas he and his family ever had – the most difficult one. The hotel didn’t put up any Christmas decoration, and no festive activities was organised not even for the kids. “We didn’t have money so that we couldn’t do anything. We were stuck in 4 walls. There were some charity activities, but they were small and early December. No Christmas food or no snacks.” Jose and his family are Catholic, and for them, Christmas holds profound religious significance, which embodies the core beliefs of Christianity.

Christmas is a joyful blend of music, food, religious observances, and community celebrations in Venezuela; many Venezuelans celebrate Christmas Eve, which is called Nochebuena.  Back home on the 24th, the family used to go to midnight mass (Misa de Gallo), and the whole parish came together and had traditional Venezuelan Christmas food: Hallacas. “We dance, we sing, and celebrate Jesus’s birthday,” Jose said. “My best memory of Christmas is the first Christmas after the birth of my son, and I could share my happiness with my firstborn son.” Three months ago, with Refugee Action support, the family was moved to a dispersal house. They hope to have a better Christmas this year; Jose is putting up a proper Christmas tree and a nativity manger and celebrating Christmas as close as possible to Venezuelan traditions.

“My wish is for everyone can be reunited with loved ones and be able to observe their tradition and celebrate their culture in peace. Also, I wish the world leader would find a way to resolve their problems and put aside their differences. And for asylum seekers in the UK, I hope there will be a resolution for the hardship they endure. Hope everyone who’s claiming asylum and safety in the UK has a happy Christmas.”