Amy-Leigh, JRS Accommodation Officer, reflects on her experience working at Emilie House. She takes us on a journey of laughter, accompaniment and hope.
I wheel my bike into the house through the side door and I’m instantly met by the unique aromas of Emilie House. It is a blend of scents that I’ve grown so fond of: the spices from the gorgeous traditional dishes the residents cook; and incense, lit for coffee ceremonies after meals, or prayer. A mesh of cultures is felt instantly as you enter the house. I always feel warmly welcomed just by the familiarity of it.
At least once a week I spend a day working from Emilie House to be a supportive presence for the residents. Mostly, I pop myself in the upstairs living room. It is a 4-floor terraced, Victorian house with tall ceilings, spacious rooms, and countless windows for light to spill in through. The upstairs living room has bay windows with a dining table sat right in front of these windows where I like to sit. It’s inviting, and it feels peaceful. It’s the perfect spot to sit and watch the world go by. I enter and one of the residents is sat with her back to me at the table, her face basking in sunlight. She likes to joke that sitting here is like being back in Africa.
The piano sits adjacent to the dining room table with an array of donated piano books on the bookshelf in the corner. Later this evening our volunteer piano tutor, Barbara, is coming to give a lesson to one of the women, who had previously been self- teaching through YouTube, and knew an impressive amount of music theory. She is delighted to be bringing it all together and improving her skills with the support of a tutor.
On the other side of the room is a large desk with a sewing machine perched on top. Around it is fabrics with bold and beautiful African prints. We have recently started advertising for a volunteer textiles lead, so we can start up a project with these.
Each day I spend at the house will vary in pace and events, depending on who is at home, who is visiting, and if anything is leaking. But whatever the day, I can be sure of three things: we will laugh, we will drink coffee, and someone will require technical support.
Being a supportive presence at Emilie House can look like a lot of things. Sometimes it is accompanying refugee friends for a phone appointment and advocating for them. Sometimes it is attending to maintenance issues, with the help of our generous volunteer Bill. Often, being a supportive presence at Emilie House is simply being there and listening when someone needs to be listened to. Our refugee friends experience ongoing challenges that we know we cannot always support them to resolve. But at JRS we also know that there is strength in being by someone’s side, and holding space for our refugee friends in hard times.
Help our refugee friends stay in touch with their family and loved ones by purchasing Phone Credit from the JRS Refugee Gifts shop.
Today is an unusual day as we have a refugee friend moving in. There is a sense of excitement in the air, and although we know she won’t be here until this afternoon, we’re all on standby for her arrival – giddily floating around the house and peeking in doorways to exchange cheesy smiles.
As I wait for her to arrive, I get on with some work. I pull the large floral curtains over slightly to stop the sun glaring on my screen. The curtains and the bedding in the house are all of a similar style warm pastels and floral patterns.
Although the house is large, the sounds echo through it. The noises are loud enough to make out, but it doesn’t shift the peaceful ambience, it just feels alive. I find it comforting to pause and listen sometimes. There is a soft thumping of footsteps from the bedrooms above. Down the hall, a resident is laughing and talking in Amharic on the phone to a loved one. In the bedroom next door to me I can hear the chatter of a Zoom call as a resident repeats English words back to her ESOL teacher.
When the new resident arrives, myself and two of the women greet her at the front door and show her to her new room. It’s on the second floor, so we work together to pass her luggage up the stairs, each of us stationed at a different point to reduce the amount of up-down-up-down. The women then give her a tour of the house, pointing out the two separate living areas, the utility room, the kitchens, the dining room, and the garden. There is lots to explore and take in, so we decide to come back to instruction manuals later and allow her to begin unpacking.
Our volunteer gardener, Pat, arrives shortly afterwards and we wander outside to the garden with the residents who take part in the gardening project – that teaches women gardening skills. The aim today is to start planning the project for this year, so we huddle as a group beneath the garden arch and discuss our options. The garden is thick and vibrant, with roses, tulips and hyacinths already standing bold. The consensus is to focus on the plants and flowers this year, and trial some tomatoes in the vegetable patch in the corner.
We come in and sit around the table in the dining room, which looks out onto the garden from any of the surrounding windows. One of the women remains outside and I watch as she proudly trims the bushes and pulls out some stray weeds.
Soon all of the residents, myself, and Pat are seated together at the table. A large, royal blue teapot is placed in the centre on an embroidered linen placemat. Matching teacups and saucers are passed around and we are each served spice-infused tea. Those with a sweet tooth like me sneak a sugar or two. Five different languages are spoken between the residents now, and the table feels louder than ever. We share stories, mime and translate between us, and laugh a lot.
Each of the residents has her own support network within London and her own schedule. People wake up, sleep, and come and go at different times in the day, but the thing that always brings us together is the sharing of hot drinks and food. They are a sacred, universal pleasure – a gift. Often, we will pause and give thanks for the food in front of us and the people we are gathered with. What a blessing it is to share this moment in time together. Against a backdrop of everything else, it is these moments I treasure.
About Emilie House
Emilie House was named in honour of the Sisters of St Emilie, who kindly gifted us a 10-bedroom house in 2019. Alongside our hosting scheme, “At Home”, it makes up the accommodation provision at JRS. Safe and stable accommodation is the most pressing need for most of our refugee friends. Emilie House provides women with an opportunity to live independently within a community of friends, a space to rest and make headspace for other aspects of their lives – from their legal case to nurturing their hobbies and connecting with friends.
We are enormously grateful to the Sisters of the Holy Family of St Emilie for their continued support, and to the Gozt Foundation for their support in additional renovations at Emilie House.
Emily House, London