Host nation

This picture is a selfie between two men in front of the sea. The man holding the phone is dressed in an orange sweater with glasses on top of his head. The man on the right is wearing a leather jacket.

A conversation with Harley Kuyck-Cohen:

Margaux: How and why was Host Nation created? What are its main goals? 

Harley: Host Nation started from a group of friends who worked together at Freedom from Torture in London and were volunteering there. They did a similar sort of befriending thing, […] and they saw a great value in it. The real vision from Host Nation was to create a safe and also very streamlined scheme to support refugees and asylum seekers into integrating themselves into our community.

“It’s really about trying to make meaningful connections between two people”

We have a hub in London, Manchester and the North East and we’ve made over 600 matches now. We’re quite different to other organisations in that way because we do a lot of matches quite quickly.

Margaux: What attracted you specifically to the organisation and the role you now have within it?

Harley: I’d done some work with Host Nation in London whilst I was studying there and I’m also an artist as well. I moved up to Newcastle about five years ago to join the arts community here and take that next step from studying Fine Arts. Once Host Nation wanted to upscale, they got back in touch with me and asked if I wanted to set up the hub here. The vision for Host Nation is that, as the organisation starts to grow, it should be quite simple for people to set up hubs. We have…a handbook and…you can quite easily start these schemes in regions of the UK. 

The hub in London is quite old now, I think it’s over six years old now. I started making matches here in February of 2022. The Manchester hub is even younger, starting in June of the same year! Now making matches in the North for a couple of years, our vision is to consolidate our achievements and continue making great matches.

Margaux: What impact does the programme have on the befriender? Is that something that you expected/searched for? 

Harley: Yeah, that really goes to what our organisation is about. The last thing we want is for the relationship to be transactional. We really want them to be actual friends. Everybody who gets  involved with Host Nation goes through a screening process. That is, we fix a Zoom call with the befriender or the refugee to introduce them to what we do and see if it would work for them to be involved. I am always very keen that the befriender feels that they’re not befriending as a form of saviour energy, that’s not what we’re about at all. 

I recently befriended myself. A lot of our team have befriended in the past and  I was always waiting for the right person. The first meeting is strange, naturally, and now we meet and we’re just mates. It’s just a really normal thing. And I’ve gained so much from just sharing you know. For me personally, just to have someone that I’ve agreed to see once a week is really great, because I find it hard enough to see my regular friends because we’re all so busy all the time so seeing that friend is great in that respect. 

“Also a lot of our befrienders gain a huge amount from their new friends like sharing culture, learning what life is like in different parts of the world.”

Befrienders have been welcomed into communities. In the North East, there is a strong Turkish community and we’ve matched up quite a few Turkish refugees with Host Nation here. And they’re just a really strong community, very supportive. I’ve been invited to some of the events that they do and you see befrienders there. So it’s a real two way thing

Margaux: You said you were waiting for the right person. How do you match people up? What are the criterias? 

Harley: It’s really about making a meaningful connection. For me it’s like a couple of things on each person’s profile where I think these two people would really benefit a lot. That can be age, background, life experience, things they want in the future, maybe someone’s temperament and their character. That’s my favourite part of the job because I’m just a matchmaker in that way. It’s just so rewarding when you make that connection and the people just click. Sometimes it doesn’t happen and that’s okay. Sometimes, it’s slow to lift off. But we do see some really nice matches here, it’s lovely. 

Margaux: You talked about the screening process. I saw on the website that in order to befriend a refugee or asylum seeker, the form to fill out asks for many things including criminal record checks if possible and two referrals. Why do you think it’s so important to have this information? 

Harley: The Home Office doesn’t recognise refugees and asylum seekers as vulnerable. But if you hear about some first-hand experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, it’s really important that you establish a safe situation when introducing them to someone new. We don’t ask for DBS checks or anything like that but we do ask for references just because this person could be anybody. They could be just selling a character to us. So we’re always looking for a couple of people that can vouch for them. Also through a screening, we can really understand what the person’s motives are in applying to the scheme. And then when it comes to making the matches, we’re always there to support them as they need.

“We don’t ask our befrienders to be support workers. We’re just asking them to be good friends.”

Margaux: The stories on your website all highlight how important the programme was in finding a sense of belonging. Why do you think friendship is so important?


“I think it’s one of those holistic experiences which informs so much and offers so much for someone’s well being”

Our matches are great because befrienders can be a reassuring presence when navigating things like public services, supporting with language. […] It’s about picking up on things that that person would want to do. So for example, if they mention the fact that they love cinema. Not many people know that Tyneside Cinema, for example, offers one pound tickets for refugees. It’s like a mediary to help you feel a bit more integrated here and there’s so many organisations here in  Newcastle and Gateshead that are fantastic. West End Refugee Services (WERS) offers upskilling with Skills Match, there’s sports clubs, there’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), things like that. But our befrienders offer quite a well-rounded experience for someone. 

Margaux: What kind of challenges are you facing through the mission as well as running the Newcastle and Gateshead branch such as language or mobility? 

Harley: So language first. When the organisations refer someone to us, we ask that the person they’re referring to has good English skills. It’s really about making a good meaningful connection there. We have matched up people in the past that didn’t have the strongest english and that relationship is really different. People apply because they are looking for friends. It’s a very small cell of instances where we match people with people who have low english skills. But then again our befrienders are also great at excelling people’s english. Like developing people’s english beyond a basic level and having that conversation with friends is definitely a common experience for a lot of people within the scheme. They may attend ESOL classes but to have that one-to-one contact with someone that is a local speaker is just invaluable. 

“I think it’s really important to be transparent with the befrienders about the experience of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK”

Theres been some recent irresponsible legislation brought in by the Home Office about evictions from hotel accommodation. As an asylum seeker arriving in the UK, you are most likely to be housed in a hotel. Once you are granted leave to remain refugee status, you are asked to leave this accommodation and find your own with the council. This eviction period used to be 30 days – and now it’s seven. Which give you a week to find a house, apply for a job/universal credit, a bank account and many other things. On the doorstep of a lot of organisations in Newcastle, many refugees are at real risk of homelessness without the support behind it. There’s some real risks in terms of housing for refugees at the moment, we’re just not doing enough to support refugees’ wellbeing and safety as you can see on the news all the time. I think people pick up bits of information from the news and don’t really understand what is happening. 

So we’re always there to be clear with our befrienders about what is happening. In terms of the high mobility, we also have a pot of money for transport for refugees and asylum seekers to meet their friends. And our befrienders are also great because a lot of them drive. We ask that our matches meet once a week, one of those weeks can be like a drive to the shops or something. It’s what you do with a friend, you know. So a lot of our befrienders can find these ways to support their friends as they go through it. It’s really tough for some people being rehoused in small villages in County Durham. The stark difference is so isolating. It’s a very white area as well. I do what I can to facilitate things. I try to reach out to my contacts to see if we can have support for the people who have been rehoused somewhere they don’t really know, things like that. 

Margaux: The refugee system in the UK hasn’t been the most accommodating in the past few years and it doesn’t seem to be going towards something better, what keeps you motivated?

Harley: I think there’s a lot of organisations in Newcastle and Gateshead like WERS or Action Foundation or Comfrey Project, ESOL that really see the challenges because they offer a whole range of different programming and support to refugees and asylum seekers. Because we just offer befriending, that’s our whole pitch. We do one thing but we trust that we do it really well. That is what drives me. It may just be…a small thing to offer but to try and do something so positive for people that are going through a lot of hardship, that’s what drives me personally

Margaux: The refugees get referred by an organisation or can they self-refer? 

Harley: Now that we’ve been going for a while in the North East, we’ve gone to a point where people who have been matched up have started telling their friends. And they’ve been sharing my contact and getting in touch with me, telling me “I’m friends with such and such, I want to find a friend as well”. That’s great, we’re really happy to have more people. We always ask for references anyway. So if someone does make a self referral to us, I would just ask for the contact of someone at an organisation they attend, so maybe an ESOL tutor or a facilitator. It’s just about asking whether that person is really at risk at the moment. If they are who they say they are. Just any redeeming qualities that they have as well.

Margaux: How would you describe solidarity? 


It’s the opportunity to think beyond personal drives and to see the benefit in what you can do as a union.”

To be involved with, to support, to share capacity with other people. You can’t just do that if you’re on your own. 

Margaux: What are your hopes for the future of Host Nation?

Harley: I really hope that it just gets bigger. Because we’re really offering something very simple, the moment you’ve gone through the initial admin, you kind of don’t even realise that you’re volunteering. It’s obvious that our government at the moment is not interested in community integration or diversity of communities so it’s really for us to do that. Personally, I feel like it just makes the UK a better place. And I want to see that happen, not as a trivial or tokenistic thing but I just want it to be a very natural process that people do.