Bristol, United Kingdom


Ashley Community Housing

October 31, 2017

Changing perceptions of refugees amongst the public, landlords and employers

The #rethinkingrefugee campaign started as a response to the negative portrayals of refugees in the mainstream media. But the campaign has had an even larger impact.

In 2008 Fuad Mahamed established Ashley Community Housing (ACH) to provide refugees and vulnerable homeless people affordable housing. Mahamed says when he “arrived in the UK as a refugee 20 years ago I found a lot of goodwill, but a system which was fragmented and lacking focus on long-term integration.”

A stable home is the first step for refugees. But it is not enough. Integration is not a moment in time, but a long-term process that takes investment. Moving towards integration requires additional supports, especially around employment and enterprise, or entrepreneur, skills.

According to Matthew Rogers, ACH Marketing & Communications Officer, ACH has changed to bring cohesion to the system: “When we set up our business, we were solely a housing provider. Over time, we’ve grown into a company offering housing, training and support. The past two years have seen us evolve into leading industry experts, establishing a best practice ethical business model that is being shared globally.”

ACH works across an integration continuum to help refugees become self-sufficient contributors to the local economy and community. Employment supports and economic opportunity are at the core of their approach. In their experience, refugees quickly become independent and self-reliant with a limited amount of targeted support.


#rethinkingrefugee campaign

The entire community benefits when refugees successfully integrate. That success is challenged when misinformation and language is used to marginalize an already precarious population. #rethinkingrefugee sought to shift the media conversation. Refugees were already in the spotlight. ACH’s campaign shined a new light on them. The name ‘Rethinking Refugee’ was chosen specifically to be singular (refugee not refugees) to reinforce the point that each of these migrants are individuals with their own set of skills and their own dreams and aspirations.

Says Mahamed : “We were fed up of the language used to describe refugees; words like ‘swarms’.” ACH was also not interested in portraying settled refugees as vulnerable, or pitiful: “We were also fed up of the ‘positive’ portrayals of refugees taking a solely humanitarian approach, labelling them as helpless individuals and charity cases. Our campaign was born out of a need to highlight the assets, skills and experiences refugees bring with them, and from this, the economic and cultural benefits a community receives.”

Social media was key to building, sharing and spreading the campaign. They focused on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all popular social media channels in the UK. The initial campaign encouraged people to post a photograph on social media showing that they were #rethinkingrefugee. This encouraged people to get personally involved in the campaign and to also raise awareness among their own social networks and connections.

Build, learn, evolve, build again

As they found success, ACH evolved the campaign. They were having difficulties securing enough properties to house refugees due to the overall high demand for housing in Bristol and shockingly high housing prices. In July 2016, they targeted landlords in Bristol.

The #rethinkingrefugee campaign moved offline, with an in-person event in Bristol; a conference for 100 local businesses, the local City Council, five cabinet members and landlords. Their goal was to shift landlords from seeing refugees as liabilities to community assets.

It was a success.

Seven new landlords pledged affordable accommodation to house refugee tenants. An agreement with Bristol City Council gave ACH empty and dilapidated buildings to renovate. In return, the properties would be rented to ACH’s refugee tenants at reduced cost over 10 years. Some of the renovations are being done by future tenants. They’re building skills that could lead to employment opportunities in the construction sector.

Through these and other efforts, ACH exceeded their initial housing goals.

As the #rethinkingrefugee campaign found success, ACH shifted the campaign once again. This time, following their Innovation Model, they focused on employment, aligning #rethinkingrefugee with the UK skills agenda.

In 2017 ACH wants local authorities, employers and education providers to see how refugees are community assets. While this third campaign evolution has only recently begun, the results are promising. ACH has built partnerships with employers looking to diversify their organisations and hire refugees. They have encouraged employers to offer refugees opportunities, from work experience positions to full-time paid roles.


Already active in three UK cities, with 50 staff, ACH has resettled over 2,000 refugees. ACH has set an ambitious goal is to get 25,000 refugees into median salary jobs by 2028. They’re already working with Starbucks, which has pledged to support refugee employment globally and plans to hire 2,500 refugees to work at its coffee shops in Europe. ACH is providing pre-employment training and one-to-one support to selected candidates followed by guaranteed job interviews for Barista roles at Starbucks stores across Bristol and Birmingham.

Ashley Community Housing is determined to create transformative change, not only on the lives of individual refugees, but on the entire community. That change has also impacted ACH. Says Rogers, “#rethinkingrefugee isn’t simply a marketing campaign, it highlights our values and ethos and speaks to our focus on promoting the positive impact of refugees on local communities, and as assets to employers that can be successfully integrated into our society. #rethinkingrefugee is embodied in the day-to-day activities of staff members across the business.”

Challenges still exist, especially with Brexit post-referendum uncertainty, and lingering negative opinion of refugees. However, the campaign has had an impact. Landlords are changing their opinions on refugees and now offer housing to them. Employers are on board. Community perception has been impacted.

ACH has great expectations for the future of #rethinkingrefugee. Their work has brought recognition and awards. Most recently, they were named 24Housing Care & Support Provider of the Year.

Most importantly to ACH, however, are the refugees expressing that they feel welcome. “They are like my family. I don’t feel like I’m alone here,” says Mariam Sayed, Ashley Community Housing tenant and learner.

Making it Work for You:

  • Think big but start local. #rethinkingrefugee addresses global issues, but it started locally, focusing on Bristol. With success, they're looking nationally.
  • Evolve! The campaign started on social media for the general public, but ACH was able to have increased impact with in-person events and outreach.
  • Practice what you preach. Organizations can get wrapped up in their ‘good ideas’ and do not actually put them into practice themselves. ACH took its campaign to heart, internally, resulting in changes in the way it does business and runs its programs.

Themes: Live, Housing, Advocacy