Nan Bains, 57, manages Swindon’s Harbour Project, which helps refugees and asylum seekers. The project recently launched a Christmas appeal in association with the Grow Your Tenner scheme. Nan lives in West Swindon and is married with three children

“THE thing that really amazes me about this place,” said Nan Bains, is that people come from all different countries, different nationalities, different languages, yet here in Harbour there’s such a buzz.

“Everyone that comes in and sees the atmosphere here says it’s amazing that all these nationalities come together and everyone looks after each other.

“When anyone new arrives, whoever is living in that house with them will bring them to us because they know they’ll get support here.”

The project was founded a dozen years ago by community members and churchgoers in response to the humanitarian crisis in former Yugoslavia.

Over the years it has helped people from Albania, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Eritrea and many other countries.

“The basis of the project is that we’re a drop-in centre for asylum seekers and refugees.

“We’re open from 11am to 2pm, Monday to Friday. People can come in when they’re newly-arrived in Swindon when they’re dispersed here. They’re able to come to the Harbour Project for support and also for an opportunity to meet other people.

“Our philosophy is about welcoming people and offering them a safe and comfortable environment.”

Later on, if given leave to remain in this country, people come to Harbour for help with CVs, job interview techniques, dealing with officialdom and generally fitting into society.

“While they’re waiting for a decision on their claim – they don’t know how long that process is going to take – they’re in limbo. During that time they can come to the project and we have a whole range of courses and activities, based on need.

“We run English classes five days a week, and these are volunteer-led by ex-teachers from a variety of schools who want to support our visitors.”

Nan came to Swindon from Leamington Spa after marrying at 23. Her father was a bus conductor and driver who founded an Asian fabrics business for which her mother also works.

Before taking on her Harbour Project role, Nan was a youth worker whose work saw her helping people from a broad range of cultures.

She leads four staff and about 50 volunteers. Several of the volunteers first came to the project as clients.

No two stories of Harbour visitors are the same, but what all have in common is that something happened which was dangerous enough to make them willing to abandon every trapping of their life and flee.

“There are a whole range of reasons why people have to leave. It could be their religious beliefs, it could be a whole range of issues.The shared experience here is the fact that they’ve all had to flee from something and leave everything and everyone they know and love behind.”

“Why would anybody want to leave everything behind? You must be pretty desperate to have to do that. Most of the people we speak to say, ‘Why would we want to leave everything behind? We don’t have a choice.’”

In a typical year, between 350 and 400 people are helped by the project. They include people who have been persecuted for their political views, their religious beliefs, their sexuality, their social campaigning, their vulnerability to trafficking, their family connections and the people they associated with or were suspected of associating with.

“We’ve had people here who’ve been victims of trafficking who have claimed asylum once they’ve managed to escape and been given leave to remain.

“We’ve had students who were politically active in their own countries who then had to leave because they were arrested and imprisoned. Some have been tortured. They’ve been imprisoned, released, and then been in danger of being imprisoned again.

“We’ve also had young men who’ve been conscripted into the army for years with no pay. They’ve had no choice but to fight and they’ve then fled from the brutality of it.

“A lot of people here are highly educated. We have somebody here who’s an engineer, we’ve got somebody who’s an architect. There are people who were lecturers in their countries. Because of their level of education and understanding they’ve wanted to stand up against whatever has been going on in their countries, and because of that they’ve been targeted.

“When they come they start from scratch. That’s not an easy thing to do but they’re willing, once they get their leave to remain, to work at whatever job they need to in order to live.”

There tend to be more men than women, perhaps because women risk even more indignities at the hands of traffickers than their male counterparts.

“We’ve had young women here who’ve fled their countries and had a really horrific time en route – rape, exploitation, all the rest of it. I wouldn’t say it’s easier for men but they think they have more of a chance of making it.”

When an asylum seeker first arrives they’re not permitted to work. They are issued with a roof over their head, basic utensils and bedding and £36 a week to cover all other expenses including food and transport.

Some decide perform volunteer work even though they’re not allowed to have paid employment.

“People come here,” said Nan, “and they want to learn about life in the UK, about life in Swindon, how they can fit in and get on with their lives here. They say Harbour is like a family for them because they don’t have anyone else. I was talking to one guy yesterday and he said that when he feels a bit lonely and a bit sad he always knows he’s got somewhere to go.” He said that when he came here it made him happy.

“It’s so lovely to hear. I think that sometimes we’re so busy doing our job that we don’t realise the impact that we’re having.”

The Harbour Project costs £500 a day to run.

Further information about the charity, its work and the Christmas appeal can be found at