Guidelines for people hosting refugees at home

Guidelines for people hosting refugees at home

Author: Katarzyna Podleska
mgr psychologist, psychotraumatologist
Foundation HumanDoc, Poland

The crisis in Ukraine is deepening and millions of men, women and children are facing an uncertain future. Several million refugees have already left Ukraine in search of their new home. What can you do? One option is to accommodate refugees at home or on your property. In this guide you will find valuable information to help you prepare for this.

As a refugee host you are the one deciding for how long you can offer a room or a property, depending on the circumstances.

You are offering one of the most practical forms of help to those who are fleeing their own country from war and crisis. War is a great trauma and tragedy for refugees. With your support, these families or individuals will find care and respite as they try to get their lives back on track. Whille you host them they will be able to work out their opportunities, organize formalities to start a process of searching a job and education, rebuilding their families, life and future.

Before welcoming your guests, you should decide which room will be the most appropriate for her/him/them. A lot of people offer a spare room where there are many things they don’t use often. When refugees arrive, it is advisable to provide them with some privacy. Make sure you have moved all things you might need from the room you will be offering. It is also a good idea to organize bedding and towels and prepare them before the arrival of the guests.

Some people will arrive only with a small bag but others may come with several suitcases. If possible, you could offer them some storage space (especially if they will be staying more than just a few days). They will surely appreciate it.

Please note that your guests could take the initiative to prepare their own food. Prepare for such an opportunity by freeing up space for them to store food (eg a separate shelf in the cupboard and refrigerator).

It is also necessary to think about the rules at your home. You might think that your home does not have any, but every house does! Each household functions in its own way and your guests will not know how you do certain things. Analyse things such as everyday life, safety, using bathroom, shared use of the kitchen, when is the light-out period in the house and all the other things.

You cannot predict everything and you will have to add certain information after your guests arrive and settle, however, the more things you think of ahead, the easier it will be later for everyone. You can also prepare a short introductory packet to explain how your home works in a non-verbal way.

Coordinate the time and date of arrival of the refugees you are accommodating with the person in charge of their transport in order to plan the reception well, which will give the first impression.

For some guests the whole process can be very challenging. The refugees come to the house of someone they have never met, know little about and may be overwhelmed with anxiety, fear of rejection or abuse. Sometimes guests may panic in the last minute and prefer to stay where they are rather than face the unknown. Please, don’t be offended by that. It is not about you, but their fear and anxiety. If you stay in touch with the coordinating person, you will be able to handle the situation better.

The best way to welcome a guest is to offer her/him a drink or something to eat. Be prepared that the guest may not feel comfortable with you. Again, this is not a personal issue – the prospect of eating in an unfamiliar environment with people they don’t know may be too disturbing for them. Lots of smiles, basic information and a chance to rest and sleep can be all they really need at that moment.

Internet access may be an important aspect for your guests. Remember that often their families and friends stay in Ukraine so they will want to have contact with them. Therefore, immediately provide them with the Wi-Fi password or in any other way allow them to connect to the Internet. If you have prepared a manual, make sure to include the Internet password in a prominent place. They will surely be grateful to you and it will allow them to calm down. Keeping contact with their loved ones is very important for them.

As soon as your guest arrives, ask him/her if there is anything that you should know about them, especially when it comes to their health. This will prepare you if someone has a crisis or needs help.

Make sure they know where to sleep and where the bathroom is – the rest can wait for the next day. Your guest can sleep for a long time or even several days. Don’t take it as a kind of inaction. When people experience such a hard time, they can be exhausted and grateful to be clean, safe and to have a quiet place. Sometimes your home will be the first safe place they have found for a long time, and their accommodation may be the first more normal opportunity to regain their strength.

Prioritize the information that your guests need to receive immediately and share with them the less important details only after you have made sure that they are sufficiently rested and ready for it. Some instructions and information may need to be repeated several times. Keep in mind that your guests may have difficulty understanding the Bulgarian language despite the similarities between the two languages.

Consider options to help you communicate - through interpreter (for example, friends you can call), Google Translate, etc. Gestures and drawings can overcome many challenges in communicating with each other.

Different guests will communicate differently. Some will feel uncomfortable with the attention they receive and the needs they have, so be mindful of their needs and the way you offer your support. For some guests, staying at home will be an opportunity to practice their Bulgarian language, especially if they have decided to stay in Bulgaria, so communication with you, observations of your life and listening to Bulgarian media will give them valuable experience.

Daily life. Carefully support your guests in their daily activities when you notice a need or they ask for your help. In the first days of a crisis, it can be difficult for a person to perform even the simplest tasks, so you can encourage them with every small success.

Information. As a host, you will often be the first source of information for your guests - in relation with legal issues, support opportunities, integration, moving around the city or the country, employment, education, customs, etc. Try to keep yourself informed and be prepared to look for information about their specific case or specific issues they have. A good start is the official governmental portal of Bulgaria (available in 4 languages - Ukrainian, Russian, English and Bulgarian), as well as well established NGOs and specialized groups on the social media.

Routine. Predictability and repeatability of events are important to people. Rituals creates a sense of security. If you think the idea is appropriate, you can offer a routine at home, e.g. "Every Wednesday at 19:00 we will have time for board games" or "Every Friday we can watch a comedy together", etc. You can make a board on the wall to show the days of the week and add some drawings, stickers or inscriptions to guide them what day it is, what is ahead. If they want to get involved, that's great! If they prefer not to do it - that's fine too!

Food. Pay attention to the eating habits of your guests. It is possible that the accumulated stress will have a negative impact not only on their sleep patterns, but also on their diet. If necessary - offer food and invite them to breakfast, lunch, or dinner. At the same time, keep in mind that if you have an agreement to take over the shopping and/or cooking, it is important to agree on the menu or, best of all, to shop together in the store. Keep in mind that Bulgarian cuisine and products may be unfamiliar to your guests and they may not like them. However, they can be afraid to tell you so as not to offend you or show ingratitude. Open communication is key.

Emotions. People react differently to the circumstances they face, and emotions come and go. There is no rule on how people act in crisis. Refugees may feel numb, overwhelmed with emotions, or be somewhere in between. Laughter, anger, crying are equally natural reactions.

Crying. If your guests feel like crying - let them cry. When someone cries in front of us, we may feel uncomfortable with it. But crying is a way of expressing emotions, and it's not bad.

Your own reactions. Be aware of your own feelings and reactions. Some people are hypersensitive when under stress. If something in the communication or living together burdens you, take a deep breath and withdraw delicately.

During the night. Remember that nights are the hardest for people in crisis. Ask other people you live with and meet at home to show understanding and compassion. While others sleep, refugees often experience their trauma over and over again.

Professional help. Do not hesitate to seek professional help. Especially when you observe anxious behaviour in guests - especially hints or words of suicide, consult a psychologist immediately!

Keep in mind the circumstances that forced the refugees to leave their homeland - the horrors of the war, stress, trauma from material and human losses. These experiences can cause them to distrust others, feel depressed and have sleep problems.

Refugees and asylum seekers are by definition vulnerable. This doesn’t mean that they are not articulate, intelligent, determined human beings but they find themselves in a complicated legal and personal situation, often experiencing difficult emotions and situations that have left them with many complicated issues to work through - all of this in a foreign country and culture.

You need to consider well the vulnerability of your guest and how this affects the dynamics between you and be sensitive given your role as a host.

Special attention should be paid to developing any relationship that goes beyond the relationship between the host and guest and to considering what consent may mean for the guest. This is especially important when it comes to sexual relationships (which we believe would never be appropriate between hosts or members of their household and guests), but also business relationships or any financial arrangements (we believe these are highly inappropriate and pose a significant legal risk if the hosts accept any rent or payment that may be interpreted as the rent from guests). The host may be making a very honest offer of help or friendship, but the guest may feel powerless and obligated to consent as a result. Make sure that "yes" means "yes". 

Children are extremely prone to stress and the negative impact of traumatic events. If you want to be supportive to them:

  • Help them to verbalize their feelings, fears and questions by using basic terms such as sad, scared, angry - do not use words that increase these emotions;
  • Talk to teenagers in a way that is similar to communicating with adults - with respect, attention and patience;
  • Sit or crouch at eye level when talking;
  • Take an active interest in their needs, because they might not always share them alone. 

If you take responsibility for helping people who have experienced tragic events, it is important that you do it with respect for their rights, dignity and safety.

  • Respect the safety of the people you help;
  • Avoid putting people at further risk with your actions;
  • Act only in their best interest;
  • Make sure you do everything in your power to keep those in your care safe. Protect them from further suffering;
  • Treat people with respect;
  • If you pass on further contacts to them, make sure that they are treated with due respect and their rights are respected;
  • Make sure you treat those you care for equally, without discriminating against them;
  • Be patient and try to understand. It takes time to recover, even if the person is undergoing therapy. Be an ally and a good listener. A person with such experiences may need to constantly talk about the traumatic event. It's also part of recovery, so avoid the temptation to tell them to stop re-living what happened and start a new life;
  • Try to anticipate and prepare for the stimuli that trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms (disorders that arise as a result of experiencing traumatic events such as violence, war, catastrophe, etc.). Sights, sounds and smells, reports from their country, as well as people and places related to the trauma can be triggers for the escapees. If you are aware of which stimuli trigger anxiety responses, you will be better able to help as well as to calm them down;
  • Don't take PTSD symptoms personally. Symptoms of PTSD include emotional numbness, anger, and withdrawal. If the person you are caring for seems distant, irritable, or closed, remember that this probably has absolutely nothing to do with you;
  • Don't insist on speaking. People with PTSD often find it very difficult to talk about what they have experienced. For some, it may even worsen the situation. So never try to force them to open up to you. Make it clear, however, that if he/she wishes to talk, you are there for them, willing to listen;
  • Observe the people you are helping. Talk to them. Ask. Take time to simmer down.


These guidelines were developed by Katarzyna Podleska, mgr psychologist, psychotraumatologist from the Polish HumanDoc Foundation. The foundation deals with development and humanitarian aid and implements educational and social projects. The team has completed over 50 projects in more than 10 countries around the world. Since 2015, the foundation has been active in Ukraine. If you want to support HumanDoc or learn more about them, you will find additional information on their webpage.

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These guidelines were translated and adapted by the team of Multi Kulti Collective - Georgi Bozhidarov and Bistra Ivanova with the invaluable assistance of the therapist Anna Joukivskaia. Multi Kulti Collective has been supporting the integration of refugees and migrants in Bulgaria since 2011 through grass root socio-cultural activities, as well as research-based advocacy. 
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