When My Home Becomes Our Home
When residents share their living spaces with refugees they learn about a different culture, becoming 'ambassadors for inclusion' in their own communities.
When refugees arrive in host cities, a first priority is a safe place to live. Camps and other forms of mass housing may be important as emergency temporary housing. But they can be isolating for refugees, and they offer little connection to the community.
In Germany, three friends saw another way. With many single refugees coming into Berlin, they came together at the end of 2014 to create an online system where locals with available rooms to share could connect with refugees looking for housing.
An idea from lived experience
It all started with a spare room in co-founders Jonas Kakoschke & Mareike Geiling apartment. They shared it with a refugee from Mali for six months. Because it worked so easily, they decided to create an online platform, spread the word that this is possible.
Coming from a strong perspective of refugee self-determination, the project is also not simply about housing. It’s also about inclusion and creating connections between New Germans and existing residents. The principle aim of Refugees Welcome is to promote the experience of living together. They believe that this co-living will learn the local language faster and adjust and integrate more easily, network and find employment (a key integration measure) more quickly. This is borne out in Canadian research, which showed that privately sponsored refugees have better employment outcomes (PDF) than those who are sponsored by government or who claim asylum in Canada.
Residents who share their living spaces get to help someone, but they also learn about a different culture and can become ambassadors for refugee inclusion in their communities.
Civic tech projects are, by nature, disruptive. This is the case with Refugees Welcome, but the founders sought to bring social disruption as well. Geiling says that refugees are often seen as burdens, and not as people seeking safety, coming from situations of great need. She believes the prejudices and fears about refugees tend to disappear when people get to know and start connecting with each other.
Like The Clothing Drive/Mes Amis, technology isn’t the point. But, it’s what makes the project scale. It’s also made it easier to replicate internationally. Other cities’ sites look like the original, but local organizers customize the program itself from there, to meet local needs.
But, they’ve built a replicable web and technology infrastructure that partners in other cities can use. Building scalable technology has helped them easily expand an idea to create more welcoming cities and neighbours. Technology means they can take their idea and implement it directly and not wait for formal structures and institutions to take the lead or catch up. It’s an approach similar to what is happeneing with medical care in Hamburg’s refugee camps.
Local goes global and local
The original project has rolled out to 13 countries. They’re working with groups in more than 20 more to set up a local Refugees Welcome group.
Each local group takes on the responsibility of coordinating and connecting refugees with hosts. The site and web infrastructure are key to helping people show interest or need. After that, local coordinators connect and match people together. They also help hosts find rent money for refugees who might not be able to afford it. Support continues after the matching is done, for both hosts and refugees.
Kakoschke says it’s important to be flexible with their concept, because the needs change over time and are different in different cities and countries. Initially, he says, the German site saw 1000 registrations per month for housing, but it’s decreased to 50-70 per month. In Portugal, where there aren’t as many refugees, they’re also focusing on migrants, more broadly defined. “It’s about bringing locals and non-locals together to dialogue, to have a better life for all of them together.”
The streamlined, online referral service has so far connected 818 refugees to housing.
Refugees Welcome founders recognize that they’re a small organization. But, they’ve been able to prove that the idea works. The importance of decentralized housing options for migrants is important for planners, architects, migration policy officials and something that Refugees Welcome has been able to prove. Their online platform and its replication shows how quickly it can also cross borders. It also shows how an idea in one place can quickly grow to impact others. Without a technology component, Refugees Welcome would have been a great idea among some friends in a neighbourhood. Instead, it’s global.
The founders aren’t just waiting for society to become more accommodating to refugees. They’ve also created an online campaign,Search Racism. Find truth. Refugees themselves face far right propaganda, debunking prejudice with hard facts, surprising revelations and humour.
Making it Work for You:
- Your project or idea might have nothing to do with technology. But, if you want it to grow, think about how technology can help it to scale, or simplify processes that are typically bureaucratic.
- Be open to your idea being replicated. Make it easy for others to take it and customize it for their local realities and needs.
- Being disruptive can be good, but work with the people you’re trying to help to make sure they’re comfortable with your approach.
- Your solution may not be THE solution, but it might fill a needed niche outside of mainstream or formal helping services and approaches. Test it. Implement what works.