Refugees Welcome: Alternative to Mass Accommodation

Golde, Marieke and Jonas-Founders of Refugees Welcome. 

As the refugee crisis intensifies one group is working hard to offer a housing solution for those in need. Thousands of refugees are flocking to the German/Austrian border in the hope of settling in Germany, which is expected to take in approximately 800,000 this year. This is four times the amount of asylum seekers received in 2014. While there has been some resistance from far-right groups and an increase in reported arson attacks on refugee housing, with the first half of this year recording 200 attacks on asylum-seekers’ homes, there have also been an overwhelming number of German citizens and groups taking it upon themselves to welcome refugees. In Berlin alone over 100 demonstrations and collections points have been set up across the city. Among them are a young couple and their friend behind the WG-style website, Refugees Welcome was launched in January 2015. It matches refugees with hosts willing to give them a free room and help them steer clear of mass accommodation.

Mareike Geiling and Jonas Kakoschke conceived the idea for the organisation when they decided to rent Mareike’s room to a Malian refugee named Bakary. The pair met Bakary at the demonstration in Berlin and decided to rent the room to him through crowd-sourcing his portion of the rent. Upon realising the potential of their idea, the pair collaborated with social-worker and friend, Golde Ebding, to create the Refugees Welcome site so others could do the same. Once the site was live it was inundated with applications from both refugees and potential hosts and Mareike says the concept has exploded from there. The trio now works full time on the initiative, which is currently active in Germany, Austria and England.

Anyone with a spare room can register their apartment to the cause. The room needs to be available for a minimum of three months. The group says long-term situations are best as the organisation’s core goal is to get refugees out of mass accommodation and ensure they are able to stay out. ‘The best registrations are when the person is able to stay for a longer time, for example a year, until they find another place to stay,’ Mareike said.  Whilst the group does not only call for flat shares they say over half of their matches are for this type of renting situation. ‘The flat shares are for single people as well as families,’ Mareike said.

Since starting the website, the group has matched 85 refugees in apartments around Berlin and many more across Germany and Austria. The vetting process for hosts is simple and entirely online; it operates in a similar manner to many flat sharing sites. ‘We ask for basic data, such as the average age of the potential occupants, their backgrounds, if they are students or working, and if they’ve had any experience with refugees. From there we try to match people,’ Jonas said.

After the initial match, a meeting is arranged. It is this level of normality that breaks down the stigma that can be placed on refugees and creates a dialogue that is inclusive. ‘We believe in the concept of living together; the refugees are able to learn German and can establish a network. We only provide one person per room so everyone has their privacy,’ Marieke said.

It is not just the refugees that benefit from the experience.  Marieke says this situation offers hosts a unique opportunity to see the world from another point of view. ‘They no longer see the refugees as an anonymous mass of people. They are seen as individuals as their histories become known. It is interesting to see how the world is for someone who is not German; to see the world from another point of view,’ Marieke said.

Furthermore, though the refugees are offered a spare room free of charge on their end, in most cases the rent is covered by job centre payments. However, if this money is not enough, Refugees Welcome can help to raise the extra bit through micro donations. We ask the hosts to request that their friends and families help finance the rent with small donations of 10 to 15 euros each month.  If that is not sufficient then we are able to provide up to 200 Euros from our pool of micro donations. We have a donation page on our website that allows people to give money to help finance a flat share situation,’ Mareike said.

Refugees Welcome is not just aided through donations, the entire team agrees that much of their valuable work could not continue without the assistance of volunteers.  ‘Five people are working for money in this organisation but we wouldn’t be able to manage if we didn’t have the help of 60 voluntary workers. I don’t mean the host families; there are many people who volunteer their time to help us every week.’

When the trio started Refugees Welcome they saw it as a political statement and as a means to be a part of the solution to the intensifying refugee crisis. They never conceived it would gain so much traction and support. This is something of which they are proud and hope it continues into the future. ‘The issue of accommodation for refugees is not a German question, nor is it simply a European question: it is a global issue. I would be happy if it were still in operation in one or two years. It would be amazing if it could expand to other countries,’ Marieke said.

Refugees Welcome is holding a fundraiser at Prachtwerk in Neukölln on Tuesday the 6th of October to raise the necessary funds to continue their vital work. If you want to learn more about this concept or contribute to their cause all information can be found on Refugees Welcome.

By Alice Dundon

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