• Germany's news in English

The Germans offering their homes to refugees

The Local · 10 Sep 2015, 10:00

Published: 10 Sep 2015 10:00 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

When Mareike Geiling left Berlin last November to work in Cairo for six months, she and her flatmate Jonas Kakoschke had already found someone to rent her room during the trip.

However, unusually for Berlin, Jonas' new flatmate Bakary Conan wasn't a relative, friend or someone they'd met on a flatshare website -  he was a refugee from war-torn Mali.

After deciding to host a refugee in their home, the pair reached out to family and friends, raising funds to cover Conan's rent. Within two weeks, they'd met their target – and the experience prompted them to encourage others to do the same.

Ten months later, Kakoschke and Geiling were fielding questions from a pack of international reporters about their project as Germany faced unprecedented numbers of refugee arrivals.

A flat-share website for refugees

Explaining that they had recently been "overwhelmed" by support, Kakoschke and Geiling held the event on September 8th because it was simply "beyond their capacity" to arrange interviews with every publication interested in their work.

From one room for Conan, the project has grown into Refugees Welcome, a site matching refugees with spare rooms across Germany and Austria. So far, the scheme has matched 138 refugees with rooms across the two countries.

"Because it was so easy, we asked ourselves: why are we the only ones doing this?" Kakoschke explained.

Along with fellow Berliner Golde Ebding, he and Geiling set up the website to match refugees with spare rooms.

The idea might appeal to students in flatshares , they thought – but the group were amazed by the range of people who showed interest.

"It's been families, couples, people living alone, and they're from all over Germany," Geiling said.

Hosts never have to cover the rent

The scheme is relatively simple: refugees wanting to find a room outside of mass accommodation can register on the project's website. Those wanting to offer a room also register, and both sides give some basic data, including age, profession and background.

Using that information, the team then gets to work matching refugees with homes in their state.

If a match is found, Refugees Welcome organises a meeting with both parties. And if both sides are happy, the hosts could be welcoming in their new flatmate within a couple of weeks.

Nobody who hosts a refugee has to pay their rent, the team stress.

If the refugee is unable to support themselves financially, money is  often provided by the unemployment office.

Where money isn't provided, hosts are encouraged to collect micro-donations from friends and relatives, as Geiling and Kakoschke themselves did.

And if this isn't possible, Refugees Welcome has a pot of  donated money which they can use to contribute to rent.

"It's never a problem. We always provide a solution," Geiling explained.

Project founders Golde Ebding, Mareike Geiling and Jonas Karoschke. Photo: Refugees Welcome

An 'explosion' of interest

With 86 matches made across Germany, Refugees Welcome has grown considerably since its launch last November - and began a sister programme in Austria in January.

As the only full-time team members, Geiling and Kakoschke work well over 40 hours a week to keep the project afloat.

But last week, after news of their work appeared in British press, the pair experienced a new "explosion" of interest.

"Since last week we've had over 100 emails from people who want to set up the initiative in their country," they said.

It was never the plan to expand Refugees Welcome into other countries, they explain – but now the interest has spread,  they are keen to help others take it further.

Not all offers are suitable

The Local asked the team whether they'd had to turn down any offers of rooms for refugees.

Sadly, yes, they explained.

Landlords often want to let out empty flats to whole families – but this is something Refugees Welcome doesn't offer. "For us, the key is the living together, and this isn't possible if you provide an empty flat," they explained.

However, the team are also forced to turn down offers on other grounds.

They receive many requests from people who only want to host for three months, and have very specific requirements, Geiling said.

She explained: "we get a lot from people who say things like: 'I would like to host someone who's a vegetarian, woman, Christian,from Syria, 25 years old..'"

"It seems like some people just want to have the experience of hosting a refugee."

In a city recently named vegetarian capital of the world, it may come as no surprise that many people in Berlin are keen to host vegetarians or vegans.

"We always say this: to decide what you eat – and to decide not to eat meat - comes from a situation of having everything," Geiling said. "People in certain areas don't even know the concept of living vegan."

Perhaps slightly more sinister are the requests from older men, who tell the team they would like to host a young woman.

"My parents came up with a nice idea that a woman could live with me because I'm not married," read one message the project recently received.

It's a matter of intuition weeding out these cases, new team member Sophie explained.

Left-right: founder Jonas, refugee Saidou, team member Sophie, founder Mareike, host Till, refugee Bakary Conan and host Sara

'We need more money'

The team are under no illusions that the site can cater for all of Germany's refugees.

"Of course we don't think we can manage 50,000 refugees," they said.

"We're a very small organisation. We're not official: we're filling a niche of what the state and government should do, but don't do."

Story continues below…

They see themselves as a political statement on one hand, and a pilot project on the other, Kakoschke said – not only showing the government that ordinary people want to help refugees, but also proving that it's possible.

The project doesn't receive any government funding, relying on donations and grants from the Mercator Foundation. However, these grants only cover around a quarter of the scheme's annual costs.

"We do this because we would like to change something, and help people," they said.

"But if our task is to match a lot of people, we need more money, and help from the government."

The only way to welcome refugees

It's essential for refugees to move out of mass accommodation as soon as possible, Geiling and Kakoschke believe.

"Decentralised accommodation is the key to welcoming refugees," they said. "It's the only way to welcome them!"

For Conan, living with the pair until June was definitely the right move. "Many people would like to have the same chance I have had," he explained.

Speakers at the press conference also included Berliners Till and Sara, and their flatmate Saidou.

Saidou, a refugee from Niger, spent 18 months living in mass accommodation before moving in with the pair.

"They treat me like a German,  like a friend of theirs," he said – explaining that during his stay, Till and Sara have helped him improve his German

"We're living together like a normal shared flat. Everyone pays rent," Till said.

Saidou contributes to the flat's rent using money he receives from the government. The rest was made up through micro-donations, the pair explain.

"I think [the scheme] will help many refugees," Saidou said.

"Berlin is our city. We don't have a real place to live, but we are from Berlin."

By Hannah Butler

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Today's headlines
Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German town, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd