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.”
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