BERLIN, Germany — As activists accuse the German and Austrian governments of failing to take adequate care of refugees arriving from North Africa and the Middle East, some are taking matters into their own hands: by inviting the migrants to live in their homes.
Led by groups like Refugees Welcome, more than 1,000 Germans and Austrians have offered to share their houses with refugees who otherwise would be consigned to overcrowded asylum shelters where they stand little chance of integrating into European society.
The initiative has emerged as a small but important response to Germany's anti-Islam movement known as Pegida, which organized tens of thousands to take to the streets over the past year to protest increased immigration and the alleged "Islamization" of Europe.
In a popular backlash against that rising xenophobia, Refugees Welcome started in November 2014 when Mareike Geiling decided to offer her room in Berlin to a refugee while she was studying in Cairo for several months.
"I’ve been engaged in refugee politics for a while. I taught German to illegal migrants, and I was angry how refugees were treated," said Geiling, 28. "So when I went abroad my roommate and I invited Bakary from Mali to stay in my room."
Because Bakary lives illegally in Germany and isn’t entitled to receive benefits from the government, Geiling and her roommate, Jonas Kakoschke, asked friends and families to help them cover rent — which they did. Bakary asked that his last name remain anonymous because his legal status in Germany has not yet been resolved.
Bakary first arrived in Italy by boat, then moved to Germany where he lived on the streets for a few months. He didn’t know where to go, which authorities to contact about his refugee status, or where he could apply for asylum.
"Many refugees find it difficult to approach Germans. The city, the language, the bureaucracy — everything is new and alien," said Geiling. Bakary has since moved out of the flat share and into his own one-bedroom apartment, which he found in May through one of Geiling's friends.
But the experiment of providing housing for Bakary was just a beginning.
A few weeks after they invited him to live with them, Geiling, Kakoschke and a friend decided to roll out the idea on a bigger scale. They now have a website that connects refugees with people willing to share their rooms.
The project has already spread to Austria, where Syrian refugee Ayham Ayoub recently moved into the flat of Silja Strasser, a 27-year-old student living in Vienna.
"I heard about Refugees Welcome through a friend and I really liked the idea because I wanted to get to know more people from Vienna," said 27-year-old Ayham, who first lived in Salzburg in a refugee camp and then in an overcrowded flat with other Syrians in Vienna.
This is the first time Ayham has a room to himself since he fled the civil war in Syria a year ago.
"I’m so happy to live here. We have a lot of fun together," he said, noting that he's grateful to regain his privacy while also getting to know Austrian culture – including local cuisine. "Silja sometimes gives me funny sweet things with carrots in it to eat," he joked, referring to carrot cake — the first time he had a cake made of vegetables.
"Of course, sometimes we misunderstand each other, especially when it comes to eating and drinking — that’s the funniest part of cultural exchange," said Strasser. But, "we definitely have the same kind of humor."
Strasser said she joined Refugees Welcome to effect political change.
"I want to counteract the systematic exclusion of asylum seekers, and as I haven‘t seen any political improvement in this matter for many years, it was obvious to me that civil society had to take measures," she explained.
Capacity is the biggest challenge for Refugees Welcome. Around 1,000 owners and renters have registered their apartment with the group. So far, around 1,100 refugees have signed up and 500 people have offered to donate funds to help cover the refugees' expenses.
However, to date only 57 refugees have actually moved into apartments – a fact that Geiling in Berlin is working overtime to change.
"We always check carefully that the people are a good match,” she said, noting that flat owners and renters sometimes renege on their initial offer to share their accommodations, which complicates the process.
“This takes time and we don’t have enough manpower yet to process all requests,” she said. "People think the idea is brilliant and they want to help but when we find a match, they are scared, they don’t know what to expect and are afraid they would need to take care of the person 24/7."
Geiling admitted she also had some worries before Bakary moved in, and said it’s understandable for people to get cold feet before welcoming a refugee into their home. But she felt it was her duty, she said, to overcome her own inhibitions and make good on her belief that people from radically different cultures and experiences can live together.
"It did cost me a little effort,” she said. “I really wanted to do it but I didn’t know what to expect. I never regretted it, though."
Uwe Hunger, a political scientist and immigration expert at University of Münster, said Refugees Welcome might still be small-scale, but it indicates the beginning of a new approach to the politics of refugees in Germany and Austria, two countries where skepticism towards immigrants runs deep.
"There’s a big movement that wants to set an example, and I think the civic engagement we are seeing in society could provide new perspectives for local governments," said Hunger. "Councils are overwhelmed and they are open to new ideas. Maybe a private-public partnership could be the right way forward."
Many feel such a shift in strategy is desperately needed, as illustrated in the case of Hamed Shurbaji – a 24-year-old Syrian refugee who has been looking for a flat for six months.
"I have already spent hundreds of hours searching for an apartment, and I’ve called more than 70 landlords, but they always refuse to talk to me because I don’t have a job and I receive money from the job center," said Shurbaji, who fled his country’s civil war last year, sailing to Sicily before reaching Germany.
In Germany, refugees aren't allowed to work during the first year after they arrive, though their costs of living and German language courses are covered by the Federal Employment Agency.
Shurbaji has registered with Refugees Welcome and hopes to be matched soon. He dreams of a permanent home like Bakary found through his flat mates.
"I’m really tired and exhausted,” he said. “It’s really hard to live in a different place every few months.”