Germany is taking in more refugees than anyone else in Europe right now, with the annual number of those applying for asylum in the country soon expected to hit 800,000. There has been some ugliness from far-right groups in response to the influx, but an encouraging number of German citizens and groups are taking it upon themselves to make new arrivals feel welcome. Among them are the young couple behind an Airbnb-style website launched in January 2015 that matches refugees with hosts willing to give them a free room for at least three months.
The site, Refugees Welcome, came about after 28-year-old Mareike Geiling left Berlin to spend a semester teaching in Cairo and decided to donate her vacant room to a Malian refugee named Bakary by crowdsourcing his portion of the rent. After a couple of Skype discussions with her boyfriend, Jonas Kakoschke, and with a social-worker friend, Golde Ebding, the trio threw together a Wordpress site to help others do the same. Two months later, Refugees Welcome was live and taking applications from both refugees and potential hosts. Almost immediately, Geiling says, "it exploded." She and Kakoschke now work full-time on the initiative, which is currently active in Germany and Austria, but is set to expand into several other countries soon. I caught up with Mareike to find out more.
VICE: Why did you feel compelled to start the site?
Mareike Geiling: We don't like how refugees are treated in Germany. No one leaves his country without a reason, and [the government is] putting them into mass accommodation, where 100 people have to share one bathroom, outside of the city center, where there are no Germans living or people that speak German. You are put together in one room with many people, not from the same country, [whom] you maybe don't understand. You have to stay there for a lot of months; you get depressed.
We saw some documentaries on TV and read a lot about it so at one point we said, "OK, we are concerned about it and we want to change something." The concept we provide is so easy. Someone is looking for a room, and someone is offering a room, and we bring these two parties together. It's not something complicated. At one point we thought, Why didn't someone do something like this before? We believe in the concept of living together, because [the refugees] get many profits out of it. You learn German better, you can build up a network, you can be proud of the community, people who live in Germany can help you to settle down, and we only provide one person per room so everyone has their privacy.
What are the benefits for hosts?
Of course, living together also enriches [the hosts]. The hosts learn a lot about the reasons why people came. We have heard a lot from the people hosting refugees that they don't see refugees any more as an anonymous mass of people. It's someone that you know the background of, you know the stories he's telling. It's interesting to see how the world is for someone who is not German—you see the world from another point of view.
How did things work out with Bakary?
Bakary is now a close friend of ours. We've had a lot of flatmates living in our rooms when we are not there and I've also lived in many, many shared flats, and with Bakary it was one of the best living experiences I've had. Not because he was a refugee, but just because we like each other, and it was very easy. Before [staying in the flat] he was homeless, so of course it was a lot better for him to live with us. Sometimes we partied together, or when we had friends at home we would just sit together, and he took us to the mosque when he was going there.
Related: Watch our documentary series about the migrant crisis, 'Europe or Die'
You currently operate in Germany and Austria, are there plans to expand?
Just this week we've had someone from the UK here [finding out] about how to establish it there. Since the beginning we have received a lot of mail from all over Europe, but also from the US and Australia, from people who want to build up the initiative in their country. There are already teams in some countries. We are pretty sure that it will go online in the Netherlands in the next month and also Portugal. Greece is very far along in the process and France as well, but people also wrote to us from Sweden, Norway, the Czech Republic, Spain, Switzerland… It's a lot of work right now but we never did it proactively, we just react to the messages we get. But of course we would like to support them so let's see if it will work out.
Do you provide training to hosts?
It's not training, but when they register they get in contact with one of us from the team, and they usually have a lot of questions and we on the team usually have a lot of questions. Then afterward, we are still in contact with these people and we try to meet them. And we often use buddies who register at the website. The buddy is someone you can [turn to] as a refugee when you have questions or doubts, so you're not alone.
What advice would you give people who want to set up a social initiative like this?
We tried to reach out to some people and told them the idea and they said, "Oh, that will never work out and there will be huge problems." And we said, "OK, I don't give a fuck, we'll just do that," and found out, "OK, it's working." But we say know your target group really well; you should be in close contact with them and really ask them what they need. Then just use the internet as a tool, and it's about trial and error. If it's not working out it's not a problem—we didn't put in hundreds of thousands of Euros. If it didn't work out like we thought then it's a political statement, which is also good.
How big do you think it could grow?
The issue of accommodation for refugees is not a German question, and it's not a European question—it's a worldwide question. This explains why we get emails from the US and Australia. I would be happy if it were still working in one or two years. If it could exist in like five other countries, that would be amazing. I couldn't tell you how cool I would find that.