Several online platforms are launching in Europe to help refugees find a place of stay

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It started when our children left home, leaving us with a five-bedroom empty nest.  We wanted to use the resources we were lucky enough to have to help those less lucky than us,” explains Timothy Nathan, co-founder of online hosting network ‘Refugees At Home’.

Nathan and his wife Nina Kaye founded Refugees at Home to connect residents of Britain with refugees and asylum seekers needing a home. Nathan and Kaye have hosted over 80 refugees and asylum-seekers through their network from over 75 active hosts. The network features many more non active hosts who have not yet received a guest mainly because of their location.

Their idea sprung from their own family history. Kaye’s mother was a refugee during the Second World War. “Had the UK been a little more accommodating in the late 30s, many more people could have been saved from the Nazis” adds Nathan. When they heard of the plight of refugees arriving in the UK, they wanted to help.

“We tried to find organisations who were doing this, but they were hard to find and very poorly resourced. So we set up our own organisation, found hosts and guest referrers and just started doing it, with the lightest governance touch possible.”

The process to become a host is straightforward: send an application form to the co-founders who will then assess the application and send a Home Visitor to check that the home is suitable and to explain the process. “Hosts are then in a database and are matched as the need arises,” Nathan explains. Refugees are hosted for up to three months but it is “an arrangement between adults” according to Nathan so it is possible to extend the stay if both sides agree.

Hussam is a Syrian refugee living in Swansea, Wales. During the long wait for a response regarding his asylum application, he struggled to find accommodation, staying in another Syrian’s home in London and then in homeless centres. “A woman working for the Refugee Council told me about Refugees At Home,” tells Hussam, who called and was quickly welcomed into the network.

“Nina and Timothy welcomed me in their house; it felt like I was family. They gave me keys; they put me in touch with people who could teach me English.” Two other houses of the network opened their doors to Hussam after that. “All the families who hosted me had such admirable humanity,” he adds.

Housing refugees in France

A similar, larger network has been set up in France by the organisation SINGA, which aims to build bridges between refugees and host communities by using technology as well as fight social isolation by connecting those in need and those providing assistance. A hackathon organized by SINGA in 2015 in collaboration with other charities, the United Nations, the IT company Free and several French tech colleges, saw the formation of a new online platform called Comme A La Maison (CALM), the winner of the hackathon.

“The CALM website and app are a place for refugees and families to join a hosting network, but also to access online multilingual training on how to build trust relationships and accelerate the socio-economic integration of displaced people,” explains Juliette Arzur, Project Manager at SINGA.

Soon after the website and app were launched, 7000 people from all over France signed up. To make sure users are real and have a genuine interest in joining the network, phone interviews are conducted with each new user. “Soon we will move towards a system which is 100% online, and which matches people according to their profiles. Before a match is made, all sensitive and confidential information will be hidden, to avoid them being misused,” says Arzur.

For the moment, 210 asylum-seekers have been hosted within the CALM network, for an average of 3 months but sometimes up to 9. Although the network was supposed to be limited to France, it has seen hosts sign up from Canada, Belgium and Spain.

“The diversity of hosts is astounding” adds Arzur. “The hosts can be students sharing their studio, retired people offering a room, lawyers, architects, doctors… sometimes the hosts offer rooms in boats, castles or just a sofa.”

With refugees facing mounting challenges from food to shelter to education and water, there is a glimmer of hope in seeing that some locals are willing to lend a helping hand and provide a room, a bed – or even just a sofa – so that they can at least have a roof on top of their heads.