Housing Refugees Could Be as Easy as Tweaking Airbnb

The EmergencyBnB platform also hopes to provide victims of domestic violence with a free space to sleep.
Syrian refugees sit in a housing compound in Sidon, southern Lebanon, on June 12. (Photo: Ali Hashisho/Reuters)
Jun 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jillian Frankel is an editorial intern for TakePart. She is the features and student life editor at the UCLA campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin.

Amr Arafa, a graduate student from Egypt, moved to Atlanta in 2005 with nothing but $1,000 in his pocket. He had nowhere to stay, but a Clark Atlanta University professor who was also from Egypt hosted him and a coworker for two weeks until they found a place of their own.

“We just didn’t know how to get by, let alone didn’t have the money to rent,” Arafa wrote in an email to TakePart. Now a management consultant in Washington, D.C., he has never forgotten what it felt like to have a safe place to stay “offered by a stranger who cares” and “feeling that you have options.”

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

Thirteen years later, Arafa has taken that experience and turned it into EmergencyBnB, a platform that connects refugees and victims of domestic violence to free temporary shelter.

Arafa launched a self-funded test version of the EmergencyBnB website in March and announced it to small groups of friends on Facebook. To his surprise, the post was widely shared. But EmergencyBnB is in the beginning stages, so Arafa also began listing his own apartment in D.C. on Airbnb. The description makes it clear the space is only available for refugees and domestic violence survivors. He charges $10 per night, the minimum rate Airbnb allows, and then reimburses the guests for what they pay. Arafa’s program is similar to that of Refugees Welcome, a website launched in Germany in 2015 that matches hosts with those in need for a minimum of three months.

“If you hear of refugees’ stories and what they go through to find a place to call home, if you watch the struggles they endure to cross borders, it would be [a] no-brainer,” Arafa wrote. “Those people have lost their homes and their lives as they knew it overnight, for nothing they have done, for reasons they don’t even understand.”

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Along with his struggles to find housing as a graduate student, Arafa’s early years were spent moving to escape war. Although he was born in Kuwait to an Egyptian doctor father and an Egyptian teacher mother, the family had to leave Kuwait and return to Egypt when he was eight because of the Gulf War. “At a very early age, I realized how global events can directly affect individuals at a drastic level,” Arafa wrote. “When people lose their last resort, they literally have nowhere else to go.”

Images from Amr Arafa's Airbnb listing. (Photos: Courtesy Amr Arafa)

In the U.S., one in three women and one in four men become victims of physical violence, so Arafa expanded his effort to include them. “A domestic violence victim needs to feel that [she or he] is surrounded by neighbors who care,” he wrote. “Just the feeling that they have options at their disposal may provide great relief. It’s not [just] the role of charity organizations and homeless shelters. It’s everybody’s role in society.”

With about 70,000 refugees from around the world admitted to the U.S. every year and 4,774,000 domestic violence victims annually, there’s a need. So far, Arafa has hosted a handful of guests, local to the area and from abroad, with positive experiences.

“I hosted a Syrian guy and his wife, in their early 30s, for two weeks. They were in D.C. to attend an immigration court that would determine their status in the U.S.,” Arafa wrote. “They were very civilized and intelligent and even spoke excellent English. I came back to a very clean apartment and a heartfelt thank-you note.”

He also hosted a victim of domestic violence who was abused by her husband and fled her home with a two-year-old daughter and a restraining order.

“I was very nervous in the beginning as I was advised by friends that certain cases require some sort of training for the host to be able to handle this type of guest,” Arafa wrote. “She ended up being very appreciative and the apartment was returned clean and neat with a scented candle as a gift.”

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Another refugee who stayed with Arafa was a young woman from Iran who had an appointment with the Iranian embassy. She was a stock trader in New York City and appeared fairly well-off. The woman needed to be in Washington, D.C., for less than a day because her train ticket to return was on the same day.

“I honored her request despite her decent financial status. A refugee is a refugee,” Arafa wrote. “ ‘You don’t have to be a poor refugee in order to be considered,’ I thought to myself. You just have to be a refugee or a victim of domestic violence...and you have to need the place bad enough that you’d write a stranger asking them for free accommodation.”

On accepting the guest’s request, he picked her up from the train station and discovered she only wanted to invite him for a coffee and thank him for what he was doing. She soon listed her own apartment in downtown Manhattan on Airbnb for the same causes.

Arafa plans to broaden EmergencyBnB’s services to accommodate more refugees as well as people born in America who need assistance. He hopes the website expands to become a go-to place to stay for people in need, such as graduate students in town for a day and transit travelers.

“How relieved would an abused wife feel knowing that she has options right at her fingertips?” Arafa wrote. “How many poor graduate students will be able to sign up for that conference across the nation knowing that there are strangers out there who are willing to support them?”