TakecareBnBHosting refugees at home
In the Netherlands, a volunteer organisation is placing refugees in private homes where they enjoy the warmth of family life instead of the impersonal anonymity of life in a huge centre. Inquiries in the first month alone exceeded all expectations, and the first friendships have blossomed as well. Read More
In the Netherlands, a volunteer organisation is placing refugees in private homes where they enjoy the warmth of family life instead of the impersonal anonymity of life in a huge centre. Inquiries in the first month alone exceeded all expectations, and the first friendships have blossomed as well.
11 months spent living in Holland. And 11 months spent without meeting any Dutch neighbours or acquaintances, and never even seeing a Dutch school from the inside. This is Maja’s story. In 1994, she fled the violence in Sarajevo with her mother and little brother. War had broken out in Yugoslavia and the family sought refuge in the Netherlands.
Like every refugee who arrives in Holland, they were initially housed in a large “refugee centre”. Nicknamed “the island” by those who lived there, life in the centre was completely isolated from the outside world. “There are no fences, but there are these invisible fences around,” Maja recalls. “You don’t have the capability, the money or the language skills to move forward.”
A 30-minute bus ride into the closest town cost 5 euros at the time, a luxury for Maja’s family. “We went for ice cream once a week because that’s all we could afford,” Maja says. For the first year, this was her only point of contact with the country she would ultimately grow up and go to school in, the country that is now her home. “In the refugee centre, you don’t have any concept of the outside world. You can be in the Netherlands for more than a year, but still feel you could be anywhere.”
Since 2015, thousands of refugees arrive in Holland every month. They share Maja’s experience. Newcomers are initially housed in a refugee centre until their application for asylum is granted and the state assigns them a flat of their own.
“This situation is really hard to imagine for most people,” Maja explains. “You’re on your own with people sharing the same situation, the same feelings of anxiety and pressure. You’re just waiting. And then, once you get a letter that you have the permission to stay and work here, you have to wait again – for the apartment.” The housing process can take up to a year as well.
“Parents want their children to learn to appreciate the fortune that is given to them by accident.”
Yet it could be so different. The Dutch regulation called “Logeerregeling” allows any refugee who has been granted a temporary residence permit to live outside the centre for up to three months without losing his or her place on the housing waiting list. But too few people are aware of this fact, and the government has not gotten the word out.
So in November 2015 Maja Grcic got together with other volunteers to found “TakecareBnB”. Their goal is to take advantage of the 3-month rule and pair refugees with Dutch host families. “Many refugees want to start their new lives as soon as possible. We want to allow them to participate in everyday life – to get acquainted with society, with Dutch culture, the Dutch language.”
Whether a room or a caravan – anything is better than the “island”
In December 2015, just one month later, the TakecareBnB team launched the application process and introduced their matching and placement procedures. Things really took off much faster than the team had ever imagined they would. 150 host families and 50 refugees submitted applications in the first month alone. “We have avoided media attention thus far because we are still a relatively small team. But the families and refugees found us,” Maja says.
A spare room is only requirement for becoming a host family. Some applicants even offer their second homes or caravans they would otherwise rent out. “Some are individuals, some are families, some are gay couples, some are elderly people, some are youngsters with children – just everyone,” Maja says. “Many address us because they feel that they have to do something, and TakecareBnB offers them a way to do it. They say: We have enough room, enough money, enough love to give, enough networks to share. People with children tell us that they want their children to learn to appreciate the fortune that is given to them by accident.”
It is a step into the unknown for both parties, and refugees have a lot of unanswered questions as well: What will it be like to be a guest in a stranger’s home? Do I have to follow their rules? What is expected of me?
Volunteers known as “matchmakers” work very hard to carefully match each host-refugee pairing to ensure the best possible experience. The matchmakers are volunteers from similar fields – such as psychologists and social workers who match children with foster families. They assess the applications, organize interviews, and put a great deal of thought into who might get along best with whom. Each pairing then starts with a ‘test’ weekend where both parties get to know each other while the refugee lives in the host family’s home for the weekend. Then it’s time for the big decision: Do both parties want to live together for the next three months?
Walking in the park and celebrating Carnival
At the end of February 2016, ten refugees have moved in with their new host families and 10-15 parings are getting ready to take the plunge. So far the project has been a resounding success: “All ten have made close friendships with their host families,” Maja reports. “They cook together, bike together, and some went to the Carnival celebrations in the south of the Netherlands.”
“You will always have a room in our home.”
Some of the stories are truly heart-warming, like the older married couple whose children had just moved out to start university, leaving them with some extra space. They applied to take in a young refugee. All three are enjoying themselves immensely and agree that three months is not going to be long enough. The couple has assured their guest, “you will always have a room in our home.”
Then there were two students sharing a flat who wanted to rent a room to a refugee with one stipulation: he had to be a student too. “They said we can give him a hand and help him at university. So we introduced one – and the three clicked at once.” Then the refugee was assigned a flat. “He said, ‘Now I already have a house, but can I at least go on the trial weekend?’ All three are still in contact, even though they only lived together for one short weekend.”
“The families don’t just open their homes and offer a room. They also offer friendship,” Maja says. There have been no problems so far. “I’m sure that we will have some in the future, it’s just the nature of human beings; it’s normal. But thus far there have been none.”
“We’re in desperate need of more volunteers”
After just three months, it is very clear that TakecareBnB has huge growth potential. Right now the team is getting support from Impact Hub Amsterdam, which provides office space and mentoring. This is just a temporary solution though.
“We’ve now started to seek media attention. Not because we want to attract more families or refugees, but because we’re in desperate need of more volunteers. We’re growing way too fast,” Maja reports.
Financial support is another issue. “With the team, we’ve discussed that we want to keep TakecareBnB as a voluntary organisation, provided that we have enough volunteers. But we need a paid board that works fulltime to facilitate the volunteers, so that they can focus on interviewing and matching and to make sure we can handle the number of registrations.”
"It’s beautiful to see these open hearts, this willingness to share one’s fortune with the less-fortunate."
All the volunteers involved in TakecareBnB have full time jobs in addition to the time they put into the organisation. This means a lot of extra work, and volunteers even pay their own travel costs to visit host families and the refugee centres spread throughout the Netherlands out of pocket. Their belief in the shared ideal, their dedication to the cause, is what keeps them going.
“We all share the same vision: that this could contribute to the integration of refugees in our society. It’s beautiful to see these open hearts, this willingness to share one’s fortune with the less-fortunate – or let’s say those who are less fortunate at this stage in life.”