Meet the German Couple Finding Roommates for Europe’s Refugees

So far, 122 Germans and Austrians have opened their homes through the Airbnb-like service.

Mareike Geiling and Jonas Kakoschke, founders of Refugees Welcome. Credit: Jean-Paul Pastor Guzmán / Flüchtlinge Willkommen

Roommates can be a pain: loud music deep into the night, dishes left in the sink for days. But Mareike Geiling and Jonas Kakoschke (they’re a couple) say their Berlin flat has never been cleaner since their new roommate from Mali moved in. Another unusual part of the arrangement: the 39-year-old, who won’t use his name for safety reasons, pays his $430 share of the rent through donations.

That’s because Geiling and Kakoschke met their roommate through their own refugee housing service, called Refugees Welcome. The couple launched the roommate-finding service because they found themselves deeply uncomfortable with the way Germany treats recently arrived asylum seekers.

“Many asylum-seekers have to stay [in Europe] for years ... doing nothing, because they are not allowed to do anything,” Kakoschke told NPR earlier this year. "They are not allowed to work, they are not allowed to have German classes sometimes, and sometimes it's not a city, it's a village, and there's nothing to do and so you get depressed after years and stuff like this.”

The German anti-Islam group PEGIDA rallies for stricter immigration laws, January 2015, via Panoramio user Kalispera Dell.

The German government says it expects an overwhelming and record number of asylum requests this year, about 800,000 in total. And the country has struggled to find places to house refugees as they wade through the complicated application process. (One German city went as far as to propose housing refugees in an old concentration camp.) The crisis has set off a political firestorm inside the country, too, as some Europeans grow increasingly suspicious of the incoming asylum seekers. Just last week, a new 120-person refugee housing facility in the town of Nauen burned to the ground; arson is suspected.

This is where the Airbnb-for-a-cause steps in. Native Germans and Austrians who want to pitch in are invited to sign up for Refugees Welcome and register their apartments with the service. After the potential roommates answer some questions about themselves and their space—how big is your open room? What languages do you speak?—Refugees Welcome tries to match them with compatiable immigrants through local aid organizations.

Geiling (center) and Kakoschke (right) with their Malian roommate (left). Credit: Jean-Paul Pastor Guzmán / Flüchtlinge Willkommen

Though the refugee roommates are sometimes able to pay living expenses themselves, the service also solicits donations for rent through its website. (A number of German states will also subsidize rents through federal funds.)

So far, the service has matched 122 refugees to shared apartments in Germany and Austria. The new roommates have come from a wide range of countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Senegal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Tunisia, according to the service.

Given the tenor of Germany’s immigration debate, Geiling and Kakoschke’s Malian roommate says he was pleasantly surprised by the German couple’s generosity.

"It surprised me a lot because ... the people here don't want to see people like us in their land," he told NPR.


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