• Syrian refugees stand outside their tents at the refugee camp of Ritsona, north of Athens, Greece, 22 November 2016. (EPA/SIMELA PANTZARTZI)
"I can sign petitions, have my voice heard at rallies, write letters to the Government - but nothing changes... suddenly I can do something tangible."
By
Ben Winsor

9 Dec 2016 - 1:04 PM  UPDATED 12 Dec 2016 - 2:51 PM

Eight volunteers from around Australia have been working for more than a year now to bring a German ‘Airbnb for Refugees’ platform down under – and they say they’ll be ready to launch next year.

‘Refugees Welcome’, like its namesake in Germany, will provide a platform to match refugees and asylum seekers with people willing to offer a spare room and help their new housemates settle in Australia.

The group has just kicked off a fundraising campaign, but it’s not the only planned launch in 2017.

The Sydney-based group ‘Enough Room’ is also gathering resources to scale-up a similar service after running a successful pilot program in five households earlier this year.

“It’s about creating a welcoming culture. I think in Australia that’s something that we need to do,” Refugees Welcome organiser Susan de Groot Heupner tells SBS.

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“Providing that they’re the political will of the government and the funding, they’ve got capacity.”

Since the beginning of this year Heupner and fellow organisers – most working full-time and all in their mid-20s  and 30s – have been meeting once a week on Skype and consulting with refugee settlement agencies around the country.

“We want to show that there are a lot of people in Australia who are willing to open their homes,” she says, “it’s not just about housing, it’s about integration.”

“When Germany came up with this idea it was about finding housing – they had people literally walking across the border – but now that they’re established, it’s become a model for integration and social inclusion,” she says.

While the online platform and ‘sharing economy’ comparisons may be new, the concept itself isn’t.

Previous home-stay networks for refugees and asylum seekers have operated in the past in Australia, and some churches and diaspora groups have their own informal networks, but there is currently no national platform.

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Sam Terry is the co-founder of Enough Room, which hopes to launch a similar program in NSW next year. 

“We want to be a stepping-stone on the way to self-sufficiency, helping people establish roots with the community,” he tells SBS.

The former meteorologist admits he started from scratch, with little knowledge of the issues facing new arrivals, but was spurred into action by refugee stories in the media.

“I thought there would be lots of people like me who are white, haven’t really had much contact, but wanted to do more and do something practical,” the 30-year-old SBS.

In a testimonial on Enough Room's website, 'Jill' from inner city Sydney writes, "I can sign petitions, have my voice heard at rallies, write letters to the Government but nothing changes."

"Suddenly I can do something tangible," she says, "we are 'empty nesters' now, and have a large comfortable spare room and are thrilled to be able to offer it to someone who really needs it. It’s a no brainer."

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Working with House of Welcome, a Western Sydney refugee support group, Enough Room's team of four has just completed a proof-of-concept pilot with five households.

The pilot included a couple in Erskineville who hosted a heavily pregnant French-speaking Somalian refugee.

“That wasn’t the simplest situation, but the couple are really keen to host again,” he says.

Terry stresses that whole idea of the program is facilitate an cultural exchange which goes both ways - Heupner agrees.

“It’s important that we don’t create something that’s just charitable, we want to be mutually beneficial,” she says.

Enough Room currently has several hundred homeowners who have registered their interest in hosting, but are looking for more diversity – the more languages, religions and backgrounds represented among their hosting database, the easier it is to find a match Terry says.

Heupner says that nationally, she doesn’t expect Refugees Welcome will have trouble building a database of supporters. 

“It’s not the access to the hosts that we are finding difficult, it’s really the access to the refugees and the asylum seekers,” she says.

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With a plethora of settlement support agencies and charities scattered around the country, Refugees Welcome has been focusing on building networks and raising their profile.

Both will be working to demonstrate to government supported settlement agencies that their model of integrated accommodation is a viable option.

Enough Room is attempting to put together the resources for at least one paid staff-member, while Refugees Welcome has just launched an initial crowd-funding campaign.

Patrick Yueng, Executive Manage of Housing at Settlement Services International in NSW, says the additional housing options will be a welcome addition.

“The delivery model that allows people to offer a spare room or two is a very good idea,” he says, “finding affordable and appropriate housing can be one of the main challenges.”

Yueng sees it as a useful stop-gap option when people first arrive, or suddenly find themselves without accommodation.

“We are all talking about the housing affordability crisis – especially in Sydney – and it’s even more difficult for those margianalised or unfamiliar with the area,” he says, “this can give people some temporary stability.”

The focus on integration is important, Yueng says.

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Laurie Nowell with AMES, a settlement service provider in Victoria, says a single room in a share house isn’t going to work for everyone.

“Syrians coming under the government’s additional intake program – they’re pretty much all families – so finding a room in someone’s house isn’t really appropriate for them,” he says.

For those situations AMES says it has good relationships with real-estate agents, while SSI actually manages a suite of Sydney properties themselves.

“It suits people who want a cash return on their investment, but also want their property to go to good use,” Yueng says.

Nowell says setting expectations and properly matching the hosts to the individual is vitally important.

“It can be a fantastic experience for both the recent arrivals and also the host family or community,” he says, “but it can also produce stresses.”

Poor communication, cultural clashes and language barriers can all be a challenge.

“From the food that people want to eat to what time they want to go to bed – it can be really simple things that create strain,” Nowell says.

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Convincing refugees and asylum seekers to take advantage of offers from hosts can also be a challenge.

Integration may be the desired outcome, but it can be confronting for new arrivals to step outside the close-knit diaspora communities many of them find on arrival.

Familiar languages, religions and lifestyles can make arrivals less stressful – but there’s a risk of cutting themselves off from broader Australian society if the opportunity to integrate is missed. 

Sam Terry says that’s one reason he wants to diversify Enough Room’s current database of hosts, so that they’re able to offer people a mix of the familiar and the new.

Yueng says the best approach is to pitch it as an opportunity.

“The message should be spread about the positive – about how the refugee can take that kind of advantage,” he says.

“Some hosting families may be speaking the same language, but some clients may want to choose and English speaking family to skill-up their language,” he says.

“The people I see want to become a part of Australia – they are ready to learn, they are ready to embrace things that are new to them.”

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