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France’s ‘Airbnb for migrants’ more than just a place to crash

Joseph Bamat, FRANCE 24 | A staff member of the Paris-based online platform CALM tries to match refugees and potential hosts on September 8, 2015

A Paris-based aid group is attracting wide attention as it matches refugees with French hosts who are increasingly eager to welcome them into their homes. The small yet ambitious organisation says it’s not ready to stop there.

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As European countries grapple with a growing migrant crisis and seem to be at a loss when it comes to working together to solve it, a tiny group in the French capital stands out as a ray of hope for weary refugees and concerned citizens.

CALM, an online platform that connects refugees who need a place to live with individuals or groups who want to house them, has received more than 5,000 messages offering free accommodation since it launched in January of this year. Amid growing alarm in France over the Syrian conflict and a massive movement of Syrians towards Europe, invitations have exploded in recent days.

Hosts can open up their extra bedroom or empty sofa bed to refugees for a minimum of two weeks, but also up to six months, a period of time in which CALM – which stands for Comme à la maison or roughly “Feels like home” – gives hosts and guests support around the clock.

The online initiative has earned the moniker “the Airbnb for migrants”, in reference to the for-profit P2P lodging marketplace. Dozens of articles about the project have appeared in the French press this week.

Nathanael Molle, director and co-founder of the group that spearheads CALM, seems both amused and humbled by the nickname, but explained his team is striving for much more.“We can’t just offer a roof over someone’s head, you have to offer a community,” he told FRANCE 24. “We want to allow people who only know each other via media commentators and politicos to meet face to face, to meet around shared interests and passions.

Nathanael Molle spearheads the CALM project with the help of a small, tech-savvy staff
Nathanael Molle spearheads the CALM project with the help of a small, tech-savvy staff

So far the aid group includes six full-time staff members and six part-time volunteers. Three quarters of its budget comes from private donors, with the remaining one-quarter from local, public funds, according to Molle. It has also won a technology and innovation grant from the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Molle says that his band of do-gooders relies essentially on the Internet and social networks to do its work. He insists that while it must remain a small operation, his aid group is dreaming big.

Too many, not enough

Messages from ordinary people who want to take in Syrian refugees have been pouring into Molle’s cramped office space from across France, and even from as far as Belgium and the Netherlands. But the tide of generosity has also brought a unique set of challenges.

First among them is the fact that up 70 percent of refugees in France are based in the Paris metropolitan region, and Molle admits that despite the influx of proposals, CALM is experiencing a lodging shortfall where help is needed most.

Then there are the existing asylum rules as well as refugees’ reluctance to move away from the capital. Molle explained that obtaining refugee status is a two to three-year-long process in the best of cases. During that time asylum seekers must stay in the Paris region. As they wait, they inevitably begin building a new life, even if it is a precarious one – children are enrolled in schools and parents begin to forge ties to other people from their native countries or religious affiliations.

“When people finally obtain refugee status they have already been living in the Paris region for a few years, even if it doesn’t seem like a long time, they have a hard time imagining starting all over again somewhere else,” Molle noted.

His team is currently looking for private donors willing to pay for the cost of travel from Paris to other, lesser known corners of France. They are even planning a train ride for next year that will allow people who have obtained asylum to discover the country’s different and diverse regions.

More than a place to sleep

When a refugee eventually rings the doorbell new hosts may also be surprised to discover they are not necessarily Syrians worn out from a recent odyssey across the Mediterranean. Indeed, most of the refugees in CALM’s database arrived in France more than two years ago. While they have secured their asylum status, they struggle to find decent accommodation.

Molle said the potential for disappointment exists, especially given the recent and intense focus in the media on the plight of Syrians fleeing bombs and religious persecution.

Staff members help match refugees with potential hosts via the online platform CALM
Staff members help match refugees with potential hosts via the online platform CALM

“Some people tell us ‘I want to host a Syrian or a Christian’ but that is not the way we work. These people were perhaps forced to flee their homes because of their nationality, because of their religion, so we’re not going to use the same criteria to decide where one refugee will or will not be welcomed,” Molle said.

But despite the letdown, Molle said only a handful of would-be hosts ever take back their offer. “Very few will say ‘well in that case, forget it.’ There is a real humanitarian conviction behind that invitation to share one’s home,” he added.

As inspiring as it’s been to receive thousands of messages offering free lodging, Molle said he is thrilled about having received just as many messages from people interested in giving free language classes to refugees, or visiting a museum with them. It’s the kind of full acceptance of newcomers that his group wants to encourage across France. “It’s not enough to give someone the status of a refugee. Assimilation takes time, and we want to bring back that long-term approach,” he said.

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