Amr Arafa doesn’t pay attention to any incendiary rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims playing out on the 2016 election stage.
The 34-year-old from Egypt thinks immigration is about more than politics: It’s about making vulnerable newcomers to the country feel at home. And the onus of that, he says, isn’t on lawmakers, but everyday people.
Over the past year, Arafa has opened his studio apartment in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood to refugees and domestic violence victims free of charge, and he’s launched a website to help Americans across the country do the same. The concept of his site, called EmergencyBnB, resembles Airbnb, where people list their homes or a bedroom for travelers to rent by the night. But on EmergencyBnB, no money is exchanged and the people looking for places to stay are often in a crisis with nowhere to go.
The website is in its nascent stages and Arafa is working to build up a stable of hosts before connecting them with those in need. No one has booked a room through his website yet, but Arafa hopes that will change soon.
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“EmergencyBnB is not about the government giving you a place to stay,” Arafa said. “It’s about the fact that your neighbors care about you.”
Arafa moved to the United States in 2005 for graduate school and has spent much of the past 11 years on temporary education and work visas that must be renewed annually. He now owns his own business management consulting company and, in 2015, secured a green card, which let him visit his mother in Egypt without fear that his temporary visa would be denied in the United States.
His return home coincided with a viral 2015 video of a Hungarian woman tripping a Syrian refugee holding his child while running from police. The video resonated with Arafa, and, with his green card in hand, he decided it was time to help.
“It started when I got this green card. I got this incredible dosage of stability. That card allowed me to see my mother for the first time in eight years,” Arafa said. “That one month home in Egypt, I came back with this new positive energy. I just wanted to help people get this sense of stability.”
Arafa first listed his apartment on Airbnb in November for the cheapest possible amount -$10 - and noted that only refugees and domestic violence victims could stay. (He later refunds the $10.)
A Syrian couple living in Texas responded and asked to stay for a week while they were in D.C. to attend a court hearing for an asylum case. Arafa was traveling that week and allowed them to use his apartment.
On the Fourth of July, a woman who responded to his Airbnb posting said she needed to get away from an abusive roommate. Arafa asked her for a copy of a police report and handed her his apartment keys. When he has a guest, he either books a hotel for himself, stays with friends or is traveling.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was nervous to sleep in a stranger’s apartment, but felt she had no other option.
“Staying at a stranger’s place is not something I would have normally done, but you get to a place of desperation,” the woman said. “I don’t think anyone could do this because it takes trust on both sides. He’s taking a risk, and I’m taking a risk. It made me realize that people like him are rare, but they do exist.”
Arafa soon realized that Airbnb wasn’t an effective platform for his mission. He frequently received messages from travelers who wanted a free place to stay, then Airbnb would take down his posting for rejecting too many people. So he took the next step: Using his computer science background to create a website through which domestic violence victims and refugees could connect with people willing to share their homes.
Arafa still posts his apartment on Airbnb, but he is getting more hosts to sign up on EmergencyBnB each week. He’s asked friends around the country to list their homes and has attracted other hosts through publicity of his mission.
“I’m always interested in getting to know other people and cultures, and having people come into your home seems like a great opportunity to do that,” said Steve Graybill, who listed a spare bedroom in his Silver Spring, Md., home. Graybill and his wife read about Arafa’s project in Street Sense, a D.C. newspaper largely written by homeless and previously homeless people. “It’s a scary thing to open your home to a stranger. It’s OK to be afraid, but we shouldn’t let those fears control us.”
Arafa doesn’t yet have a vetting system in place to ensure that refugees and domestic violence victims are who they say they are. He said he talks to each guest before he allows them to stay and asks for government documentation to verify their stories. Because domestic violence victims often seek privacy, Arafa doesn’t list his address and only gives it out when he agrees to let someone use his home.
Crammed with piles of clothes and other trinkets, Arafa’s studio has more of a bachelor pad feel than that of a hotel. He says it’s important that people in vulnerable housing situations feel like they have a warm home that is welcoming to them, as opposed to a sterile hotel room.
Alysha Tagert, a social services program coordinator for the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, said it’s difficult to find housing, particularly in the D.C. area, for the victims her organization encounters. She works with refugees - mostly from African countries - who are in the process of seeking asylum.
Tagert said that in many cultures, opening your home to a stranger is a normal and familiar occurrence. Since learning about EmergencyBnB, she said her organization is interested in finding clients temporary housing through the site.
“It’s incredibly difficult to get a bed anywhere in the city,” she said. “Public shelters are sometimes very dangerous environments. We’re talking about sometimes very traumatized people going into dysfunctional environments. It would be a very natural welcome for an individual if they were staying in a home. I think it’s important for enculturation, for feeling like you belong.”
More than 63,000 refugees have entered the United States since Oct. 1, 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. The real challenge, according to Arafa, will be to find people willing to open their homes.
“It completely changes your mood, knowing that you’re capable of giving. It’s a value add,” he said. “I’m not attempting to resolve the refugee crisis, but I know that there are refugees here today and you have to make them feel welcome here.”