Making Refugees Welcome: Citizens of Germany, Iceland Show the Way

Laura Smith-Spark, CNN, September 2, 2015

While Europe’s politicians flounder in the face of an unprecedented wave of refugees and migrants seeking shelter–many of them from war-torn Syria–some individuals have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Using digital means, they are taking practical steps to offer desperate men, women and children a place to stay in their own homes, or seeking to pressure their own governments into offering sanctuary to more of those in need.

In Iceland, author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir has set up a Facebook page to call for her country’s government to increase the number of refugees it was planning to accept from a reported 50–prompting a big response and wide media interest.

And in Germany, a website has been running for months which aims to match offers of accommodation in private homes–ideally shared rental apartments–across the country with individual refugees in need of a place to stay.

The website, Refugees Welcome (Fluechtlinge Wilkommen,) has already placed dozens of refugees who otherwise might be placed in overcrowded migrant centers or struggle to put a roof over their heads at all.

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The idea took off and the page already has 12,000 members, Bjorgvinsdottir said–no mean feat given the country’s population is only about 300,000. Proportionately, that equates to some 12 million people signing up in the United States.

A post on her Facebook page says, “Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.'”

Bjorgvinsdottir hasn’t yet been able to sort through the comments posted on the page to calculate how many offers of places to stay there are. But with the help of volunteers she hopes to pass that information on to the government in the near future, in the hope it can be put to concrete use.

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Inspired by the Icelandic example, a U.S. group has also been set up on Facebook, called “Americans Supporting Syrian Refugees: Open Homes, Open Hearts.”

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that her country–where some are opposed to taking in asylum seekers–must show “flexibility” when it comes to dealing with the crisis.

For the most part, the public supports Merkel.

Local football clubs hoisted “welcome” banners over the weekend. Villages held “refugee welcome” parties for the newcomers. And a recent news poll estimated that 60% back Merkel’s warm welcome.

But not everyone in Germany feels the same way. There have been xenophobic protests, and a planned asylum center was burned down last month.

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