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Meet the Egyptian Making Waves Around the World with AirBnb for Refugees

Amid divisive narratives surrounding the refugee crisis, Amr Arafa created EmergencyBnB, a platform helping refugees and victims of violence find a place to sleep.

Moved by the plight of refugees and inspired by the rise of startups like Airbnb, Washington-based Egyptian Amr Arafa crafted a platform that is progressively capsizing the haunting narrative that there is no room for migrants in the Western world: EmergencyBnB. The initiative matches victims of war and domestic violence with city dwellers who, like himself, strive to defeat the powerlessness produced by violence and war. And hundreds of users are proving he is not alone.

As his platform made waves across international media this month, Arafa received hundreds of emails, from Canada to Switzerland, to South Korea and Argentina, from potential users who offered their rooms, their couches, or their entire apartments for a period of time. “Being hosted at someone's place is such a warm experience; it makes you feel that you're hosted by friends, or friends of friends. I thought this warmth was necessary for someone experiencing hardship,” he tells CairoScene. “You don't want to put a victim of domestic violence in a hotel; the experience is very sterile and cold. The domestic violence victims I hosted had long stories to tell. They wanted somebody to listen, and a relatable apartment that felt like home,” he explains.

Arafa, who had moved to the US to take on a master’s degree in computer science, had been living in the country for 11 years when he came up with the idea, sparked by the haunting photos portraying the refugee crisis that spread on social media in 2015. The images particularly resonated with Arafa as he had just secured a green card to live in the USA after 11 years as an expat student.

“I created the first version of EmergencyBnB while on the phone with my late girlfriend Amy. She was the first pair of eyes that saw the website. The first words of encouragement that were said to me on this initiative,” he says.

“Those images shocked my conscious. They kept me crying for minutes. They screamed at me to do something. Because of those images, the website was started. Because of this look in Amy's eyes, it will go on. And because of you, millions of refugees will find a place to call home, at least temporarily,” he narrates on a Facebook post, as he calls on people to open up their homes.   

Since the platform was created in November 2015, it has racked up users worldwide. 

His first hosting experience took place through Airbnb, as he attempted to test his idea while designing the platform. “I had listed my apartment on Airbnb for free for refugees and victims of domestic violence. It was a way for me to conduct market research and to experience hosting firsthand so that I could build a more customised user experience on EmergencyBnB,” he says. “I also wanted to make sure it was a safe experience before extending the website to other users.”

Having listed his spare room for $10 – which he later refunded to the guest – Arafa admits that he received plenty of illegitimate requests (from people who were not refugees or victims of violence) until the first legitimate refugee contacted him. “It was a Syrian married couple in their early 30s, who wanted to stay in DC for two weeks as they had a court date that would determine their asylum status in the US,” he recalls. “After verifying their documents, I accepted their stay.”

“I have to confess that it can be a little scary to host a stranger without any guarantees, but I'd rather feel a little afraid than completely powerless," reads a message sent to him by Maria, one of his ‘EmergencyBnB Heroes,’ as he calls them. But Arafa does not think security concerns can hamper solidarity. “Everybody should be vigilant when considering this type of activity – the website states clearly that both hosts and guests must use their best judgment before engaging in a transaction. But let's be honest, it is the same risk that everyone runs by meeting people from a dating app, or when buying something on Craigslist and having to meet someone to pick it up,” he says.

However, he stresses, the fulfilling experience of helping someone in need overshadows fears and concerns. “I can tell you that it was a very pleasant experience every time I hosted someone,” he emphasises. “People will be very appreciative of what you have done for them during their time of vulnerability; I come back to a very clean apartment, and a thank you note every time I host someone. These are heartwarming moments that I hope future hosts can enjoy too.”  

As the platform took shape and the number of requests picked up, Arafa continued to receive hosts – sometimes even staying at a hotel himself. “I once received a very impending request. It was from a woman who was domestically abused by her roommate (who was also female) and had to flee the apartment. ‘I am in Uber and I literally have nowhere to go’ she emailed. I stayed in a hotel that night due to the exigent nature of the situation,” he says. His website, however, allows users to list their apartments according to the dates convenient for each host - when they are out of town, or when you have an extra room.

Having arrived in the US in 2005, Arafa built an impressive career there, which includes a Harvard Masters degree and consulting positions at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Obama-Biden 2012 reelection campaign. After moving to Washington DC, he started his own consulting company, Konsultera, which he manages as he juggles his efforts to build EmergencyBnB. The platform, nevertheless, is not designed to generate revenue.   

“I am assuming good intentions in people, and I have not been proven wrong thus far; the number of interested people is overwhelming. This is not a political statement, nor a religious statement. I guess we can all agree that helping others in need is a good thing,” he concludes. 

Main photo by: Washington Post.


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