When life-changing circumstances force people from their homes, a unique house-sharing initiative offers relief and hope
Over the past few years, wars, wildfires, earthquakes, and floods have caused mass disruption, displacing more than 70 million children, women and men – forced to flee their homes, leaving their possessions and lives behind. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this figure is the highest in the organization’s 70-year history.
Mousa, his wife, and their two young boys escaped death threats and violence in Iraq, seeking a fresh start in the US. He worked as an interpreter with the US forces in Baghdad, a role which helped him obtain a special visa to enter the US – but when the country’s travel ban came into place, the move became more complicated. Help came from an unexpected source: the home-sharing platform Airbnb. Through its Open Home program, the family found free accommodation when host Susan opened up her Denver house. It became more than a roof over their heads, Mousa shares, and helped the family settle in their new country. “When we were staying there, neighbors started to come to us and offer help,” he says. “It was like a dream for us.” For Susan, the opportunity to host became one of the most significant experiences in her life. “When you have an opportunity to host a family, the word ‘refugee’ dissipates. You’re welcoming another set of human beings,” she says.
The program was developed in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which demolished thousands of homes in New York. Airbnb hosts started offering their homes for free to neighbors who were forced to evacuate. Inspired by their generosity, the company made Open Homes an official part of Airbnb. It now works across three verticals: medical stays, refugee housing, and disaster relief, with nonprofit partners finding accommodation for people in need and providing support for hosts during their stay. “Whether it’s for people who lost their home in a wildfire, a cancer patient who needs to be closer to specialty care, or a family fleeing conflict in their home country, Open Homes lets hosts offer their space for free to people going through a difficult time,” explains an Airbnb spokesperson.
After a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City in 2017, Laura’s family home crumbled to the ground. With all their possessions destroyed and left without a place to stay, they found refuge with Jorge, an Open Homes host in the city. “He provided us with what my parents are used to: a bed, a bathroom, all the facilities and the warmth of a home,” says Laura. Her mother adds, “He made us feel like there was something else after what happened.” For Jorge, it’s important to be supportive and give back to the community, since no one knows when they might become the ones in need. “Pretty soon after the earthquake, I got an email from Airbnb reminding me about the Open House program. I was happy to participate in an initiative about sharing spaces and making the world more accessible to everyone. During a hard moment, that mission becomes even more important.”
How to become an Open Home host
You don’t need to be an existing Airbnb host to participate in Open Homes. Simply visit the site, fill in the dates you’re available to host, and wait for a request from a nonprofit partner or evacuee. Stays usually run for five to 10 days, with hosts often extending this term after forming a strong bond with their guests. Mohammed, his wife, and their toddler stayed an extra month in their “home” in Dallas, while host Linda and her husband helped them find and furnish an apartment. Their relationship has gone from strangers to family.
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia