Migration politics

Refugees, welcome to my flat share

Foto: © Michal SikytaPhoto: © Michal Sikyta
The biotechnologist Barbara has taken in the twenty-four-year-old Nicholas from Nigeria. Photo: © Michal Sikyta

“Refugees, Welcome” is the name of an initiative that places refugees in flat shares or private accommodations in Germany and Austria. The idea thereby is to establish a more cordial welcoming culture. In charge of this in Vienna and Lower Austria is a young Czech.

Why can’t refugees simply live in flat shares instead of in mass accommodations, which are usually without contact to the surrounding population? In Austria since January 2015 this is now possible thanks to the initiative “Refugees welcome”.

A group of volunteers around the Czech student and coordinator Michal Sikyta adopted the idea from Germany. They broker rooms in flat shares, in family houses and other private housing chiefly for refugees who find themselves in precarious living situations, explains the 25-year-old Michal. These refugees are still in the process of seeking asylum, have no financial means and receive no social benefits.

If, however, it is desired that the new flatmate make a financial contribution to the rent, a guaranteed minimum income subscriber can be found. “Refugees, Welcome” provides support in financing, works out concepts for it and also stays in touch with the flat share after the new tenant has moved in. “We want to prevent that problems of living together arise. We therefore regularly ask whether everything is working out and whether disagreements need to be addressed”, says Michal. If the problems are too big, the refugee has to move out and another accommodation found for him or her. “So far this has been only a theoretical option”, says Michal. “There haven’t been any problems.”

Photo: © Flüchtlinge willkommen
The “Refugees welcome” team (top row in the middle: Michal Sikyta) Photo: © Refugees welcome

Three times as many prospective tenants as dwelling places

Currently in Vienna alone fifteen volunteers are working in the project, and in every Austrian state there is already a contact person. The number of placements is also increasing: 57 since January, the vast majority in Vienna, but each of the other states has at least one flat share with refugees.

The need is great. At the end of June 2015 there were 28,311 applications for asylum in Austria, more than the entire previous year (28,027). Most asylum seekers came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, as emerges in the asylum report of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. From January to the end of June, 17,472 decisions pertaining to status in accord with the asylum law were taken; in 34 per cent of the cases treated up to now in 2015 asylum was granted.

This increase has also been felt at “Refugees welcome”. At present there are about three times as many refugees interested in a place in a flat share as there are offered rooms. But the willingness to help has also increased. In August 300 rooms were offered; in May the number was only 55. The initiative works together with NGOs, which propose refugees for the project. But word of mouth among asylum seekers also works remarkably well, says Michal.

Presenter shares a flat with a young Syrian

© Flüchtlinge willkommenSome refugees prefer to live in student flat shares, others with families; some landlords want to take in only women with children, even though the vast majority of the refugees are men. The initiative attempts as far as possible to respond to these wishes. “We try to find suitable flatmates and take time to learn more about the people – about the tenant and the landlord”, says Michal. For this reason, and also because in addition to their volunteer work all members of the initiative have jobs or are students, individual cases can take several days, sometimes weeks. The “stories” of the flat shares could hardly be more different.

Nicholas and Barbara met one another through “Refugees welcome”. Nicholas comes from Nigeria and has been in Austria for several years. The 24-year-old man got his mandatory school-leaving certificate and now has an apprentice position as a cook. He works at his German every day, in which his new surroundings are a great help. Barbara is a biotechnologist, travels extensively and therefore offered Nicholas her spare couch.

The 23-year-old Amin has lived for some time with Jürgen. The CEO took in the young Afghan and his son Laurin in his villa in Vienna-Penzing and signed the latter up at a private Waldorf school. “Refugees are people who are afraid. I thought a long time about how I could help”, said Jürgen in a newspaper interview.

Elke Lichtenegger, one of the best-known presenters at the popular radio station Ö3, has also recently set up a flat share. She has taken in Wael from Aleppo, Syria. When she introduced her new flat mate on Facebook with a media splash, she received a lot of encouragement, but also isolated hate postings.

“Austria is more open to refugees than the Czech Republic”

Michal Sikyta, Photo: © privatMichal receives a small expense allowance for his work, and works on the side in various student jobs to earn his livelihood. It spurs him on to see that he can contribute to improving the circumstances of refugees. Even if, as a Czech, committing himself to help refugees in Austria seemed initially “odd”.

Michal, who was born in Prague, moved to Vienna in 2010 to do a B.S. in political science. Currently he works mainly for the project while studying for his master’s degree in political science. The positive feedback in Austria about the initiative surprised him, especially by comparison with the Czech Republic. “If I started such a project in Prague, I’m sure I would be vehemently criticized by the society”, he says.

The openness of Austrian society, especially the willingness of people to volunteer many hours to helping refugees or to donate money, is another reason for him to continue working in the project. In Austria too there are hate postings, negative moods, given voice to even by politicians, but they are few by comparison with the Czech Republic. Michal finds clear words for his country’s treatment of refugees: “In the Czech society I miss tolerance, the willingness to help others and the solidarity with displaced persons”. But also in Austria there is still room for improvement.

Copyright: jádu / Goethe-Institut Prag
August 2015
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