4. Refugee lives changed through efforts of “ordinary citizens”

By Tola Akindipe

Flüchtlinge Willkommen (“Refugees Welcome”) is a digital platform that unites flatshares and refugees. To mark World Refugee Day on June 20, Refugees Welcome talks about the success of a grassroots organisation that has expanded internationally based on a “simple idea” and the kindness of people willing to take action.

As we celebrate World Refugees Day, it is important to remember the thousands of people across the world who continue to volunteer their time to ensure that refugees receive basic needs and can live with a sense of dignity. Refugees Welcome International (RWI) is an example of this. The concept is simple – a volunteer-led programme that gives people the opportunity to host refugees in their homes.

When it was founded in Berlin in 2014, Jonas Kakoschke and and Mareike Geiling did not expect the overwhelming response that followed. Four years later, RWI has managed to match more than 1,200 people in 16 countries across three continents. People with an extra room to spare can register their flat share through the online system, and be matched up with a refugee needing accommodation.

Take Anusha, who fled from Afghanistan with her two sons. When they contacted our French operation, Réfugiés Bienvenue, they were living in a hotel apartment which they could not afford anymore due to rising costs. Anusha and her family have been part of Réfugiés Bienvenue's housing programme for five months and this was only made possible due to the willingness of people to open their homes.

The founders of Refugees Welcome International (RWI)
Mareike Geiling and Jonas Kakoschke, with a guest.
Credit: Lars van den Brink

Indeed, Anusha lived with Amié and Merry, a young French couple, and although the housing period has ended, their testimonial speaks of their experience: "On some occasions, the different language, the uncertainty of their status, their traumatic past and their foreign culture created difficulties to live together. Each one of us had to make an effort to feel at home. We also have discovered the administrative incoherence from the asylum seekers system. Finally, we learnt a lot from this humanistic experience and we are proud to have helped this family from a practical perspective. Today, they are part of our family, and we still see each other on a weekly basis."

Civic engagement is important as it enables one to grow and learn about themselves while also contributing to society’s development. Through the arrangement with Réfugiés Bienvenue, Aimé and Merry were able to learn more about the asylum procedure at a French level and at a European level. They were also able to experience first-hand benefits and drawbacks of living with people from different cultures.

But it is also important to remember the beneficiaries of such engagement and how their lives can be changed due to efforts of the ordinary

citizen. Anusha’s testimony is an example of this. She said: "Aimé and Merry welcomed us at their place, allowing us to believe that we found a new home. They gave us love, we laughed together, cooked together, ate together whilst sharing our cultures and traditions. We had really good time with them and the departure was the hardest. After five months of living together, we were really sad, but we knew we did not leave them forever. We knew that we would still see each other. A fraternal link bound our families. I am still very surprised and moved over everything that they have done for us, for my family. We do not know how to thank them. 

“God willing, one day, our lives will be more prosperous. If so, we would then help somebody as Aimé and Merry helped us. In my language, Dari, there is a proverb saying, as long as you are still standing up, give a hand for the ones who had fallen (چو ايستاده ئى دست افتاده گير).”

In Europe, we are moving from a system of emergency support to integration and from the perspective of Refugees Welcome International, it is important to support the process of civic engagement. This will enable us to maintain the spirit that so many Europeans had two years ago, when the refugee surge into Europe occurred, and ensure that refugees will be able to feel welcome and valued in their country of residence. 

Refugees Welcome Germany were a nominee in the CSOs category of the 2017 Nelson Mandela-Graca Michel Innovation Awards.  Tola Akindipe is a senior member of Refugees Welcome International, the co-founder of Refugees Welcome Portugal, and a UNHCR associate reporting officer.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

If you would like to repost this article, or contribute an idea of your own to the series, please email  

Intro photo courtesy of Tola Akindipe/RWI.