Michael Levitin reports on two companies that are supporting refugee entrepreneurs in the US

Airbnb’s approach to helping refugees has been innovative in more than one way. In 2012, the global apartment-sharing service launched its Open Homes programme to help house victims of natural disasters, inviting hosts to “share your space for good”.Then, in response to President Donald Trump’s travel ban in 2017, the programme introduced its refugee service, where hosts open their homes to refugees free of charge.

With $4m budgeted over four years, Airbnb says it is committed to help refugees and asylum seekers find housing by offering “travel credits” to agencies like Hias, in Ecuador, which helps house asylum seekers fleeing the crisis in Venezuela, or the International Rescue Committee, which books homes globally for refugees as part of its resettlement process.

“It costs nothing to the agency and nothing to the refugee. Airbnb is making that contribution, identifying those moments in a refugee’s journey where we can make the most impact,” says Kellie Bentz, an Airbnb executive with Open Homes.

The Open Homes experience 'creates belonging and connectivity'

Unlike the anonymity of hotels, the Open Homes experience “creates belonging and connectivity, especially when [refugees] come to a foreign place they’ve never been, by placing them in homes with hosts where they can feel much more connected to the community. We want there to be a massive market of free and available listings.”

The company says it is also helping refugees earn money directly by enabling them to become hosts offering paid “experiences”, such as leading tours or teaching cooking classes and other artisan crafts.

From Jordan to Kenya to Brazil, refugees are bringing in much-needed income for their families through Airbnb, and in many cases, “travellers aren’t even aware that they’re helping refugees generate revenue [through] an entrepreneurial type service,” said Bentz.

The company, however, declined to give information on how many refugees have been housed through its programme or how much they have earned.

Mamadou, centre, fled Guinea and is using his website training to help organisations back home. (Credit: WeWork)

WeWork is another company that has taken a leading role in helping integrate and employ refugees. In 2017, the workspace collaborative piloted a refugee initiative in New York City that has since led to hundreds of refugee hires across the US and globally, from Nepal and Nigeria to Afghanistan and Venezuela. Noting an 80% retention rate for their earliest employees the group committed to hiring 1,500 refugees over five years while expanding its initiative.

It now offers mentorship and training programmes that support refugee entrepreneurs while partnering with IRC, Upwardly Global, Breaking Barriers and other organisations to assist refugee resettlement efforts and encourage more refugee hiring in the business community.

In June this year, WeWork went further, partnering with The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network, or TERN, to support refugee entrepreneurs. The partnership between WeWork and TERN provides refugees with a physical space to work, mentorship opportunies, networking events and educational a community resources.

There are a lot of refugees like me, and they have a goal. They just need a little help. I can do something with that, I can help people in my country

That includes free WeWork memberships and access to hundreds of thousands of fellow network members worldwide, which broadens refugees’ chance to find regular employment. “TERN has built a community connecting entrepreneurs and supporting the growth of their businesses,” says Mathieu Proust, general manager at WeWork UK & Ireland.

“There are a lot of refugees like me, and they have a goal,” said Mamadou, who fled Guinea and was hired by WeWork, where he learned to build websites, and is now helping bring visibility to organisations back in his home country. “They just need a little help. I can do something with that. I can help people in my country.”

Another refugee, Amir, fled Iran and spent five years seeking employment in the UK before WeWork offered him an 18-month apprenticeship programme studying security and energy. “For me, this is a dream coming true,” he says. “I am so thankful and grateful every night when I go to bed and when I get up in the morning.”

Main picture credit: Airbnb

This article is part of the in-depth Human Rights briefing. See also:

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Airbnb  WeWork Open Homes  refugees  asylum seekers  The Entrpreneurial Refugee Network 

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