Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
“I don’t see it as risky. I find it logical, and appropriate, given the current situation.”
Amr Arafa was just a kid in suburban Cairo when Schindler’s List came out, but he remembers the protective impulse he felt while watching it. “I wished that I lived in the era, so that I could help hide people,” the 34-year-old tells me, perched on a high-backed chair in his studio apartment in Washington, D.C., on a sweltering June afternoon.
The international refugee crisis—specifically, viral footage of a reporter tripping a father and child fleeing police at the Hungarian border—reignited those early sentiments. Arafa, who works with Fannie Mae as a business consultant, couldn’t draw political cartoons, as his brother does in Dubai. Nor could he donate huge sums to humanitarian organizations. But he could code and strategize for the web. So he built a website, EmergencyBNB, modeled after Airbnb but designed to connect refugees to people in their host country with a room or apartment to spare—for free. (It’s similar to a German effort launched in 2015, but according to Arafa, easier to use for both hosts and guests.)
The website didn’t gain much traction, so Arafa also made his own apartment available on Airbnb. He charges $10 per night, the website’s minimum. The listing specifies that his space, which is plastered with posters of Manhattan and Banksy-esque decals, is only open to refugees (as well as victims of domestic violence and… Bernie Sanders). Since last fall, he has received hundreds of requests, mostly from poor graduate students, according to Arafa. Airbnb, which declined to comment on Arafa’s arrangement, has apparently deactivated his listing multiple times because Arafa has rejected so many room-seekers. Arafa says that only three have been “legitimate” refugee applicants: a couple from Syria and one woman from Iran.
All three had traveled to D.C. to meet with their respective embassies, and none of them matched the image of destitution that Westerners see on television. Arafa says that his Iranian guest was well-to-do, working as a day-trader in Manhattan. The Syrian couple, though nearly penniless, were university-educated. But free lodging isn’t entirely the point, Arafa says: “It is the fact that it is offered by a stranger who cares.” After verifying his guests’ refugee documents, he says he approved their stay, refunded their payment upon arrival, and spent several nights on a friend’s couch. Arafa says he did the same for a woman attempting to escape her abusive husband. “As a refugee who came a long way, I appreciated Amr's offer and I think whoever can do anything for any refugee to make their life easier, should not hesitate,” wrote the woman from Iran, Minoo Mirsaidi, in her review.*
After emigrating to the U.S. for a master’s degree in computer science in 2005, Arafa lived on a series of stringent immigrant visas. One of them restricted him from returning home, even after his father passed away. The stress of reapplication was always just around the corner. Last year, Arafa received his green card. EmergencyBNB feels like a simple way of paying forward his newfound freedom and stability. His hope is that humanitarian-minded Americans who stumble on his listing will be inspired to put their own spaces on Airbnb, and eventually on a scaled-up EmergencyBNB—if he can garner a lot more interest.
Which may be a big “if.” The U.S. accepted only 70,000 refugees in fiscal year 2015, due in part to an unwelcoming American public. On the campaign trail, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment is loud and caustic. "For the amount of money Hillary Clinton would like to spend on refugees, we could rebuild every inner city in America," Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in a speech Wednesday. It is a flagrantly false statement, and one indication of how some Americans seem to feel about refugees. It seems unlikely that Arafa’s website will reach a critical mass in terms of hosts.
In that sense, EmergencyBNB appears to be as much of a political statement as a scaleable solution to an international crisis. But Arafa holds firm in his belief that his efforts are practical. “Everyone thinks this is extremely risky, opening up my home,” he says. “Even the Syrian refugees thought I was crazy, telling me about Trump this and Trump that. But I don’t see it as risky. I find it logical, and appropriate, given the current situation.”
*This post has been updated to include a quote from Minoo Mirsaidi.