Inspirations

10,000 Heroes Open Their Homes to Syrian Refugees

Even as Europe’s governments shut their borders to Syria’s desperate refugees, thousands of Icelandic families are volunteering to host the newly homeless.

09.03.15 5:13 AM ET

As European governments shut their doors to waves of refugees desperately fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa—and as the world grapples with the image of little Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach on Tuesday—heroic individuals from Iceland to Germany are offering up their homes to Syrian refugees in a show of hospitality.

This week, 10,000 residents of Iceland volunteered to house refugees coming from Syria. The outpouring of basic, decent hospitality from this tiny nation stands in stark contrast to the treatment of refugees across the rest of the European continent, where police are deployed to stop migrants from boarding trains and arrest stowaways on boats heading for England. In summits on the crisis, European leaders take jabs at their neighbors and policymakers plot ways to stem the flow of the bereaved in the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

The campaign from Iceland cuts through the political noise and into the heart of a crisis where at least 2,500 refugees have died trying to reach Europe this year. The numbers can obscure the desperate plight of those cashing in their entire life savings to escape, and who must traverse multiple countries on foot or by boat to reach safety.

Last month, the Icelandic government announced it had capped its resettlement of Syrians at 50 people. This small quota prompted a well-known author to write on Facebook that she could recruit hosts for these families. “They are our future spouses, best friends, the next soul mate, a drummer for our children’s band, the next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finishes the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, a fireman and television host,” she wrote. “People of whom we’ll never be able to say in the future: ‘Your life is worth less than my life.’”

Thousands signed up to offer rooms, plane tickets, and companionship. In response, the government has formed a committee to reassess the situation and said it would consider raising the number of Syrians allowed in. It was also looking into the offers made on Facebook.

At the same time as Iceland’s feel-good gesture spread across the world, images from Hungary on Tuesday night showed 1,000 refugees sleeping on the ground outside Budapest’s train station, encircled by Hungarian police who blocked them from getting on trains that would take them into Germany. In the Czech Republic, refugees were taken off trains, numbered with marks on their arms, and detained. A photographer captured the terrible image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler, dead on Turkey’s shores, just days after the bodies of other young refugee children were found on a beach in Libya. Italy imposed border controls on its crossing with Austria. Train service on the Eurotunnel was shut down after refugees broke onto train tracks in Paris in an attempt to get to Britain. Dozens of Afghan refugees were rescued alive in Vienna after being found packed into an airless truck, similar to the one in which 71 migrant corpses were discovered last week.

So far this year, the UN estimates 300,000 refugees have gone by sea into Europe, with 100 arriving in Germany each hour. Last week alone, 23,000 landed in Greece, sparking a continental panic.

Thousands have died in boat accidents along the way. Some have become so desperate they have traversed the frozen tundra of the Arctic to cross over an obscure border between Russia and Norway.

Meanwhile, Iceland’s hospitable gesture inspired the leaders of Barcelona, Madrid, and Palma de Mallorca in Spain to announce that they would begin registering families who could host refugees.

A Facebook group formed yesterday, called Americans Supporting Syrian Refugees: Open Homes, Open Hearts, pledged to pressure the U.S. government into accepting more than the 8,000 Syrian refugees dictated by its current quota. Already users have offered support and even volunteered as hosts.

A similar system is reportedly already at work in Germany. In December 2014, a young German couple took in a new roommate, a 39-year-old refugee from Mali who had been living on the streets. It was a first test for the organization they had just launched—Refugees Welcome, a sort of philanthropic Airbnb that matches refugees with host individuals or families with room to spare in Germany or Austria. The hosts can list a room, and the website matches them with someone in need. “Why shouldn’t refugees in Germany be able to live in shared flats (or other normal housing situations) instead of mass accommodation?” the organization’s founders ask on the website.

Germany, a target destination for many refugees, has received 73,000 new asylum claims between January and March of this year, and is struggling to contain the flow. Desperate for makeshift accommodation, one town made a controversial proposition that a former Nazi concentration camp in Germany could be used as a migrant housing center.

But on Refugees Welcome, more than 780 Germans have already signed up as hosts, and 124 refugees have been matched up with homes. Donations made through the site cover the hosts’ rent and utilities, so those already offering their space aren’t put out any further.

“It surprised me a lot because...the people here don’t want to see people like us in their land,” the unnamed refugee told NPR in the spring.

As one commenter on the Icelandic campaign’s Facebook group noted, the Icelanders themselves were once refugees. In 1883, an article in the Duluth News Tribune described the 180 immigrants who came in on a propeller ship: “A queerer looking or more poverty stricken people never came to this city,” it read.