Open Home: How a group of citizens responded to Luxembourg’s housing crisis by welcoming refugees into their homes

In 2019, Luxembourg received 2,047 applications for asylum. By the end of the year, its asylum centres hosted 3,208 people, including those granted refugee or protection status (BIP) who involuntarily linger on, unable to afford suitable accommodation.

Open Home: How a group of citizens responded to Luxembourg's housing crisis by welcoming refugees into their homes
The group's first meeting in 2016, including people interested in hosting and refugees looking for stable homes. Photo: Open Home

Frustrated with the long waiting times to receive this status and the crowded refugee centres, three citizens launched an open call in 2016 for residents to host asylum seekers and refugees in their homes. OH! Oppent Haus or Open Home, the missing connection between people who want to help and people needing a temporary home, was born.

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Of the challenges Luxembourg faces when it comes to the safe integration of asylum seekers, the oversaturation of its asylum centres is perhaps the most pressing. Both the Consultative Human Rights Commission of Luxembourg (CCDH) and the government itself in their most recent reports criticised the crowded living conditions of the centres. 

The asylum process can take up to 21 months, and living in a state of uncertainty when a place was considered to be the “end destination” can create additional trauma for asylum seekers who have already suffered difficult journeys. As Mahdi, who arrived in the country in 2015 and spent a year in a shelter, says, “you don't move forward”.

Luxembourg has a growing lack of affordable housing options even for permanent residents. For a person newly granted refugee status (BIP) with no financial stability, renting is often an impossibility, although in theory they are supposed to leave the shelters within three months. Despite financial aid from the government and from NGOs such as Caritas and the Red Cross, out of the 3,208 people living in asylum centres in 2019, 41,1 percent had already been granted a status.

To enable people to leave these centres and actively integrate into society, Marianne Donven, Frédérique Buck and Pascal Clément joined forces and founded Open Home to connect local residents with refugees.

Through her work at the Red Cross and specifically the local NGO Hariko, Donven was already involved with asylum seekers and BIP. She started the initiative by hosting a refugee back in 2015: “I sent a letter to a judge, asking whether I could live with a young refugee. One hearing and it was all settled.” From there, the project grew.

In October 2016, they set up an official Facebook page. “That same day we placed people in local families” says Buck, who also directed the 2018 migration documentary Grand H. She attributes the instant success both to high public awareness of the problem and to their communication campaign: “Without social media, it would not have worked.”

The inspiration for Open Home was a similar initiative in France called “Singa”. But while Singa places people in host families for a couple of months (although the stay can be prolonged), OH has no determined length. “This does scare some people, but what they need is stability. This is a long-term project,” says Donven.

While OH does help with administrative procedures such as signing off from centres, every family sets up their own rules, depending on the needs and availability of everyone involved. After filling out a form and meeting each other, the refugee moves in with their new family. The only criteria OH sets: a free room.

There's a trial period of around a week, which 25-year-old Mahdi, who's benefited from the initiative, says is is important, especially given the unlimited time period. Both Donven and Buck acknowledge that in some cases, the placement doesn't work. Circumstances might change or people may not be a good fit and you have to try different families until you find the right one.

The emergency contact, should something go wrong, is always Donven. She is also the one who helps families with the administrative processes, which can be tough for asylum seekers to navigate on their own. “It's overly complicated”, says Mahdi, who now lives with a local, and says the initiative brought him “stability and independence”.

“I would not have been able to make it without Open Home,” he says. Besides help with the paperwork, families provide key emotional and mental support and encourage cultural learning.

Immersed in a local family, most refugees are quick to pick up the official languages which leads to better chances to succeed in education and employment. Buck recalls a young Afghani who in two years learned perfect French and went on to complete his education in France.

People meet at OH's first meeting in late 2016. Photo: Open Home

Psychologist and president of the CCDH Gilbert Pregno explains: “[The OH initiative] offers an opportunity to integrate. Integration does not mean leaving behind the culture that defines me; it's a social enrichment through sharing.” As Mahdi and his housemate share traditional meals from their home countries, Pregno concludes, “this sharing goes into both directions.”

Over the past four years, OH has allocated people about 135 times, though the exact number of pairings is unknown. Given that some change family or that many households host more than one person, Donven reckons that about 70 families have opened their homes, mostly to young people. Here too, that data is not specific. “A lot of them are 18, 20-year-olds” who leave the centre for minors once they're of age. Because of the saturation of the other centres however, “they sometimes end up without a place to stay.” 

Sometimes people take in whole families. This is the case of Gessesse, who first came to Luxembourg following his wife who'd just given birth to a little girl. The centre they were in, Don Bosco, is known for its poor conditions.

“It was dirty, and we were living in one small room. Our girl was constantly ill during those times, it wasn't easy.”

Now, he's living with his wife, his two children, and an 87 year-old woman, who can not live on her own. They help her around the house, the children keep her company and call her 'Oma' – grandmother.

Gessesse explains that it's a win-win situation, which also reassures the host woman's own children. “They're happy somebody is here to take care of her, especially during the lockdown in March. We all feel like a real family.” 

The one problem that consistently arises is linked to financial help from the government, called REVIS. After one year of living with a host family, the state considers you as part of the household and the REVIS is taken away. This makes refugees even more dependent on the family they're living with, the opposite of what Open Home wants to achieve.

The law, Buck specifies, was actually created for prisoners coming out of jail. After a year in their family home, they were considered to be sufficiently reintegrated within their household for their own aid to be cut. But this can not apply for refugees who usually aim to find their own home to live independently.

“We have been very lucky”, says Gessesse. The family lives on the first floor of the house and owns their own kitchen, which under the law places their home into two different households. Gessesse's family can therefore still receive the REVIS, but many do not.

“Sometimes legal agents are sensible and willing to look at every case individually. We've had examples of people being granted the aid for another six months”, Donven explains. Still, even with the REVIS it's hardly enough “for a country like Luxembourg”, Gessesse tells me on the phone, happy chatter from his children in the background. Currently, he's finishing an apprenticeship and aims to open his own shop.

Similar initiatives already exist in other countries, proving that projects like Open Home do not necessarily rely on the word of mouth and small distances that are Luxembourg's natural advantages; the main requirement is citizens willing to help.

Critics of Open Home have pointed out the lack of legal or psychological experts accompanying the process. Yet Mahdi and Gessesse do not see this as a necessity. “These are normal people who make their own decisions – you meet up and if it works, that's great”, Mahdi explains.

The initiative itself receives no political or financial support.

Buck believes it would benefit from State funding, yet that this would be paradoxical: “It is the government which is part of the problem and the reason why the initiative exists in the first place.”

Donven says she has had difficulties having her project accepted, and even says she has faced resistance from some asylum centres which don’t inform those seeking a home of the project. Like in the case of Mahdi and Gessesse, it's mainly friends of friends who spread the word. 

Over the years, it's been harder to mobilise citizens, which both Buck and Donven attribute to decreasing media coverage of migrant issues.

And today, Donven is doing it all on her own, after Buck and Clément left the project due to other time commitments. For now, Donven keeps on working on the Facebook page, successfully pairing “couples” and providing valuable support to both newcomers and locals.

Recently, Open Home was turned into a non-profit organisation and Donven is adamant: rather than financial support, what is really needed are people willing to offer a bit of their time and volunteer alongside her. And while the project itself has lost momentum, it still manages to act as a missing connection, albeit a slower one, between open homes and people needing one.

María Elorza Saralegui is a freelance illustrator and journalist with an interest in cultural and social changes. 

Note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the NGO Hariko, not Haricot as previously written

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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.