Nowadays, it can be easy to get completely swept up in our ever-on-the-go, socially dominated, millennial lifestyles. We get caught up in side hustles, sweat over the small stuff, and sometimes forget to take the time to think of others. I, myself, am quite often guilty of this - yet recently I had the utterly humbling opportunity to sit down with Maja Grcic, Managing Director of Takecarebnb. She shared her phenomenal story with me from Impact Hub in the heart of Amsterdam’s Westerpark, where the inspiring organisation is currently headed up.
Built on the foundation of human relationships, Takecarebnb is a housing initiative for refugees within the Netherlands. After being forced to flee their homes in search of safety, refugees that arrive in the country are temporarily housed in AZC’s (asylum centres), where they await a residence permit in order to legally live and work here. Often the process can take months meaning the refugees spend a long time in these centres, isolated from Dutch language, culture, and customs. However, the COA (Central Agency for the Shelter of Asylum Seekers) established a regulation called Logeerregeling, which allows any refugee with a temporary residence permit to live outside an AZC for up to 3-months without losing their place on the housing waitlist.
This is where Takecarebnb comes in. Matchmakers of the organisation will pair up refugees with Dutch host families for this 3-month period, meaning they can get a head start integrating with Dutch society. Maja’s goal is to build an open and inclusive community that stimulates a mutual understanding between people so they can be embraced for the qualities they bring, as opposed to the fear of the unknown.
You came to the Netherlands as a refugee yourself, why was it so important to you to start Takecarebnb?
I just felt the need to help somehow - I guess it stemmed from my own experience. I came here from Bosnia in 1994, at the end of the Balkan War. After spending 3-years living through war, we then had to go on a 5-month journey to reach the Netherlands. In the end, it was just an accident that we ended up here. When you leave you never really have a sense of where you’re going; you simply have the chance to leave, so you leave. You figure the rest out along the way. So, we ended up here and were living in a refugee centre for 11-months. After those 11-months we were finally assigned a house of our own. Then, life really began.
Those 11-months didn’t count. Refugee centres are isolated from society. You don’t get to speak with Dutch citizens, apart from those who work there. You don’t have a notion of the society you are entering, nor the culture, or the language. This is only something you discover once you are granted status and receive a residence permit.
Photo courtesy of An-Sofie Kasteleyn
Refugees who I speak to nowadays describe it as a limbo situation. Like Tom Hanks stuck in the airport. You’re in between the worlds, not allowed to ‘enter’ the country that you came to but not able to go back home either.
Now, we allow refugees to spend that wait in a completely different way, by sharing a house with Dutch citizens. And these host families don’t just have a spare room to offer, they want to do something, to contribute somehow, and to make a difference in a person’s life.
There are a lot of volunteer organization here that contribute to the integration of refugees into society. However, do you also find there’s a lot of stigma?
There is, of course. The Netherlands is a polarized society at the moment, there are a lot of Geert Wilders followers who obviously feel the same way as he does. But then there are also a lot of people who go out of their way to make refugees feel welcome.
There are a lot of volunteer organizations and social enterprises who engage with this concept of integration. With Takecarebnb we never work in isolation, we work with these other initiatives towards what is, of course, a shared goal. Everyone has their own way to contribute and ours is through temporary housing. Because for us, we feel it’s the most powerful way for people to get to know each other.
Have you noticed a common country of origin amongst the refugees who apply?
At this moment, yes. It’s Syria.
Photo courtesy of Gino Kleisen
How about the families, do you find there’s a certain type of family that are willing to host?
Actually, we really have everything. We’ve had students with a spare room, we’ve had young couples with children, young couples without children, singles, elderly couples - who perhaps aren’t done being parents but their children have all moved out. It’s really a mix!
Knowledge of the Logeerregeling is something that has spread fast amongst the refugee community. Do you think an initiative like this could have changed your own experience?
I actually don’t think it existed back then. It’s quite a new rule. When I think back to a year ago, indeed not many refugees knew about it at all. But words travels pretty fast from mouth-to-mouth and good experiences travel even faster.
In January this year, we ran a pilot program with about 10 people for the first 3-month period. After those 3-months, our refugee registrations went up to 100 within a month, and now we are well over 500. The word is really travelling fast without us doing anything in terms of advertising or actively seeking media attention. For us, the huge challenge now is how do we let potential host families know that we exist. How do we increase our visibility at that end?
There’s some wonderful testimonials from both hosts and refugees on your website. Has there been any moments or stories that have particularly warmed your heart?
Well, I feel every story gives me the personal motivation to continue with this, but some are especially heartwarming. Like, one of the hosts called me crying after the 3-months was up. She was really in tears because her 21-year old guest had got the news that he could move into student housing. He was preparing for the Conservatorium - they are a very selective musical academy and only allow a certain amount of people per year. This guy plays clarinet and he was selected, meaning he could start this September!
The host also plays an instrument, her 12-year old son plays too, and her husband actually also plays clarinet. So they made a lot of music together and they went to a lot of concerts - they just really had a lot of fun and she came to view him as her foster son. So, when he moved into the student housing, for her it felt like her son leaving home. And to this day, he will still ‘go home’ to her for the weekends. You know, to do the laundry and things. Plus, the family goes to all his concerts now that he’s performing. She actually told me the other day to say that her own son had gone to visit him and spend the weekend at his new student place!
Photo courtesy of Gino Kleisen
Oh wow, so a refugee who’s a former guest is now able to host a family himself, what a lovely story! So, if someone wants to become a host, what’s the process for that?
To register, the host or host family must first fill in a profile and intake form. The refugees do exactly the same. Once we receive a new profile, one of our matchmakers contacts the applicants to schedule a meeting. During this meeting the matchmakers will ask further questions and really go into detail to get to know these people. There’s a whole checklist and, of course, the families have a lot of questions too.
The matchmakers work within their team to see who could be a good match, then they propose it to both parties. It’s anonymous at first, we tell the family that we think a certain refugee might be a good fit and explain a little about them. The same goes for the refugee, and if both parties agree that they would like to meet each other, then we arrange a first meeting together with the matchmaker. This takes place in the house of the host family so the refugee can also see the space. After the initial meeting, if both parties want to continue then we suggest they do a trial of 2-3 days to allow them to really consider if it’s what they want. If, after the trial period, both parties still want to go forward with the match then it’s on. There’s some administrative work of course, that usually takes 1-2 days, then the move-in often happens within a week!
Takecarebnb is an entirely volunteer-run organisation. If there’s reader out there who wants to help you guys out, but isn’t ready to become a host, is there something they can do?
Of course! The whole process of matching is done by volunteers so we definitely need more of those. We actually have a profile on our website of what we look for in a matchmaker - it’s important that they are good with people and can read them very well.
Within our Communications team we could do with a lot more help as well. Like I said, we need to increase visibility of Takecarebnb. We hardly have any social media activity at the moment, so people with experience in PR or communications would be great.
And, of course, donations. We are a volunteer organisation but there are some costs, for example travelling to houses for meetings and matching. In this sense we could also do with some help with fundraising. There’s even a donation button on our website - although it hasn’t been used at all so far! It works, I promise!
A huge thank you to Maja for taking the time to tell me her inspiring story. Visit the Takecarebnb website to find out more about getting involved with supporting this fantastic initiative, and also to read more heartwarming stories of successful matches.
Now, excuse me while I go do something selfless.
Words by Robyn