Open Homes: Our First Year

On World Refugee Day, we're proud to stand with refugees and reflect on our first year.

Categories: Team Update, World Refugee Day — The Open Homes team

Last year, when the “U.S. travel ban” was announced, we were inspired to take action. We weren’t alone. It sparked an outpouring of generosity, prompting many of us to ask ourselves, “How can we help?” Open Homes was our answer to that question.

Since then, we’ve become more convinced than ever that there’s something simple all of us can do to help. And it’s important we don’t let that urge to help fade.

These are the three major things we’ve learned over the past year, and the commitments we’re making in response to them.

But first, here’s a little history about Open Homes.

How Open Homes started

The idea of using Airbnb to house people in need came from a host in Brooklyn in 2012. She wanted to offer her home for free to people who had been displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Once we built the capability for hosts to volunteer their space, over 1,000 hosts joined in and we realized this wasn’t confined to just one event. Since then, our team has responded to over 250 disasters, and hosts have opened their homes to evacuees and relief workers all over the world.

So, how did we go from responding to disasters to serving the refugee community? We realized this program could benefit more than just local displacement. Displacement is something that affects millions of people who have to leave their homes because of conflict or political unrest—all people who could end up becoming our neighbors. And if Airbnb’s mission is to create a world where truly anyone can belong anywhere, then we must serve individuals and communities in greatest need.

That’s what Open Homes has set out to do. Through our programs, hosts have already housed over 11,000 total guests from over 52 different countries. This includes people like Zak, a refugee from Yemen who moved to Denver and not only found a place to stay, but also a new community and support system through his host Susan.

Learning 1: We can’t do this without our partners

The refugee crisis is a highly politicized issue and every government approaches it with its own set of ever-evolving, complex solutions. This means, that refugees face unique challenges in every city. It’s already overwhelming to uproot your life, let alone learning to navigate the laws and cultural norms of your new home.

Thankfully, there are organizations that have spent decades helping refugees do just this. They advocate for them on both the local and international stage. They lobby to improve processes for everything from enrolling children in schools, to finding a job. And because of the work of these organizations, there’s a strong foundation for companies like Airbnb to offer help.

That’s why, this past year we focused on building strong partnerships with organizations, both local and global, who know best. We’re continuously learning from them and working together to build an Open Homes program that can work for the needs of the refugees they serve. Many agencies are already using Open Homes to find accommodations for their clients. Among some of our partners are the International Rescue Committee (IRC), SINGA, and Solidarity Now.

One of the most valuable things we’ve learned from our partners: they’ve taught us how best to work with vulnerable populations. We’ve learned that even the most well-meaning person can unintentionally make someone uncomfortable. To this end, our team has gone through sensitivity training and is committed to providing sensitivity training materials to all Open Homes hosts.

Learning 2: We need to design with the communities we serve, not for them

Over the last year, our team took several trips to Athens to meet with local nonprofits and bring together hosts who had expressed interest in Open Homes. We talked to caseworkers, volunteers, refugees, and people who had already hosted refugees through Solidarity Now’s Home for Hope program. It was a humbling experience. We were in awe of these agencies’ efforts, and also of the incredible courage exuded by the refugees we met.

After these trips, our team made a pledge to do field work each quarter. And it wouldn’t be a select few who would go, everyone on our team would be required to participate in research or field work throughout the year. We need to design with people on the ground, not just for feedback, but also for inspiration. As we learn from them, we’ll be sharing our findings more broadly, starting with this blog.

We left Athens with one major finding: every city faces unique social, economic, and political circumstances. Because of this, we’re committed to building a diverse team that represents the communities we serve and can speak to their challenges. That’s the only way we’ll be able to build a global initiative that’s rooted in empathy.

Learning 3: Our community can help change the narrative

Refugees face a great deal of prejudice, stemming from all the negative rhetoric and common misconceptions surrounding the issue. Even the term ‘refugee’ is commonly misused. So, it’s no surprise people might be apprehensive to let a refugee into their home.

And this isn’t any one person’s fault. It has taken lengthy conversations with government agencies and nonprofits for us to truly comprehend the extent of the crisis. But what we’ve learned is that these misconceptions can turn into unfounded fears.

To be granted refugee status, you have to meet the legal definition of ‘refugee’. This means offering sufficient proof that you can’t return home because you face persecution. A refugee is someone who has fought to be recognized as such, and has undergone thorough screening to get there. Just knowing that might help people feel more compassion and less concern.

Inspired by the work of those like Refugees Deeply,  we’re now more committed than ever to help shift this narrative. We’re starting by documenting stories of people who are experiencing the crisis first hand. Our hope is that our community can help us share these stories more broadly and help chip away at the stigma associated with the word ‘refugee’. Even if it’s just a start.

Looking ahead

In numbers, our first goal is to help our hosts house over 100,000 people in need by 2022. While we’re on our way to meeting this, this is just our first milestone, not the end goal. We know that vulnerable communities will always need a place to feel safe, a place to feel welcome and accepted.

To achieve that goal, our work needs to go beyond just the numbers. We need to unite people who believe everyone should have a safe place to call home. People who don’t hesitate to take someone in when they’re unexpectedly uprooted. People who believe kindness costs nothing. And we’re grateful to the organizations and hosts who are working with us to make this a reality.


Get involved

Open Homes is a program that lets you share your extra space for free with people in need of temporary housing. Our community of hosts believes that everyone should have a safe place to call home. If you want to be part of this movement, and we hope you do, consider opening your home.

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