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.
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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