A few weeks ago the Czech Republic joined “Refugees Welcome International ” a platform that was founded in November 2014 to connect refugees with locals who are willing to share their living space and on a day-to-day basis help refugees feel at home in their new country. I spoke to Tomáš Jungwirth, one of the organizers of the project in the Czech Republic, about how it will work and what he hopes to achieve in a country that is not perceived as being overly friendly to migrants.
“The idea behind the project is quite straightforward: it is about individual people offering to accommodate refugees in their own homes. To some extent, there is a humanitarian aspect but we also consider it good for integration because many of the refugees are currently housed in mass accommodation facilities and thanks to this project the integration of the individuals can be significantly enhanced. And obviously, it also sends a public message in terms of having people who are actually willing to take such a big step and contribute to the alleviation of the crisis, and we hope this project will show that there is goodwill on the part of the Czech people as well.”
What refugees are we talking about in the Czech Republic – what nationalities?
“We are not limited to recognized refugees at this point, we also accept registrations from asylum seekers. If you look at the composition of the people you will see that only a minority of them are from the Middle East or African countries. The most numerous applicants are from Ukraine, Cuba, Belarus and other post-Soviet countries. So the composition here is likely to be different from that in the other European states where the project is already up and running, but of course that doesn’t change anything as regards the main aim of the project. “
And is there an interest on the part of these refugees to integrate and live together with Czechs or is it an economic necessity?
“Well, let me outline how it works. The refugees themselves usually with the help of a social worker fill in a form where they provide basic information about themselves and their expectations regarding shared accommodation, and so do the people who are offering the accommodation and then it is up to us, up to our team, to match the right people. That means people who are geographically close but also people who are like-minded and the chances are they will get on and have a good time together and not have any disputes or conflicts. Obviously for the refugees it may also be an economic necessity at some point to look for private accommodation because the state provides for them for several months when they are housed in state owned facilities and then they need to find something else. However our project is not big enough to systemically deal with this need and our primary objective is to encourage and find people who are willing to mingle and help refugees integrate in society. ”
So they meet, they chat, they get to know each other and they have the chance to say NO if they do not like the idea, right?
“Yes, we inform both parties about the other side and if at all possible there is an introductory meeting in which they get to know each other personally and they can decide whether or not it would work.”
Are we talking about families or individuals?
“Well, I can only talk about experiences from abroad because in the Czech Republic we only launched the project several weeks ago, we have several promising people registered, but no shared accommodation actually set up yet. In other countries it is mostly young individuals who are accommodated by young locals, in student housing facilities, for instance. But this is also about the limited capacities of many people who are simply unable to offer a big part of their apartment or house to a refugee family. However, if there are people interested in accommodating families I am quite certain we would find families who would really appreciate this, because it is not only about their economic potential but about the fact that given the stigmatization of refugees and the negative public perception it is hard for many of them to find decent accommodation. So yes, there are families as well, but to my knowledge most of the accommodated people were individuals.”
Given the negative public perceptions that you just mentioned who are you targeting in this country – I know you’ve started in Prague and Brno…are you going for the young generation?
“Well, not necessarily, but that is how I foresee that things will actually turn out, because yes, young people are often more open-minded and are also more willing to experiment. And this is an experiment of sorts, it takes a bit of courage to invite a refugee to live in your home. However the foreign experience tells us it usually works out really well. And Prague and Brno were chosen for practical reasons at the start, because we are not a fully-funded project which would have a team across the country –so for practical reasons we focused on those two big cities at the outset. However we have already gotten some offers for accommodation from outside of these cities, we are in touch and hopefully we will be able to accommodate someone there as well.”
Have there been any similar projects in the Czech Republic to try to get Czechs and foreigners to interact and for people to be more accepting and open-minded?
“There have actually been numerous projects to encourage a mingling of Czechs and foreigners, however few of them are on such a practical, intense and long-term scale. As concerns foreign exchange students we have a Buddy project which is closest to what we are doing, because when you offer a refugee accommodation you are somehow expected to be a bit of a guide to the person and help them navigate in Czech society. So this might be the closest comparison, but few of the projects have actually focused on refugees as such, many of them are focused on expats or foreigners in general.”
Eleven countries are already running this project –what are the results there? Do the people involved really interact, make friends, cook together etc.?
“Yes, obviously, it is about cohabitation, interacting on a practical everyday level -people cook together, people talk, people clean the house together, they do all those practical things that people do when they live together and share an apartment. This has been going really well abroad. Obviously, in some cases people had to move out at some point for practical reasons or because it simply did not work out in terms of personal relations, but that’s life and it happens to all of us at some point, but there were no major clashes or conflicts. That is also because the project is monitored, so we will check up on whether everything is going smoothly and if there are any problems on the horizon we will be able to help resolve them.”
Finally, you work with migrants; do you feel that Czech society is still too closed to foreigners, too intolerant?
“I would say that the atmosphere has actually very much deteriorated in the past years, because even if there were quite a number of foreigners in the country a few years back there was no discussion on migration policy and this discussion only began at the height of the refugee crisis which led to a lot of negative emotions. However I don’t see the Czech society as being totally closed to the idea of accepting foreigners and having them as their neighbors. If you look at the public surveys you can see that people are scared of migration in general terms, but when it comes to assessing the situation in their neighborhoods and their personal experience it is not bad. So we think that by giving more people the personal experience of interacting with migrants we can help to alleviate a lot of the prejudice that is out there and hopefully also pave the way for others to follow.”