by Glen Gambo, The Associated Press
Moussa and Rasha Alkhafazi were already worried when they immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 2017.
Even though Musa Alkhafaji received a special immigrant visa for his work with the US armed forces in Iraq, his family’s original flight was canceled when the Trump administration ordered a ban on travel from Iraq. Rather than wait for the ban to be lifted, the Alkhafazis decided to risk a substantial portion of their savings to book another flight and hope for the best.
Whatever welcome he would receive in the United States, he felt it would lead to a better life for him and his two young sons.
After two days of flights – from Baghdad to Qatar to Boston to Denver, his unfamiliar new hometown – the weary Alkhafaji arrived outside his first American home, a modest gray brick farm.
Musa Alkhafaji said, “I can’t forget that picture.” “It was about 10 o’clock at night, and there was a nice lady standing with a man on the front porch of the house, and they were both smiling at us. He welcomed us and hugged me.”
That embrace came from Susan and Steve Bailey, Airbnb hosts who, like thousands of others, agreed to house refugees as part of the online lodging marketplace’s philanthropic program to provide emergency temporary housing to those in need. It is a program that is now seen as a model for those working to resettle refugees and as the core mission of Airbnb’s non-profit program Airbnb.org, which on Tuesday It is its first anniversary.
“I think we’ve proven that Airbnb’s model is exceptionally successful at providing accommodations for vacations and business travel,” said Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb and president of Airbnb.org. “It is also extraordinarily successful in providing housing to those who are most in need of shelter in times of crisis.”
Gabia says what Belize has done for Alkhafazis is based on what it has learned as a successful Airbnb host and can apply to those who need timely help and a safe place to stay.
In its first year, Airbnb.org helped provide housing to more than 100,000 first responders during the pandemic, to help them avoid spreading COVID-19 to their families. In recent months, the non-profit organization has worked to resettle 7,600 Afghan refugees after the Taliban took over the country and promised to resettle 12,500 more.
Jennifer Bond, founder of the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub, chair of the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative and a member of the Board of Directors of Airbnb.org, said Airbnb “really taught the world new ways to think about hosting” and that information How To – Airbnb.org Airbnb’s philanthropy began in 2012, when a Brooklyn host suggested the company temporarily house people displaced by Hurricane Sandy. This continued for years, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, before expanding its scope.
Airbnb.org is now helping refugee aid organizations refine the resettlement sponsorship model, first used after the Vietnam War, when American communities would join in to welcome Vietnamese refugees to their territories.
Susan Bailey’s involvement with refugee resettlement began with a phone call from Airbnb in 2017. That was the year the United Nations says the number of people forcibly displaced from their countries reached 68.5 million. Major causes were conflicts in Syria and new crises in Sudan, Myanmar and Yemen. Airbnb was helping resettlement agencies place refugees in short-term housing until they can find permanent homes.
The company needed a place in Denver for a Yemeni refugee and asked Bailey, who has several Airbnb properties in the area, if she could help.
“She kickstarted our journey,” Bailey said.
Belize soon met Jacques Awadh, a student at Yemen College, who had planned to study fashion design in Switzerland. But when war broke out in Yemen, his visa was canceled and he could not return home.
“I was stuck there,” said Awadh, now 28. “I didn’t know what to do.”
With the help of a human rights agency helping LGBTQ people, he ended up in the United States. But Awadh said that his arrival was overwhelming. “I was so scared,” he said, “and I felt lonely. The first four days were miserable.”
He is then taken to live with Belize, who throws him a welcome party at which he meets his neighbors and friends. Over time, he created a support system to help him navigate American life.
“It definitely helped me a lot,” said Awadh, who lived with friends in Belize for almost a year. She helped him enroll at the University of Colorado in Denver and find additional jobs. When Awadh recently graduated with a degree in business administration, Belize attended the ceremony.
They remain a part of each other’s lives as Awadh begins his career in marketing, hoping to pursue his interests in fashion design and music production.
Bailey said that meeting Awadh changed his life. Since their arrival, Belize has housed six other refugee families, including the Alkhafazis. A seventh group – a family of 10 from Afghanistan – arrived earlier this month.
“I think we were tolerant people and very accepting,” she said. “But we are forever rich to know all these people.”
Bailey credits Airbnb and the International Rescue Committee for easing the process of housing the refugees by providing them access to caseworkers and translators.
“She rallied her community in Denver — to provide laptops for kids, to provide rides to job interviews, to help kids get to local schools,” Airbnb’s Gebia said. “I think it was priceless to them.”
Lauren Gray, senior director of global corporate partnerships for the International Rescue Committee, said Airbnb partnered with the group in 2017, which led to a larger partnership — a four-year pledge of $4 million in cash and housing credits.
This year’s crisis in Afghanistan received an even bigger response from Airbnb.org, which was seeded as a non-profit with 400,000 shares of Airbnb stock and donations from its founders.
“Airbnb gave an incredible amount – they promised to house 20,000 Afghans – it was truly unprecedented,” Gray said. “The fact that they were front and center and very vocal and visible about this commitment really helped.”
The experience of the Alkhafazis provides an example of what that partnership can achieve.
Moussa Alkhafaji now works for the International Rescue Committee advising refugees on financial issues. Rasha Alkhafazi is the director of a day care center that teaches children of refugees. Their sons, Jai and Ali, are doing well in school and recently welcomed two dogs, Gnosh and Hero, into the family.
“Just recently, he bought his house,” Gebia said. “They’re following the American dream, you might say.”
Although his initial arrival in America was a high-risk conflict, Alkhafazi is thrilled with how it turned out.
Musa Alkhafaji said, “We have great faith in God and also in deeds.” “So if you do something good in your life, you will find good people in your life to help you.”
“It was life changing,” said Rasha Alkhafaji. “It has made all the difference in our lives now. And we have friends who have become like family.”
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