The day after President Donald Trump’s executive order in January suspending refugee resettlement and barring travel to the U.S. from seven countries, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky told employees in an email that the company would provide free housing to refugees and anyone affected by the travel ban.
While the ban has since been revised and is now mired in legal challenges, the San Francisco-based home-sharing website has announced a goal to provide short-term housing over the next five years for 100,000 people in need, including refugees, disaster survivors and relief workers.
Airbnb’s work with refugees grew out of the Disaster Response Program launched in 2013 after New Yorkers used the platform to offer shelter to people displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Under the program, hosts offer free temporary accommodation for displaced people and Airbnb waives all booking fees. The company also donates travel credits to allow relief workers to book accommodation with Airbnb hosts.
As part of our interview series with private sector leaders engaging in the refugee crisis, Refugees Deeply spoke to Kellie Bentz, head of Global Disaster Response & Relief at Airbnb, about the company’s work with refugees to date.
Refugees Deeply: How did Airbnb’s work with refugees begin?
Kellie Bentz: In partnership with the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, we hosted a discussion in the summer of 2015 with about 20 to 30 companies, which was the beginning of our deeper dialogue with the U.N. and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) about the global refugee crisis.
By September 2015, our community was consistently indicating that they wanted to take action on the crisis emerging in Europe. Then, in October 2015, we started working extensively with UNHCR, International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps to provide housing credits to their relief workers on the front lines.
Our commitment to doing more and learning from our work with these terrific organizations led to our more recent commitment to house 100,000 displaced people and relief workers within the next five years.
Refugees Deeply: How did you decide what would be the most useful and efficient role for Airbnb to play?
Bentz: Our approach was developed to address both the global crisis and specific local challenges in places like Europe and the Middle East. We believe that our global community and our platform are a powerful combination to help raise awareness, raise much-needed financial resources and provide both online and offline solutions to specific obstacles faced by refugees and their families. UNHCR, Mercy Corps and the IRC continue to be our key nongovernmental partners in this important work. Their counsel and input have guided our work at every step of the way.
Refugees Deeply: What results have you seen from the company’s refugee programs to date, and what are your goals for the next year?
Bentz: We have provided over 3,000 nights of free housing to relief workers working in refugee camps in Kos, Lesvos, Ionniana, Athens, Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We matched up to $1 million in contributions [in 2016] from our community to UNHCR to support their work with refugees.
During the 2016 holiday season, over 350 Airbnb hosts [in the U.S.] and resettled refugee families shared holiday meals to find common ground and to learn more about one another. Over the course of 2017, we will be expanding this initiative to Canada and Europe, enabling our community to offer warm meals and create new bonds with future citizens.
We supported a two-day hackathon to develop prototypes for open-source educational solutions for refugees. We also provided accommodation for the team of relief workers who helped produce After Spring, a documentary that tells the story of two Syrian families at the Zaatari refugee camp, and the aid workers fighting to keep the camp running.
Refugees Deeply: What have you learned about the risks and opportunities that companies are likely to face in addressing the refugee crisis?
Bentz: Belonging is core to our mission and we believe that everyone can be a part of the solution. This includes the private sector and government entities coming together to identify where we can all contribute and collaborate to create empathy driven impact.
Airbnb was one of the initial partners to sign on with the Tent Partnership at Davos in January 2016. We believe it is important to encourage as many private sector entities as possible to contribute to a part of the global refugee crisis solution in their own unique way. The partnership is a convener of both private sector and nonprofit partners in this space.
Refugees Deeply: How are you measuring the success of the company’s refugee programs?
Bentz: We have a goal to provide short-term housing over the next five years for 100,000 people in need. To help meet this goal, Airbnb will contribute $4 million over the course of four years to the IRC to support the most critical needs of displaced populations globally. We will measure our progress against this goal.
This interview was conducted by email and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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