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Citizen-led CALM system making refugees feel at home

As part of our Beyond Crisis: Innovative Approaches to the Integration of Migrants collection, this article explores one such initiative.

The reception of refugees cannot just be seen as an emergency measure. In France, 4 000 offers from families willing to host refugees have been received by CALM (“Comme A La Maison” / "just like home"), a system set up by SINGA, an association helping asylum seekers.

An innovative, citizen-led initiative, the CALM system links poorly housed or homeless refugees with individuals who offer them a place to stay. It relies on a growing community of citizens wishing to engage in the hosting of refugees and, as of December 2015, a new web platform will enable the initiative to broaden its impact.

According to Antoine Saint-Denis, an expert in social innovation (AEIDL / Europe for People), "CALM and, more generally, SINGA, are emblematic of a new approach to addressing social needs. The digital society leads to the development of innovative solutions in which the beneficiaries are seen as co-inventors of solutions, while social enterprise brings new approaches that are less dependent on public policy."

Since the project began on the 20 June 2015, World Refugee Day, the number of hosting proposals coming through the SINGA website has exploded, from only 20 between June and August, to over 12 000 proposals in September. Around 4 000 people are now registered to offer accommodation (a house, apartment or room), demonstrating a level of spontaneity that contrasts with the intransigence often associated with issues related to immigration.

"We have all kinds of people registering: farmers, bankers, people who live in the countryside, in towns, Paris, Montpellier, Brussels" says Alice Barbe, one of SINGA’s co-funders.

The CALM initiative is based on a simple principle: the recognition that refugees have rights - including the right to work - but they often speak no French and have no network, which impedes their integration. Yet "refugees are entrepreneurs, they have talents and can be a source of intercultural wealth, and of job creation," says Alice Barbe. Hence the idea of ​​finding them a temporary housing solution can help them "to land, to understand the society they are in, meet French people and, more generally, find more serenity during this period of stress and anxiety."

Founded in February 2012 by Nathanaël Molle and Guillaume Capelle, the SINGA Association seeks to create space and tools that can facilitate exchange and cooperation between refugees and their host society, promoting inclusion, cultural enrichment and job creation.

The association, which had a budget of 9 000 euros in its first year, is hoping to increase this to 200 000 euros in 2015. "We're not far off", says Alice Barbe. "We have a hybrid business model. First, Nathanaël is an ‘Ashoka Fellow’, which means that the project is financially supported by this social entrepreneur network. This grant allowed us to develop quickly.” SINGA is also funded by foundations such as the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, the Free Foundation, and also by private companies.

CALM works only with recognised refugees, people whose asylum application has been accepted, although many volunteers who call the association do not differentiate between the various categories, they just want to help.

"Many say: ‘I have no home but I want to do something’", says Nathanaël Molle, who presented the project to the Brussels Francophone Parliament on the 29 October. "It is a sign of the mobilization sparked by the repeating tragedies on the borders of Europe. Today you can feel a real awakening of civil society on this issue. ‘We can no longer stand idly by’, this is the message that we receive all the time," he says, emphasizing how important it is to fight against the ‘pessimistic’ image of refugees.

About 100 people have found accommodation through the CALM system so far, and SINGA officials are stepping up the number of meetings with interested families, to ensure they are properly briefed and trained (1,500 families to date). "There may be cultural differences leading to misunderstanding," says Nathanaël Molle. "You must also be aware that refugees are highly concerned about staying in touch with family. It is better not to ask why the person left, where his family is, his reactions to imprisonment and torture ... The approach must be to focus on how to build the future together."

The right “match” is very important, says the co-founder of SINGA. "We promote the development of relationships between refugees and citizens who have the same passions. We tell applicants ‘If you are a football, chess, drama, museum, dance or music enthusiast, we are sure to find refugees who have the same passions.’ They can also organise events, training, offer language courses (in all languages), or just invite refugees to come and enjoy a good typical dish.”

"It is important, for example, that refugees and families establish a charter on everyday activities," says Alice Barbe. “The commitment is not financial, nor definitive: if one of the two parties does not wish to continue we try to solve the problem but if it does not work, we stop," she insists.

True to its digital and collaborative approach, in September SINGA launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund the launch of a CALM application. The programme is now accessible via the Internet or by going directly to the association.  The application should be ready in December.

The small team (ten people), which combines the spirit of a start-up and the enthusiasm of a citizen group, is already planning the next steps: developing its presence throughout France and in Quebec by the end of the year... Later, SINGA wishes to launch similar projects in Germany and Belgium.

Alice Barbe is convinced: "If we give a chance to these refugees and if we improve the conditions of their reception, we will create a society where living together is possible for everyone."

(sources: Antoine Saint-Denis / AEIDL, SINGA, Le Télégramme, Les

Read more from the Beyond Crisis: Innovative Approaches to the Migrant Integration collection here.