Welcome To Amsterdam’s Refugee Hotel
Charlie MacGrgor and his 30-something friends had a tradition of hitting the beaches in Ibiza for those end-of-summer parties. But 2015, a shocking news photo of a toddler refugee washed up on a Turkish beach near Bodrun changed all that. Two of the group, Adil Izemrane and Johnny de Mol, immediately decided not to party on Ibiza, but to lend the helping hand on Lesvos—a Greek Island along the Aegean coast north of Turkey, a favored landing point for refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria- where MacGregor joined them in short order.
“We saw boats arriving on the beach with no one there to meet these people…6,000 people a day, and no one to help them except some local law enforcement officials, a few members of the local Greek community and some volunteers from all over the world,” MacGregor told me in a telephone interview for this blog. “We would drive along the beach and see boats arriving…and we just couldn’t leave. We had to do something.”
MacGregor has a history in this business. A Scott, he has been cresting business for 17 years; 13 years ago he moved to start-up friendly Amsterdam and today runs The Student Hotel, an enterprise that bills itself as a the World’s Biggest Complete Connected Community for students who believe in co-working and co-living. There are Student Hotels in Amsterdam (2), Rotterdam, The Hague, Groningen. Eindhoven, Maastricht, Barcelona, Paris and Florence.
A Hotel Run By Refugees
Today that philosophy has spread to a new hotel concept: 16 rooms for paying guests in a government-run refugee center along the Amstel River housed in a former prison. It’s an experiment in hospitality and social engineering—scheduled to open in August and run through the end of this year, when the prison is expected
to be sold and ultimately demolished. The idea for the Refuge Hotel was born in Lesvos, as MacGregor and friends pitched in to help these unwanted “guests” from Syria and other centers of unrest and uncertainty.
“We realized that between us we had a lot of know-how and very good business connections, especially in the Netherlands,” Charlie remembers. “We could do something about this refugee situation.” What they did in Lesvos was create a new standard to deliver a more dignified, sustainable and innovative response to the refugee crisis.
It started with supplies of blankets, food, medical supplies and clothing. Then came the heavy lifting: MacGregor, his friends and co-founders set up the foundation Movement on
the Ground a charity to help refugees arriving in Europe. The first thing was to improve the quality and facilities of the ad hoc refugee camps. “We realized these people ended up in dysfunctional camps and we thought we could do better,” he says. “They were sterile, lacked design; there was no effort to inspire. There was this negative cycle of despair,” he remembers. “We wanted to show the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations that there was a better way to do this.”
The group invested in design and in one of the Lesvos camps provided solar panels that provided off-grid energy. Then it became clear that once refugees had overcome the trauma of flight, what they really needed to re-settle in a new environment was…jobs.
“You’d see this guy sitting in front of you wearing Manchester United t-shirt,” MacGregor recalls, “and your mind said ‘refugee.’ Then he tells you he was a banker in Syria who handed clients with accounts over €50 million, or he’s an engineer who specializes in energy and knows all about solar. Many of them speak English. These men were pressured to join the fighting—by the government, then by ISIS, then by organized crime…so they fled with whatever they could carry.”
Jobs, Not Handouts
MacGregor and friends believed a good way to alleviate the cost and difficulty of integrating refugees—financially and socially—was to find them jobs. That involved training and placement. And that meant getting buy-in from businesses. His own Student Hotel enterprise took on the job of training refugees for hotel jobs. “The refugees all have papers to live and work in the Netherlands legally,” he says. “All they lacked was training to run a hotel; now they are baristas, health and safety officers, check-in clerks, guest relations managers...”
Active in the refugee crisis in Lesvos since 2015, MacGregor received permission in June from the City of Amsterdam to open his pop-up hotel in the Bijlmerbajes prison-turned-refugee center, where more than 70 companies are already present. The 16 designercreated double rooms at The Movement Hotel Bijlmerbajes are about 150-square feet each. The restaurant, “A Beautiful Mess,” run by The Refugee Company, is already serving meals to the public and will be the hotel’s breakfast room. You can already reserve a “cell” for August through the end of the year. It’s a hotel for guests who want a different experience while visiting what is arguably Europe’s most diverse and innovative capital city.
MacGregor is using crowd funding to raise €50,000 by early August to open the hotel. They’re also looking for structural donations such as linens and towels, beds and pillows as these must be replenished constantly. The rest will come from operational revenues; any profits will be re-invested in training more refugees.
“We hope to show that big business can play a big role in resettling refugees,” MacGregor says. “Especially hotel companies. We don’t want refugees to remain cut-off, unhappy and angry. It’s better for everyone if they are settled and successful.”