Wel­come To Amsterdam’s Refugee Ho­tel

ForbesWeekly - - FRONT PAGE - BY SHELLIE KARABELL, FORBES CON­TRIB­U­TOR

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.”

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