#RefugeeSenseTour: discovering European refugee initiatives

Dec 16, 2015 · 9 min read

There is nothing better than personal encounters. Travelling is deep in the MakeSense DNA — it was a project born on a trip, and the community it attracts is one of people who are frequently moving around the world in the mission to push social entrepreneurship.

My name is Daniel, I have helped setup MakeSense in Germany since 2011 and at the beginning of this year, looking at where the energy of the Berlin community was going, I thought it would make sense to focus a whole month of activities around projects and social startups that are looking to improve the situation of refugees.

What made me aware of the inadequate ways our politicians and society is dealing with the needs of people that had to flee their homes, was a trip itself.

In 2012, refugees from all over Germany marched to Berlin to openly protest in civil disobedience the ‘Residenzpflicht’ — a law that restricted people from leaving the district they are registered in — not even to visit their families. There is no comparable law in the world, and the demonstrators even went into a hunger strike in front of Brandenburg Gate in the cold November of 2012, and I was there, talking to people, giving a helping hand, and showing solidarity. I’m an activist at heart after all. In the end, there as a deal that ended the hunger strike, and in January 2015, this law was more or less suspended.

But there are so many more things to do. The largest migration of people since World War II is happening at the gates of Europe and it is an enormous challenge. Through the eyes of the social entrepreneurs I met in Berlin who are finding innovative answers, I learned to see what some call as the ‘crisis’ as an opportunity in disguise.

I was very fortunate to go on a #RefugeeSenseTour around Europe at the end of October, where I met many people from the MakeSense community interested in getting more engaged with this. We did “SenseDrinks” in the different cities to engage with people and explain the MakeSense’s strategy for the refugee cause. I attended conferences, I visited coworking spaces, I talked to people on trains and in bus stops about the issue, and gained a lot of insights into what is on people’s minds when they think about the ‘refugee crisis’.

Through those many conversations and discussions, the strategy kept evolving to become stronger and more insight-driven than before. This is where MakeSense draws its strength from, it’s what I call the ju-jitsu principle: We work with the energy from our community and refocus it to make sense. I also had the chance to meet some extraordinary people who are changing perceptions and changing the world, and I would like to showcase a few examples that stayed with me.

Stop 1 #Paris: Establishing the framework

My first stop brought me to Paris, the center of the MakeSense planet. I got to meet the founder of Singa, who have been working for more than 4 years with refugees and integrating them into French society. Their program ‘CALM — Comme A La Maison’ is very similar to ‘Flüchtlinge Willkommen’, which in the media has often been described as a ‘AirBnB for refugees’ which is not quite accurate, but makes it easier to understand for the casual reader. We spoke a long time and as they have been building an eye-level community approach to integration, I think they learned a lot of lessons that other groups can learn a lot from. Fortunately, they are expanding internationally quickly.

In Paris, I also had the chance to meet Captain Klaus Vogel, so started S.O.S. Mediterranée which plans to take a boat out to the Mediterranean to save people from drowning. They were in the middle of their crowdfunding campaign, and the gang in Paris decided to support them and help with the mobilization room strategy we previously developed for campaigns. Seeing how different the two projects already were, we identified the first value we could bring, to structure the landscape so a daunting challenge can become more manageable to understand. So we created the following structure as a framework to understand what is needed.

Stop 2 #Brussels — The European Parliament and a delicate invitation

Picture by the Committee of the Regions

I continued my trip to Brussels, where I was invited to speak at the 6th edition of the EuroPCom in Brussels, the European Conference on Public Communication. It was a fantastic opportunity to show how bottom-up community-building is predicated on listening to people and giving the opportunities to engage, and it was very well received among the politicians in the ‘Brussels bubble’.

On the train to Belgium I had a particularly random encounter: I met the Honorary Consulate of Belgium to Syria, and we had a conversation for the entire train ride. At the end, he told me he respected what we were doing and invited me to be his guest and visit to Syria to see the situation for myself. To this day, I am debating whether I will go there to see how we as MakeSense can actually be a force for good and help create a situation where people can rebuild their country and create opportunities for this generation that had to witness so much tragedy. If I decide to go, it will be well-documented through the MakeSense network.

We also had a huge SenseDrink in Brussels where many connections were made — a new group setting up Singa in Belgium, some people working in the EU Institutions and the MakeSense gang came together to involve more people for refugees.

Stop 3 #Maastricht — Cultural activities linking locals and newcomers

In Maastricht, I met Lucas, an entrepreneur who organizes cultural events with local populations and refugees, such as cooking activities or music festivals, gathering up to 800 people! His organization “Not just a number” is working on the integration of refugees through skills development and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

His biggest challenge is access to sustainable funding and support in becoming more structured in his approach: To help him solve this challenge, please contact daniel@makesense.org or camille@makesense.org

Stop 4 #Rome — Football fighting against racism

In Rome, the day after giving a talk at the university, I ended up in the outskirts of the city in an unusual place: a football field. I was invited there by Alberto and his friends, huge football fans who were fed up with the fascist image of football fans in Italy, so 8 years ago, they decided to do something about it. They started a club to fight against racism, Liberi Nantes, the first refugee football club.

This club is even playing in the official Italian league! Through a common passion, football, refugees create strong links with each other and promote of way of playing football that encourages mutual respect and joy instead of violence or racism.

Alberto is currently facing financial challenges and looking for people to help him build a new sustainable model: check the website if you are interested. This was a moving experience that I wrote a small blogpost about.

Stop 5 #Vienna — A design hotel run by refugees

In Vienna, I visited a very particular place: Magda’s Hotel. Why is this hotel so special? It actually is a social business that is run by refugees, giving them an opportunity to work and learn how to run a hotel. What I liked most about it, was that it’s simply a beautifully designed hotel, and the only time they talk about refugees working there, is in the context of their strengths: Do you know any other hotel where the staff speaks 38 languages?

The aim of this beautiful place is to provide a normal way of life to refugees and integration into the job market, where despite having the legal right to work, they are often discriminated against. By using tourism business, Magdas is valorising and developing the skills of refugees, and making it a very friendly and welcoming place!

If you’re in Vienna, don’t hesitate to spend the night or to have a coffee there

Stop 6 #Zurich — Exchanging ideas and creating links between entrepreneurs

Finally in Zurich, I gave a talk on MakeSense and our current mobilization on refugees during the first Social Innovation Summit Zurich, and garnered a lot of interest in some MakeSense activities in Zurich. The slogan of the summit, “Take Action, Leave Impact!”, is a good representation of my mission on the #RefugeeSenseTour. Through the countless encounters and meetings I had, and introductions and connections I made, I like to think that I left some impact.

Stop 7 #Berlin — Back (to work)

However, this is only the beginning, not the end. I collected a lot of thoughts and insights on my trip, and now it’s time to act on them. After scouting projects all around Europe we have seen that similar models are being built in many places. What is often missing are flagship entrepreneurs that stand out as shining examples for other initiators to learn quickly and be more efficient. Too often, there are good ideas, but they do not receive the proper visibility.

Furthermore, these projects do not enough support to build a structured and rapidly going model, and they’re stretching the hours and often burning the candle from both ends. This is a dangerous path; changemakers need to have support that they can balance their lives even in the face of the enormous challenge, where action often seems nothing but a drop in the ocean. Civil society has taken responsibility where politics has failed, and it’s time to give them the support they need and want to continue creative value for society our fellow humans.

During all my tour, I could not help to think that we already have a proven model of a program that helps social startups develop: the SenseCube. It runs programs in Paris and Mexico City that help young enterprises build their structure and gain global visibility, and I believe that this is how we can best contribute to the ecosystem. Therefore, my focus is to set up this program in Berlin, where a lot of innovation on the issue is happening, and the quickly expand the model all over the continent.

But we at MakeSense don’t stop there. Mobilizing people all around the continent and world is what we do, and seeing the reactions of people to the stories of these inspiring entrepreneurs and projects showed me that there is an enormous willingness, all over Europe, to tackle these challenges. This is the opportunity I speak of: Times like these that test our character, our integrity, will show us what kinds of people we are. In the faces of the people I have met, making change in large way or small, I could see a strength of character that is not only inspiring, but contagious. When I told their stories, I could see people’s face light up in almost the exact way as the entrepreneurs’ faces.

It’s in times of challenge that we really grow, and challenges are what MakeSense is all about. Over the next weeks, we will continue to build the framework to make it easy for people to understand what they can do and then take action. We will turn the narrative from the fear-driven “refugee cisis wave” to an opportunity to become a better society for all people.

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