The Effect.org volunteers and collaborators. That’s me at the back, waving! Photo by Nadir Noori/Solomon.gr

Hacking the Refugee Crisis

What I Learned and How I Helped in Greece

I recently spent a week in Greece, helping the charity Effect.org to “hack the refugee crisis”. I already published my initial thoughts in an article entitled What is the “Refugee Crisis”? And why should you care?

Now that I’ve returned to the UK, it’s time to reflect on everything else I learned during that intense week, and to evalulate whether, and how much, my presence there helped improve the lives of refugees.

Who I Worked With

Listed below are some of the grassroots charities helping refugees in and around Athens. All of these are supported by Effect.org, financially and/or via the skills of its volunteers. (On my expedition were 15 volunteers, from technology companies Google, Salesforce and Autodesk).

Do Your Part / Oinofyta Refugee Camp

Do Your Part is a US-based disaster response charity, who run the Oinofyta refugee camp, 30 miles north of Athens. Around 500 people live on the camp, mainly Afghan families and single men who — because of their association with US and British companies — face death at the hands of the Taliban if they were to return home.

I was surprised at how pleasant conditions were on the camp. Although the inhabitants still suffer greatly — from psychological scars and from uncertainty about the future — there is a real sense of community, a pride in their temporary home. A successful business, Oinofyta Wares, has been established on the camp premises, run by and for refugees.

My friend Alice Carder has written a great article on what life is like on the camp, both for refugees and for volunteers, and another volunteer Linda Myers blogs regularly about life at Oinofyta.

The incredible community spirit of the camp is a testament to manager and “camp mom” Lisa Campbell. I only met Lisa briefly, but sensed in her someone who combines tenacity and great organisational skills with a deep humanity. You certainly get a sense of that watching this short video of Lisa in action:

Sadly, the Greek government has ruled that from the end of 2017, all refugee camps should be run by the army. They have ordered Oinofyta to close down by the end of the year. I fear what will happen to the community that has arisen here against such adversity.

Campfire Innovation

Campfire Innovation are a tiny charity with a huge impact. They provide networking and know-how to other grassroots charities, so that those charities can operate more effectively. They also provide access to shared resources such as legal, technical and fundraising expertise, so that small charities can focus on what they’re best at — Campfire call this approach SMART AID.

Ioanna from Campfire gave us volunteers a primer on the the refugee crisis which formed the basis for my previous blog post. Ioanna was a fantastic mentor to us all as we got to grips with the current situation in Greece.

Solomon

Solomon are a media production collective. They help refugees by giving them training in journalism and video production, enabling them to publish that content and ultimately make money doing so. While many of their trainees are refugees, they also take on unemployed Greeks and others, and by doing so they promote integration of refugees and natives.

Here’s a very funny video, produced by Solomon, which gets to the heart of their ethos and approach:

We Need Books

We Need Books run libraries and lessons for refugees. They currently have one library in Athens and another at a nearby refugee camp, and intend to open more. Most of their books come via donations, and they have growing collections of Greek and English titles as well as the largest selection of Farsi books in Greece, plus books in German and other languages (particularly dictionaries and travel guides).

Hope Café

Hope Café was one of the simplest but most inspiring projects we visited. Founded by an English woman, Kerrie, who has devoted her life to helping refugees ever since she saw the iconic photo of Alan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish shore.

Kerrie now feeds and clothes hundreds of refugees and unemployed locals from her small Athens café. She herself lives in financial poverty, but the richness of love and human connections to be found in her café were humbling to see.

The Cube

The Cube is a co-working and makerspace which hosted us while we worked in Athens. It also provides numerous workshops and training courses for young refugees and for locals.

What Is Needed

As I learned more about the situation in Greece in 2017, I was increasingly surprised by how much things were not as I had expected them to be. The crisis has moved on since first hitting our screens in 2015. Yes, there are still desperate people arriving in boats, and there is still a shortfall in basics — food, shelter, clothing. But as the crisis moves from acute to chronic, complex long-term needs emerge: legal advice, education, counselling, support, and integration with the local population.

Volunteering is a popular way of helping, but requires careful (and resource-intensive) management if it’s not to be inefficient or even counter-productive.

Effect.org, familiar with the risks associated with “voluntourism”, recruits only volunteers who have the skills and motivation required to help overstretched charities. Our team of volunteers included experts in computer programming, financial analysis, business strategy, process improvement, and more. We put these skills to use to help the above charities be more effective: to raise more funds, and to do more good with minimal resources.

What We Did

During our week in Greece, we helped the above charities in several ways. Some of these were (for us) quick and easy: for Hope Café, we installed accounting software and gave Kerrie basic lessons, so she had confidence using it. For Oinoftya, we fixed broken computers and spreadsheets. Camp manager Lisa says:

Last week we had another visit from the effect.org team. It was a short but very productive visit. We love when they come because it’s like having your IT department come to your desk just to see if you have any problems they can fix! 💙

At the end of our week in Greece we spent an intense three-day “hackathon”, understanding the problems Campfire Innovation and Solomon currently face, and coming up with ways of tackling those problems.

For Campfire Innovation, we built a database and online forms to allow them to match volunteers’ skills to charities in need of those skills. We also built analytic tools which help Campfire spot changing trends in charities’ needs, and so respond early to those changes. We also crunched Campfire’s financial data, using the results to produce a fundraising strategy for the next 18 months. Campfire wrote a great article on our visit, and what they learnt from it.

Solomon’s problems were more fundamental: they have some very talented, enthusiastic people, but we felt they were lacking direction. We started with the basics, collaborating on a mission statement, and using this to plan a restructuring of their website. To supplement this, we developed a sales strategy and a list of operational recommendations which will help them grow their charity over the next 18 months, and ensure that they can fund that growth.

Our week in Greece is over, but we are all still in touch. Our work with all of the charities continues remotely, as we continue to develop and refine these tools and strategies. On top of that, we have made lifelong friendships.

How Can You Help?

There are many ways in which individuals can help, and the Internet means that you don’t even need to leave your home to do so. Campfire Innovation have published a really practical guide on how you can put your skills to best use.

Refugees and the organisations supporting them have, of course, many material needs. The Needs List website lets you know what those needs currently are, and how you can fulfil them.

Finally, money is always appreciated and put to good use, particularly by small grassroots charities. there are a few days left of my push to raise funds for Effect.org. If you have learned something from this article, please click here and donate something.

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