Children living in Elpida, an experimental migrant housing project in Greece

The Secret Aid Worker

Here’s what happened when Mike Zuckerman brought his San Francisco culture hacking ethos to the migrant camps in Greece

Listen to the audio podcast interview with Mike Zuckerman here. Subscribe to the IFTF podcast on iTunes | RSS | Soundcloud | Download MP3

In 2013, Mike Zuckerman, a self-described culture hacker, attended the White House’s National Day of Civic Hacking. Inspired by what he’d learned there, Mike returned to San Francisco and founded [freespace], an organization that focuses on sustainability and urban tactical development. In the spring of 2016, Mike went to Greece where he spent four months rehabilitating an abandoned clothing factory in the industrial sector of Thessaloniki, turning it into a humane shelter that he and his colleagues named Elpida. Unlike the official migrant camps in Greece, where refugees have little say in the day-to-day operations of the camp, Elpida put its 140 residents in charge, and the results were remarkable. Not only is Elpida much less expensive to run on a per person basis than official camps in Greece, the residents don’t suffer from boredom, restlessness, and disengagement like they do at NGO-run camps.

As a pilot model, Elpida offers hope and improved living conditions for refugees in a place where no other NGO was able to provide in this kind of support.

Mike has been working with Institute for the Future as an affiliate since 2014 and recently accepted an IFTF fellowship to help uncover and study new paradigms for restoring vulnerable places and space, such as post-disaster sites, informal refugee settlements, and decaying urban neighborhoods.

I spoke to Mike about his work at Elpida in August, 2016, just days after he returned from Greece.

How did Elpida get started?

The idea for Elpida was by Amed Khan, who spent the last year and a half or so in Greece observing the migrant crisis. He foresaw that there was going to be this lack of suitable housing and camps set up for the migrants that were there, so he had the idea of trying to use private philanthropy and working with either cities or the church or the government to try and set up a space that meets the humanitarian standards.

Tell me about the refugee situation before Elpida.

It’s been a really dynamic situation over the last year or so, starting with a tremendous amount of flow — 2,00o to 3,000 people a day arriving in boats from Turkey to the Greek islands. That was a situation that no one was really prepared for, and the migrants didn’t have the destination of Greece in mind. They mostly were heading to Germany. Greece was just an entry point to the EU.

Mike Zuckerman (striped shirt) with Elpida residents.

Over a million passed through Greece, but back in February, Macedonia shut their border and built a large fence and the military patrolled it. Essentially, you have this backup of people who were heading to Germany and got stopped at the border. They formed a camp called Idomeni. It was a village of about 70 people, and all of a sudden, you had 15,000 migrants there waiting for the border to open. This was a really big challenge for the NGOs, for the migrants themselves, for Greece, and it really highlighted this transformation of the EU being opened borders and to making a big change in the whole dynamics of the EU.

Greece’s government is really cash-strapped, so what were they able to do?

You have this situation of the people arriving on boats to the Greek islands, and making their way to Europe, and then getting stopped to Idomeni. About a month and a half ago, the government made a decision that they were going to close all of the informal camps. That included at the border of Idomeni, but there were also several camps around Northern Greece, close to the border at gas stations, at hotels, as well as at the port Piraeus in Athens, and so the government declared that they were going to close these and relocate people to official camps. This all transpired in the several months that I was over there. Essentially, the solution for putting or for housing the migrants was to rent these warehouses and factories, and essentially just put military tents inside.

That’s where the majority of people were relocated and the UNHCR has audited these camps and they’ve said if they don’t meet minimum standards, the CDC equivalent, the Center for Disease Control of Greece has gone in to these camps and said that three quarters of them need to close because they’re spreading communicable diseases. That’s the current state right now in the end of August, that we still have a tremendous amount of people housed in substandard conditions. The funding for this, as Greece’s government is cash-strapped, they have been relying on NGOs, and also funding from the European union. There’s a batch of funding called the ‘Eco funding’, Eco that heads out to both NGOs and to the Greek Ministry of Defense. A lot of the labor and the materials are being sourced by the Greek military.

What is the quality like in the official housing?

To be honest, it’s substandard. There’s infrastructure wise lack of hot water, lack of water at many times. The toilets are chemical toilets, portapotties. The migrants typically prefer the Turkish style toilets, the squat toilets, and the children go into the Western style portapotties and just use the floor, so about half an hour after they’re cleaned, they’re dirty again. Same case with the showers, the drainage, so you have a situation where people don’t have access to all of the hygiene and sanitary needs that putting a large group of people together would require. On top of that, they’re living in tents that are inside buildings, and they’re not designed for people to live in. They’re very crowded. Then, you have the underlayer on top of that, which is the services. Oftentimes, the food is not desirable. You even had instances during Ramadan where people were fasting during the day, and they wouldn’t even eat the food in the evening, and a lack of medical.There’s been cases of people who have died because they didn’t have medical response in time. There’s violence, so yeah, there’s a whole slew of things that are making the situation that the migrants are living in less than ideal, and in fact, quite sad, but also dangerous. They have these people came to Europe hoping for a better life, fleeing war and have a lot of mental trauma, and frankly, they’re not being received very well. Yeah. That’s the reality of the situation right now.

There is money being spent and resources and people working on it and tremendous amount of volunteers, but the reason why is still a bit of an unknown. There’s only 57,000 migrants currently in Greece. In Turkey for example, you have 3.5 million, so it’s not a numbers issue. It’s either a political issue or a lack of efficient deployment of resources.

Elipida toilets

Could you explain a little bit about how Elpida is different from existing migrant housing?

With the design of Elpida, we’ve included opinions from the refugees themselves from the start. In addition to sector leads in wash, water sanitation, hygiene, protection, there’s a lot of issues that go into setting up a refugee camp that are not typical of ordinary construction projects. The idea was to ask them, “What would they like to see in a place? What’s lacking in this place?” and observe how they set up their social spaces in these informal camps. We looked at how they clustered together amongst families or ethnicity, and really, to the extent of bringing the blueprints into the camps and locating people who were architects back in Syria or interior designers, and having them put pen to paper on the actual blueprints, and using those with our architect, Haratini, a local Greek woman. The reason that she was the architect is because she was willing to take input and have it be a dynamic process that there were changes constantly made as new factors were brought up by people who have experience and by the refugees themselves.

“One of the main differences between NGO housing and Elpida, is that Elpida uses a design process that’s iterative and participatory with the the migrants themselves.”

That’s one of the main difference in Elpida, is using the design process that’s iterative and participatory with the end user who are the migrants themselves. Some of the things that they requested were privacy and security, natural light, hot water, Wi-Fi, education for their children, and utilizing all of these, that these inputs we started to build out the space, where from scratch, we weren’t going to use tents inside and we located a 60,000 square foot former fabric factory and began to demolish it, removed the wiring, and start from scratch in setting up rooms. There are a set of Sphere standards, which establish the minimum requirements for temporary housing. They include things like 20 people per toilet, 50 people per shower, 3.5 square meters per person living space, natural light, ventilation, one handicap toilet for every 500 people. These are the minimum standards. We use those to inform our design, but we really wanted to go beyond the minimum because the reality is that many of the migrants that are currently in Greece are going to be there for quite a while. There’s a plan to relocate them, but the rest of the EU countries have pretty much stopped or greatly slowed their acceptance of asylum seekers.

Do you know what the cost per person at Elpida is versus the cost per person at the official, more traditional camps?

Yeah. In trying to breakdown the cost associated with providing for the refugees, there’s the design and build of the infrastructure, and then there’s the camp operations. We’ve only been open for less than a month now, so we don’t have a full gauge of the operational cost, but as far as the build, the infrastructure setup, what we’ve heard that the large NGO spend on simply water, sanitation, and hygiene — showers, toilets, sinks—at a field camp is greater than what we spent on the entire build-out to date, for around 200 migrants. If you’re looking to compare the cost of the build-out for the infrastructure, I’d say we’re right around half of what the typical larger NGOs are spending, and the quality is certainly greater. If you look at the toilets for example, when talking to people in the camps, they said, “We prefer the squat toilets and a hose, and if you provide that, we’ll clean them ourselves.”

We installed porcelain squat toilets with a hose. There’s no toilet paper in the bathroom, and the toilets are spotless.

That’s exactly what we did. We installed porcelain squat toilets with a hose. There’s no toilet paper in the bathroom, and the toilets are spotless. The residents have set up a system where there’s two rooms that are responsible for the men’s toilets per week to rooms that are responsible for the women’s per week, and they rotate. That’s part of the whole concept where again, that this is their home. This is an apartment. They’re fully capable. They used to take care of themselves back in Syria, and that’s one of the major fundamental differences and approach that we’re taking is oftentimes, refugees are seen as helpless, and a humanitarian aid system largely creates dependency on itself. One of our main aspirations at Elpida and in general with the migrant crisis is shifting people’s opinions about who these refugees are. They have this perception in the media as being dangerous, potential ISIS, and completely helpless, and scourge on society, and really, these are families. They’re good people. They want the same things that everyone else does. They were a largely middle-class, educated part of society back in Syria, and if given the proper infrastructure they would be able to run the place themselves, and in fact be able to thrive. They have this pent-up … Their living situation at the state-run camps has largely left them helpless to be able to change their situation. For example, there’s a resident we have named Zoher who was a landscaper back in Syria, and he’s taken ownership of that at our space.

Their living situation at the state-run camps has largely left them helpless to be able to change their situation. The refugees themselves have a desire, and the skills, and the passion to be able to create and be able to transform the space we’ve set up for them into their home.

He was out all night with a rake in his hands and his knees with no light, creating channels for irrigation, and so we took him to the gardening store the next day, and he bought seeds, and plants, and plumbing to set up a sprinkler system and drip irrigation. He’s had this in him this whole time. One of the main complaints we were hearing from the migrants is that they were bored, and they have nothing to do and they don’t feel empowered. Again, this is a cost to maintain a camp where you usually would hire people to pick up the trash and to clean the toilets, and to take care of the grounds if they even go to that extent, but instead, the refugees themselves have a desire, and the skills, and the passion to be able to create and be able to transform the space that we’ve set up for them into their home.

Do you think that’s the main cost savings—the fact that the people living there are contributing to the camp themselves?

No. I think we do wind up saving money on certain sector lead that we don’t need to have present like wash for example for cleaning the toilets and such. We haven’t been open for a long enough time yet to determine exactly how much what our operating costs are, but this humanitarian crisis is different in several ways. One, the major one is it’s in Europe, and a lot of these preexisting NGOs have a lot of experience working in Africa, and other developing countries that don’t have the same regulations and political climate, working withdifferent codes and complications. I’ve been referring to it as “The Great Wall of Greece.”

Lots of group show up ready to help the refugees, and they run into all sorts of complications where even groups that have received money from the EU don’t know how to effectively spend it. It’s a very complicated political environment, and this has led to part of the fact that there even is this crisis.

Why is it about half the price per person when it sounds like the living conditions are so much better?

Being able to work with private philanthropy money and volunteers is something that’s unique with this project. There isn’t a lot of bureaucratic decision making or overhead that comes with the way that we’ve set it up. One example is we needed door stops and there’s all sorts of horror stories about procurement inside of these large organizations where you need to get a couple bids and fill out a form, where we just took a couple of two by fours and a miter saw and made them in 20 minutes and had 50 of them. There’s certain efficiencies that come with being an independent organization. The volunteers have been fantastic, working with the group called Better Days Memoria.

They have done all the volunteer coordination. We’ve had about 600 volunteers come through before we even opened our doors, and it’s different working with volunteers who are here because they want to be and they’re really passionate, and this is a calling they have in life versus hiring contractors. We did it half with Greek contractors, and then half with volunteers. The contractors are licensed and ensured, and they’re dealing with things like the electricity, and the wiring, and the plumbing, the carpentry, but they essentially come in from seven to four, and they follow the plans and do what the site manager instructs them to, whereas the volunteers have a lot more … We call it, they ‘Add the sparkle’.

They have done all the volunteer coordination. We’ve had about 600 volunteers come through before we even opened our doors, and it’s different working with volunteers who are here because they want to be and they’re really passionate, and this is a calling they have in life versus hiring contractors. We did it half with Greek contractors, and then half with volunteers. The contractors are licensed and ensured, and they’re dealing with things like the electricity, and the wiring, and the plumbing, the carpentry, but they essentially come in from seven to four, and they follow the plans and do what the site manager instructs them to, whereas the volunteers add the sparkle.

They look at a space and bring it to life in their own creative way or they bring different experiences and passions that they have and apply them to the project. It’s remarkable to see what comes out of that because you just have this tremendous desire of people to contribute and to help out, and largely, the state-run camps, you’re not able as an independent volunteer to get access to the camp even. You have to be a formerly registered organization. You need to submit a proposal of what you’re going to do, and you need to be approved by the police department. That’s really been nice for us to be able to negotiate a contract with Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas, and that stated that we had the final say in design and build because we are providing the funding and we really have seen a lack of proper design in the official camps, and we wanted to ensure that we were providing what the residents themselves requested.

That’s the underlying philosophy behind the camp is that if we can provide proper infrastructure and enable the residents to participate in the process and to manage the camp themselves, then you’ll really start to see a drop in the violent outbursts between them, and a lot of the problems that you’re seeing at the regular camps would decrease or possibly even go away if you can provide people with a dignified living space and a purpose, and a responsibility and agency over the space. For the most part, it’s worked faster than at least than I expected.

How many people are in Elpida now?

Currently, we have 172 residents. We’ve had two babies born in the last week, so the number jumped up. We’re largely taking in or we’re only taking in families with vulnerable cases. The way that we set up the rooms, they’re fairly large, and each one has a window and natural light and ventilation. The way that the factory was built, for the top floor at least, which is the only floor we’ve completed at this point, they’re designed for large families. We’ve taken in vulnerable case families—pregnant women, victims of physical or sexual assault, people with health conditions, and if there’s an individual that really needed to get out of the camp, that was what was prioritized by the ministry, but we don’t just take them. We take their entire family to make sure we have family unification.

Are you at capacity now or do you think that the current site could hold more refugees?

We’re not currently at capacity. Part of this being a pilot refugee camp was to do it in stages. We’ve currently only completed the build-out of the top floor of a two-story building. This was intentional to test the waters and see how this experiment would work, to see how the residents use the space, and to include them in the build-out of the downstairs. Currently, we have just under 200 residents, but we are looking to get to a final target of about 600.

What is it going to take to make the scale, not only where you are now, but in other parts around the world?

Although we’ve taken in a number of families, we still get requests on a daily basis from the ministry, from refugees themselves through our Facebook group, through volunteers who have identified vulnerable cases, and currently, we are at capacity, so it’s difficult to not be able to take in more, but the answer is we really just need to build more spaces where people can live in a safe environment. The intention from the start of this project is that this is a pilot. If this project can serve an example of how resources can be more efficiently used, I think that could be really helpful. We’ve had a writer who’s been following us throughout the process. Instead of having her piece come out in a magazine or something, we’re looking to get this published in an academic journal, so maybe not with the same distribution, but a more targeted approach to some of the decision makers and the policy makers and the administrators of these larger organizations.

We have a number of site visits where we’ve had all of the big agencies come through the space and have had visits from the U.S. Consulate General. At this point, we’re really just honing it. I look at my deployment degrees in phases. The first couple of weeks was observation and going around and visiting as many camps as I could in Greece and a few in Turkey, talking to the locals and the NGOs and the refugees themselves. Then, the second phase was identifying a site and securing it and getting a contract signed with the ministry of migration to be able to be able to be an official camp. The third phase was design, build, and recruitment of partners and sector leads.

The fourth phase, that we’re currently in right now, is camp management. We have residents there. We’re figuring out systems. Situations are arising that we couldn’t fully anticipate, and as things are leveling out and we’re getting our systems in place, the next phase is about how we start to really bring some of the innovative solutions out there to honing the camp and making it as self-sufficient as possible. Some of these things could include growing food on site and setting the residents up with their own kitchens so they can cook for themselves, and really start to hone the process so that the project is really serving as a pilot, but this is an iterative process and we’re really just trying to figure out how the residents want to use the space.

This model is scalable. Part of trying to help the economic crisis simultaneously with the refugee crisis is instead of building field camps, upgrading Greek infrastructure. In some ways, it’s almost reminiscent of Detroit. There’s a lot of projects that started that never finished construction. There’s a lot of finished projects that are currently vacant. I think that’s where the scalability can happen, by utilizing the massive amount of resources that are being poured into this humanitarian crisis, and use it to upgrade Greek infrastructure. The current Pritzker Prize winner from Chile, Alejandro Aravena, is working with this concept of incremental architecture where he doesn’t complete the housing units. He has the residents move in and allow some of the budget to be left over to complete the building to their liking.

The current Pritzker Prize winner from Chile, Alejandro Aravena, is working with this concept of incremental architecture where he doesn’t complete the housing units. He has the residents move in and allow some of the budget to be left over to complete the building to their liking.

After seeing him win the prize a few months ago and reading some of the articles, I couldn’t help but see his final product being what’s currently available all over Greece. I think there’s a number of different ways that we can reach a greater number of camps and of housing units that are up to standard, and those can come in a variety of ways from taking over abandoned buildings, vacant apartment complexes, resorts, but really focusing on how do we take this and make it an investment in the future of Greece and not just a stopgap that’s going to be wasted.

One thing that I’m curious about is your personal involvement and interest in that. What’s your background and how did you get interested in this project and end up becoming project manager?

I’ve always had an interest in creating spaces. The spaces that I’m most interested in are ones that are curated by the people who use them, so applying some of the concepts that have come about in the last 20, 30 years as we have digital communication such as open-source and user-generated content and open APIs, and applying those back to the physical realm. Now, when you have the ability to copy and paste something, you can make trillions of copies with no additional cost. That’s one of the conditions that allows some of these concepts like open-source and user-generated content thrive. Now, if you have a situation where you don’t have to pay rent for a building because it’s not currently being utilized and you can activate it, you can allow those same concepts to come into the decision making and the ethos of the building you’re inhabiting.

I’ve done several activations, from screening the World Cup in Uganda in 2010, to helping create resource centers and post-disaster zones, to urban revitalization, taking empty buildings and renting them for a dollar a month, and opening them up to the community in a project called [freespace]. The brother of Amed Khan is a friend of mine who’s familiar with my work at Freespace. He just forwarded an email to me while I was at IFTF’s ten-year forecast this year and said that they were looking for someone to open a camp, and that previous refugee camp experience wasn’t required. They were just looking for someone who can figure out situations on the ground and work not in a structured environment. I got an email on a Thursday, and got on a plane on a Monday and went out there to observe the situation and see what we could do to set up a space with these same kind of principles of iterative design and creating agency, and a human-centered design approach to setting up a refugee camp.

That’s really amazing. Congratulations on doing something that sounds like it has a lot of potential.

Yes. It’s still early. Refugees in Greece right now is a very complicated situation. Sometimes it feels like a house of cards, but we are really proud of the team that’s come together and stepped up and created something that really is something to be proud of, and first and foremost is providing a safe space to our residents.

When are you headed back out there?

That’s a question even if I’m going back. I feel like I must. I’m pretty hooked, and I feel uniquely qualified and even more qualified than I was when I went the first time on a whim. Just being able to have the relationships already in Greece and built a reputation for ourselves as implementers which is not very common in a country right now. I don’t know. I’m heading up to Burning Man and that’s usually a good place for me to ask those questions and figure out a plan.

A totally different kind of encampment.

Yes. That’s another one of the concepts, which may happen next spring, is to set up a Burning Man type festival for about 10,000. Do a design charrette beforehand and come up with what to some of the ideal materials are and systems and processes, and then purchase the materials and recruit builders and basically set it up, have a party, and then leave it in place. Don’t take it down. It’s a leave-a-positive trace festival.

For more information about Mike Zuckerman’s work and about everything IFTF does, visit IFTF’s website.

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