What I learned about the refugee crisis from a visit to Greek Islands

Part 1: MakeSense global refugee effort
Part 2: Why we need to build a safer passage to Europe

It has everything of a Greek tragedy. The gods while getting bored decide to have fun with humans by directing the largest mass migration in recent history to the shores of one of the most beautiful islands in Greece. You may have heard stories of it but seeing it first-hand brings the inconvenience of not being able to ignore it anymore.

From the 2nd to the 5th of October, I was in Greece with a bunch of 30 social entrepreneurship enthusiasts. We were mainly on the Island of Lesbos which is the north of the Aegean sea, 10km away from Turkey and as big as two times Berlin. Lesbos sees 4000 refugees arriving every day to its shores.

The purpose of our trip, as part of the Startupboat programme, was to identify solutions for refugees’ problems and to deploy them on site. I was interested in joining to learn more about the pain points facing migrants at the point of arrival and to see how it is on the ground and how our MakeSense community can best help.

Let me share with you the story of my trip and extend some key learnings I came across.

Day 1: Brainstorming Big ideas

The journey started with a 12h ferry trip from Athens to Lesbos. During this ride, I gave an overview of some Berlin-based RefugeeTech solutions I came to know through MakeSense’s Refugee Cause Month and we spend some time brainstorming and imagining solutions for refugees which we would experiment with the day after. Some of these ideas include a chartered plan to transport refugees from Turkey to Europe, a wifi hotspot in the shore of lesbos and a blockchain-based digital identity platform.

Day 2 : Grasping the scale of the issue

In Lesbos, we met with some of the local NGOs and visited the two main refugee camps. “Karatepe” which is dedicated to Syrians and “Muria”, a former prison transformed into a camp for all the other nationalities.

After that, I’ve found myself in Aias’s car. Aias is an everyday hero. He left his job in Athens and came here to help out with the refugee situation. He came for one month and has been here for 6 months. Aias is a virulent critic of NGOs work stepping on the toes of the local volunteers who have been around since the beginning of the crisis. But hardly have I seen anyone as effective as Aias when it comes to sorting out the mess! Equipped with some bottles of water and shriveled in his small car, he traverses the island looking for groups of migrants freshly arriving and delivers water and basic information in a quasi-military way.

What I saw after spending time with Aias was a quite unsettling. Nothing prepares you to witness the pic of joy and distress experienced by the migrants families setting foot in this fairy-tale beach of Lesbos after a tumultuous journey across the open sea. I’ve documented the experience of witnessing the first boat arriving here. I’d encourage you to read this as it’s an essential and most striking bit of my trip.

Day 3: showcasing practical solutions

After a meeting with the Mayor, I went to visit “Village of All Together” a self-organised ad volunteer-run refugee camp. It focuses on the elderly, sick and disabled. On that sunday afternoon, I still recall the down mood that reigned across the camp. The volunteers were just coming back from the funeral of a 5 years girl who drowned in the sea two days prior.

With that, our short trip came to an end and we embarked on a ferry for a long ride back to Athens. Off the boat, I was immediately hailed by an arabic-speaking guy who, mistaking me for a migrant, offered to take us to the Macedonian border for 40 euro each right away. I declined and spent my last day in Athens before boarding my plane back to normal life.

Lessons Learned

Let me conclude what’s already a long read. Lesbos was invaluable in its teaching. Some of the most important lessons I learnt are as follow:

  • All refugees are not equal: if you are Syrian, chances are you’ll be able to cross Europe up until Germany in just about 5 days. Across the route we’ve seen, facilities were provided for Syrians but not for the others. It was striking to see in an Athens’ refugee camp that almost 90% of the migrants there were non-arabic. The whole narrative around “war refugees are welcome” vs “economic refugees are not” is a dangerous one which leads to create “classes of refugees”. People from Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan suffers (suffer) from an on-going war which may or may not caught (catch) our attention. We are not to be judging (or ‘we are in no position to judge’) if a certain person has suffered enough that it’s okay for her to be in Europe. At least not at the point of arrival where the most important thing is to keep people safe.
  • The worse is yet to come: sadly, setting foot on European land is not the end of the plight for migrants. They still have a long and tortuous journey to go through before reaching their final destination (which is Germany or Sweden in most cases). This is made worse with winter coming and some EU countries closing borders and imposing harsh sanctions on migrants. Human right abuses in Europe are a red line we should not bring ourselves and our governments to cross. We ought to maintain a high standard of respect when dealing with migrants. Providing basic needs in a dignifying manner is of paramount importance!
  • Volunteers fuel solutions: I noticed volunteers from all over Europe who came to give a hand for a week or two, sometimes even for months, leaving behind everything and standing on the shores of Lesbos from 8 am to sometimes 1 or 2 am in order to welcome and guide the migrants. I suspect an ever-increase (ever-increasing) wave of volunteers to hit the shores of Greece. However, most of the volunteers I talked to, who spend (spent) more than a month in the Island, were overworked and overwhelmed. If you are willing to volunteer, that’s great — organisations such as “A drop in the sea” can help. Make sure you coordinate with the local organisations so you can maximise your impact.
  • The viable solutions are at hand. This was the most astonishing. As much as the issue seems total and unshakable, after few hours on Lesbos, you understand that the solutions are actually well-known and accessible. We need to ensure a safe passage to Europe through safer means of travel or enable host countries to process refugee applications. This is not impossible, it just needs the political will and vision that many of our leaders will only retrieve if they are reminded and pushed by their electorate.

Conclusion

In conclusion, as the situation is unfortunately not improving, it incumbent to us the citizens to sort out the mess (or perhaps ‘it is up to us, the citizens, to sort out the mess). Either by volunteering on the ground, pushing our politicians to make the right choices or supporting the myriads of projects working with refugees.

At makesense, we took a quasi-engineering approach to this big problem, we’ve broken it down to three essential challenges:

  • Challenge 1 : Providing a safe response for the refugees’ journey towards Europe or neighbouring countries (short-term issue)
  • Challenge 2 : Making sure asylum seekers and refugees can access their basic needs and information (short-term issue)
  • Challenge 3: Create a positive environment for refugees and members of the host society to meet and create together (long-term issue)

Today, we’re launching a global mobilization to source projects addressing the second challenge: access to basic needs and information. This includes projects such as drop in the sea or Refugee Phrasebook. If you know similar projects or if you would like to contribute to some of these initiatives. Please get in touch or check out forward.makesense.org/refugees

Thanks to Hannah Lutz for reviewing previous drafts.


Ismail Chaib launched the German chapter of MakeSense in 2011 and has been spearheading MakeSense refugee effort in Berlin this year (You can read more about this here). He is a happy Algerian living in Berlin. His background is in software engineering and financial technology.

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