The refugees that created their own aid agency, out of "people and time"
An extraordinary tale from Fast Company of enterprise, imagination, and care, under the most dispiriting of circumstances. An excerpt:
One night in the spring of 2016, Housam Jackl and three of his friends sat around a fire in a refugee camp in the northern Greek town of Idomeni to discuss what could be done to improve the unfortunate situation they found themselves in. Over the course of the next year, they would go on to start a refugee-led NGO and become leaders within their camp.
Previously the men had worked together as volunteers to help refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. But they were now refugees themselves. In March 2016, when Jackl, and the other men arrived at the Greek-Macedonian border from Syria, they found fences and army guards. A populist backlash to the refugee influx in Europe caused nearly all of the borders in Europe to close that month. As a result, 50,000 refugees, including Jackl and the other three men, were stuck in Greece. “My friends and I sat around the fire and asked, ‘What can we do?’” Jackl said.
For most refugees, the answer to that question was, Nothing. Upon arriving in Greece, refugees can’t work; in the camps, meals are provided by the Greek military and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but ingredients to cook and utensils are rarely available. They aren’t citizens, so engaging in the political process that defines their future is also not an option. As a result, most refugees are stripped of agency and have little to do but wait for borders to open, wars to end, or paperwork to make its way through the bureaucratic asylum system—a process that can take years.
This long, often undefined waiting period is frustrating to many who left behind busy professional lives. Prior to the wars that tore their countries apart, many refugees were business owners, doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers, and engineers. They were productive and had control over their lives. As someone who trained as a psychologist before the war, Jackl understood the toll that the asylum process would have on people in the camps. Together with his friends, he decided to try to solve the problem.
“In the refugee camps, we have two things: people and time,” Jackl explained. He and his friends decided that they would organize people to improve the camp. The idea was to solve two problems at once: Give refugees purpose, and make life in the camp better for everyone.