IT for Good: Using tech to help young refugees

Day 2: A treacherous journey, a new beginning

Editor’s note: A group of Microsoft IT employees is visiting Greece on their own time to set up a technology and education center for displaced refugees. This is the second in a series documenting their journey. Here is the first day, if you’ve not yet read it.

The crowded boats started to arrive on the coasts of Greek islands in 2015, if you can even call some of the things families floated in on “boats.” In many cases the people onboard – many of them from Syria and other countries in dire conflict – had paid large sums of money to smugglers for passage. They wore life jackets purchased from a Turkish bazaar as they left, including counterfeit ones that would never float. If they couldn’t afford a life jacket, they wrapped their bodies in tire tubes or empty plastic bottles.

ERCI volunteers spend many sleepless nights and never-ending shifts watching the water for signs of a refugee boat approaching.
Many sleepless nights and never-ending shifts are spent watching the water for signs of a refugee boat approaching. Photo used with permission from ERCI.

The madness of the journey did not always end when the refugees arrived.

As the waves tossed them around, or their boats broke apart, or the crowd onboard surged toward the safety of land, many fell out and drowned within view of shore. In the early days, well-meaning volunteers flocked to the beach to help, and without proper search and rescue training, made the scene even more complicated and dangerous.

ERCI Search and Rescue team have saved over 45,000 refugees.
Boats loaded with overwhelmed refugees can appear at any time and in any condition. The ERCI Search and Rescue team jumps right in to save lives and bring hope.

It was chaos.

In the last two years alone, 8,771 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, and many others have gone missing trying to travel to Europe to escape war. Half-a-million people arrived on the shore of Lesvos, the Greek island nearest Turkey, in 2015 alone.

Today we’re in Athens, Greece, at the headquarters of Emergency Rescue Centre International (ERCI) to talk with local experts about how we can help, both in the short-term and on an ongoing basis. We are a team of 15 Microsoft IT employees from across the world who, seeing how difficult the refugee crisis in Greece has become, decided to come together to see what we could do to help. Nine of us are here to help set up internet access for a new learning center that ERCI is opening. We also brought books and other learning materials to help kids start learning again.

As we listen to our host, Mirella Alexou from ERCI, brief us on the situation, I close my eyes for a moment and try to imagine being so desperate, and so fearful for my life and the lives of my family, that a treacherous journey like this would be our best option. It’s devastating.

As the flow of new arrivals to Greece has slowed, ERCI’s focus has moved beyond water rescues to include support and education for the many refugees still in Greece, particularly children and young adults. They even provide swimming lessons to help young people try to overcome their very understandable fear of water.

Though the children’s countries of origin had school systems, their exodus and years of going from camp to camp has taken a toll on their literacy and learning. In some cases, children who were young when they left their country may have never attended school. Even for non-orphans, their parents are so exhausted from years of living in extreme “survival” conditions they have a tough time making sure their children have a proper education.

ERCI is working on education programs in refugee camps to help address this gap, including basic language and math skills. The organization is also trying to give kids and their families access to technology. It wants to launch an innovation tech hub to help young adults learn everything from basics to coding, and would like Microsoft to partner with it to create several hubs and technology programs. It hit me really hard, the opportunity we have to positively impact the future of so many lives. At the core, that’s not just an individual passion, it’s also our company’s mission. Our team is eager to find a way to help long-term.

ERCI meets the Microsoft volunteer team
Panos Moraitis, founder of ERCI, and Mirella Alexou, ERCI program director, share their philosophy of providing efficient and impactful aid with the Microsoft team.

As I look around the dinner table tonight, our team and Mirella are laughing and enjoying each other’s great company. My eyes gaze from one person to the next, and I reflect on how each and every single one of my teammates is simply amazing. One person in particular made it all possible – Doug Pierson. It’s his relentless work and leadership that brought us all brought us here to live our company’s mission in a most extreme and amazing way.

Over the next few days, Doug, myself, and our team will try to have the biggest impact possible. We will turn an empty storefront in Athens, with no electricity, into a youth center. We also will visit a refugee camp in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, to help however we can, whether it’s setting up IT, serving food, or teaching language classes. It isn’t just fun and challenging to be here – it feels right. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity.

In our next dispatch: Our team helps clean and transform a dark, empty storefront in downtown Athens into what will be a tech-connected education center for young refugees.


Claire Sisson, who has worked at Microsoft for seven years, recently joined the Microsoft Office OXO Growth team as a principal program manager. She’s passionate about causes that address social inequalities, especially education, and volunteers for Seattle Education Access and Microsoft 4Afrika.