IT for Good: Using tech to help young refugees

Day 3: Oh, what a little paint can do (for the soul)

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 third in a series documenting their journey. Read Day 1 and Day 2.

Today we pack up our giant duffel bags of donated gear and head to a new part of Athens, Greece, where the Emergency Rescue Centre International (ERCI) has secured a former car dealership for its first-ever urban, refugee education hub for children ages up to 18.

It is a massive space – much larger than we are expecting. It has large rooms that could be split into separate classrooms and learning areas. It’s in rough shape. It’s dark and dirty, with plaster flaking off the walls. It’s clear that rats and cockroaches have been the building’s only occupants for quite some time. We glance at our small stack of supplies – two buckets of paint and a few brushes, rollers, and spatulas. These are not going to suffice for the task at hand. While a group of us surveys the space with a representative from the charity to figure out how we can have maximum impact in our one day of work, another group of us goes shopping and quickly returns with more paint, mud, brushes, and spatulas.

Ugur Yilmaz and Doug Pierson prepare for the renovations.
Ugur Yilmaz and Doug Pierson prepare for the painting make-over.


It’s amazing what a few coats of paint can do. As we paint, the room gets brighter. Or is that because of our talking and laughing? We are a team of 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.

Anders Jepsen and Davide Recalcati scrape and patch the walls
Anders Jepsen and Davide Recalcati scrape and patch the walls.

While we paint and repair, we also get to hear more about ERCI’s plans for this and other education centers. For an organization that began with a focus on improving refugee search and rescue on the shores of Greece, it’s impressive to see the way the organization is branching out to identify gaps in on the ground support. Hence, their bold leap into the education space.

As the influx of refugees into Greece has slowed, the presence of support from large non-profit organizations has started to fade, leaving local communities and organizations like ERCI with the challenge of managing new arrivals, the already overcrowded camps, and providing ongoing support for the refugees themselves. As we roll fresh paint onto the walls, we talk a lot about the difficulties of being a local organization trying to address a global crisis by leveraging only local help.

Microsoft employees discover how a splash of white paint can brighten a room and the vibe.
Microsoft employees discover how a splash of white paint can brighten a room and the vibe.

Doug Pierson, my colleague from Microsoft, has ideas on how ERCI can tap into more global resources. I have ideas about how we as individuals and Microsoft as a company can help, too.

Our team wants to continue our support for the Athens Education Center by donating technology like computers, software, and applications, and by donating learning supplies. All of this will hopefully help these young refugees get a basic education while their families sort out what to do next.

After a day of inventorying the supplies and donations that we brought to the center, scraping, painting, and cleaning, we head off to dinner and turn in early. Tomorrow promises to be our most intense day yet.

Volunteers get covered in paint.
Getting covered in paint is part of the experience. From left: Eleni and Marietta from ERCI; Ugur and Orhan from Microsoft.

We board a plane very early in the morning for Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece not far from Idomeni, where many refugees are now stuck. A year ago, after hearing Germany would be taking more refugees, the Thessaloniki refugees fled the Greek islands and headed north, only to find the route to Germany through the Balkans had been closed. Camps on Greece’s border swelled well over capacity and haunting photos of refugees on one side of the fence and police on the other flooded world news.

The refugee camp we’re visiting in Thessaloniki is unique among camps in that it’s not a collection of tents, but rather people – many of them children – living in an old textile factory. In many ways, it’s the moment we’ve been looking forward to most, this opportunity to meet some incredibly brave souls and to find out firsthand how we can help them tomorrow and beyond.

In the next dispatch: Our team visits a refugee camp in northern Greece and learns more about day-to-day life for refugees.