IT for Good: Using tech to help young refugees

Day 4: ‘We call them residents, not refugees’

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 fourth in a series documenting their journey.

Above and below: scenes from the Elpida refugee camp.

It is still early morning when we pull up to the guard station at the Elpida refugee camp in Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece. They are expecting us. The 6,000-square-foot textile factory, once abandoned, is now home to about 160 refugees with space for hundreds more if needed.

Remarkably, this housing is made possible by Amed Khan, a private investor and philanthropist. After seeing the dire conditions at refugee camps around Greece, Khan asked the Greek Ministry of Migration to let him repurpose the old building. With the help of volunteers and $1 million of his own money, he converted the large, open factory into individual housing units and common spaces. Emergency Rescue Centre International (ERCI) helps run it.

“Refugees are all victims of wars they didn’t start ― they had normal lives before this,” Khan told Huffington Post last year. “So here we call them residents, not refugees.”

We walk around to get a sense of the place. 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 on the ground and the others are providing support from their home locations.

It impresses us to see that each family has its own room at Elpida. They are spacious, with multiple queen beds, a table and chairs, a fan and, in the one we saw, a broken piece of mirror duct taped to the wall. A shared kitchen is full of mostly women, each at an individual cooking station. Unlike other camps, this one doesn’t provide meals, a move aimed at helping refugees establish independence.

Community room showing some of Elpida's refugees.
Despite some inherent challenges, the Elpida camp does an amazing job of creating a sense of community: they welcome new arrivals with a party, use a community council for decisions, and have a point system that residents can use to earn clothing, food, toys, and more.

A lounge has mostly men watching television. We pass shared bathrooms as well as an infirmary, which handles most of the camp’s medical needs, including some births. There are fire extinguishers on the walls, a precaution to address the occasional resident who tries to build an in-room fire to stay warm.

The Greek government sends the more vulnerable cases to Elpida, so the camp is comprised mainly of single mothers with children, a few single fathers with children, and unaccompanied children. Its residents come from diverse religious and ethnic origins – Syria, Iraq, Palestine – and they have established a relatively peaceful community, given their heavy histories.

Foam airplane crafts for the refugee children
We hand out foam airplane crafts to children at Elpida refugee camp.

Community can be tough to maintain, as refugees do not see Elpida or Greece as their long-term home, but rather a stop on their way to elsewhere in Europe. This creates a challenge, as new refugees tend to not want to engage. Why would they want to clean the 100-plus-person common bathroom if they might be gone tomorrow? They’re also often suspicious of each other, due to everything they’ve endured personally and politically. The Elpida camp does a great job addressing these behaviors – they welcome new arrivals with a party, they use a community council for decisions, and have a point system residents can use to earn clothing, food, toys, and more.

Elpida is a model camp, but sadly, the residents here are so eager to move on they don’t seem to realize that the next step in their journey will most likely bring more rudimentary accommodations. Many believe they will be reunited with their families soon, and that there will be a house waiting for them wherever their destination may be. The volunteers try to help them set more realistic expectations for the future, but many of the refugees cling to this belief.

In the next dispatch: We dive in to help at the refugee camp.