“During the past two years, 1.3 million people fleeing conflict and persecution have travelled through Greece in search of safety and a better life in Europe. With the closure of the Balkan borders and the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016, refugees can no longer continue their journeys.

The legal path available to refugees in Greece—either asylum in the country or relocation elsewhere in Europe—is a long one: The relevant authorities don’t have enough staff to process asylum claims quickly. Refugees have been forced to wait in temporary camps, with limited access to crucial information and available services. The psychological toll is immense. Many suffer not only from the trauma of witnessing the death of loved ones, but also the profound sense of powerlessness of a refugee’s life in limbo.

Refugees have been traumatized by the conflicts they seek to escape. In Greece, they endure the added stress of uncertainty and constant waiting. They need mental-health counselling and other psychological support.” Source: www.rescue.org.

Having identified the challenge, independent organizations such as Hestia Hellas or We Need Books aim to eliminate the feeling of “constant waiting”, by providing psychosocial support and activities that facilitate the integration of the asylum seekers into the Greek society.

Hestia Hellas, located in Exarcheia, Athens, claim to offer “a safe space for refugees and locals to come together”. In such space, they provide workshops in a weekly basis, aiming to empower and gather people from different cultures and backgrounds.

My proposal to organize a pilot entrepreneurship-training program was well received, hence we started designing and preparing the program right away, weeks prior to my arrival to the Greek capital.

The program’s mission was to provide, in a very practical way, an overview of the main tools used by entrepreneurs, such as the empathy map, the value proposition canvas and the business model canvas, as well as an introduction to the concept of experimentation and learning process proposed by the Lean Startup philosophy.

Presenting the empathy map
One of the teams presenting their empathy map

Along my four weeks in Athens, I could facilitate weekly 4-hour workshops together with individual mentoring sessions to five teams with quite diverse backgrounds and project ideas like housing and job for homeless, upcycled art-bike creation, a yoga studio, bio-cereals bars manufacturing or selling clothes hand-made by refugees.

Action plans
Action plans

Coming from very different situations and backgrounds, the level of engagement of the teams was not as even as I would have liked it to be, however, the attendance to the workshops was good (average of 73%), always with an outstanding level of participation and willingness to work during the sessions.

Artur knows very well what empathising with “the customer” means. He spent almost 2 months living in the streets during the crisis in order to get a first-hand understanding of the needs of those who have no other choice but to live on the streets. In April 2016, he started a food distribution program named Refugees’ Refuge that has distributed more than 16.000 sandwiches with the help of more than 1900 volunteers.

Gathering in Omonia Square before starting the food distribution
Gathering in Omonia Square before starting the food distribution

He came to the workshop accompanied by two young boys from Iraq with a double mission; to allow these boys to receive training and to try to find a business models that would support the sustainability of Refugees’ Refuge.

Throughout the workshops, he developed a very simple idea. To provide homeless people with a place to live and the tools and resources they need to produce homemade products that he would sell for them. In this case, bottled salty olives. The experiment (or Minimum Viable Product) that he came up with consist of housing 3 homeless for 6 months providing them with bottles, olives, and salt. (You can find his pitch here).

As it could not be otherwise, since Artur was participating in my workshop I was very keen to participating in his activities. I felt completely humbled after my first day in the street with Artur. Three days a week, with no break, he walks the same streets and provides the homeless with food, clothes, hot tea (and medical care if available). That would be impossible for him without the volunteers, from all over the world, that join his journey every day.

Preparing the sandwiches
Preparing the sandwiches with other volunteers

While working with Artur preparing sandwiches, I got to know Habib and “Baqer”, two young refugees from Iraq who collaborate with Artur in all sort of tasks and who are really good at social media and photoshop. @0ki, as one of them is known in Instagram, has an audience of almost 70.000 followers with great engagement. He dreams about moving to Spain. He thinks he could earn money working as a waiter. What he did not even consider, is that he could potentially earn much more money by using his creativity and social media skills. Unfortunately, as of now, this is merely a game for him, because as a refugee he cannot access a bank account which impedes him to earn money by working.

Bara is a refugee and an artist from Senegal. He’s been living in Athens for over two years and for the last year he has been creating and selling artworks with upcycled products. During the workshops Bara and his business partner Leonie could think more deeply about who their customer is, what product best fits their needs and in which channels they may find their customers. For them, working together with people from different cultures was fun and engaging.

One of Bara's upcycled bikes
One of Bara’s upcycled bikes

All the above would not have been possible without Campfire Innovation, an organization that performs an excellent job in connecting NGOs with all kinds of resources. They put me in contact not only with Hestia Hellas but also with Ioanna, co-founder of We Need Books, who is looking for funding to buy a building to create a library and a community centre that would have a cafeteria, a shop and facilities to host at least 6 refugees. I’ve had the honour to be invited to participate in their meetings to discuss business models and strategies to develop the project. In this case, César, Louis, Cyril and Olivier, 4 business students from France were leading the creation of the business plan to be used to get funding for the project.

It is worth to mention that César, Lois, Cyril and Olivier are not just ordinary volunteers, since they are in the middle of an adventure where they are cycling from Caen, France to lake Baikal, Russia, very close to the border with Mongolia. These four friends wanted to add some meaning to their adventure,  carrying out several volunteering missions along the way such as the one with We Need Books. For more info visit their blog: colybride.org

Colybride route. 15.000 kms
Colybride route. 15.000 kms

It is common knowledge that three weeks is the time we need to create new habits, and indeed, after three weeks and a half living in Athens I started feeling like home. The experience was enriching and fulfilling, however my journey also must go on. I am not moving by bike, nevertheless slowly transitioning, changing, adapting, progressing, through ideas, places, people, cultures and missions.

2018 promises new adventures in the field of Social Innovation in collaboration with The Social Change Agency.

See you in London 😉

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