Part 1: A volunteer’s perspective on life in a refugee camp and corporate social responsibility

By | 4 minute read | September 13, 2020

On 8 September 2020, a fire destroyed one of the refugee camps on Lesvos, Greece. The camp, near the village of Moria, was the temporary home for almost 13,000 displaced people and the place where IBM volunteer Rick Reesen, the author of this series of articles which were written weeks before the fire, volunteered for nearly two months to establish the IBM SkillsBuild learning platform. The camp is now entirely demolished, including the digital learning lab. Urgent assistance of all kinds is needed. Please visit Movement on The Ground to learn how you can help.

Many organizations have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that are based on an authentic intent to help make the world a better place; my employer IBM is one of them, with a legacy of community involvement and support that spans nearly its entire century-long existence.

Yet, it should always be asked: how much impact do these programs actually have on the beneficiaries?

This series of articles is a personal account of my experience. Beginning with the IBM corporate social responsibility practice that led me to an in-the-field volunteer experience that has now helped me find purpose in life.

Rick’s involvement started with an IBM corporate social responsibility initiative called the Social Innovation Challenge.

Essentially, this is an end-to-end experience, which begins with good intentions captured in strategies and programs and leads to actions that make a difference with real people trying to have safe lives.

Several elements came together to establish a social responsibility project with sustainable impact: the good intentions and motivation of a few people, the introduction and involvement of a dedicated NGO, the motivation to do personal volunteering, and the use of corporate assets, followed by a significant commitment by that corporation (IBM).

Specifically, this all came together to help address one of the global issues that humanity faces today: the refugee crisis.

Social Innovation Challenge and IBM SkillsBuild

It all began for me with an IBM CSR initiative called the Social Innovation Challenge.

Typically the challenge is a series of workshops where a few motivated employees signup in their free time and use multi-disciplinary skills and experiences to come up with feasible solutions to help address a larger societal challenge. Often this happens for and with selected NGOs that can use a boost; they bring in the necessary field experience around the challenge.

In early 2019, IBM Netherlands started a social innovation challenge with Movement On The Ground (MOTG), an NGO that aims to deliver a more dignified, sustainable, and innovative response to the refugee crisis in Europe, more specifically in and around the refugee camps on the Greek islands.

I already felt empathy and sometimes even admiration for people that leave everything behind in order to find a safe or better place and future for their children and themselves. I decided to join about 20 IBM colleagues for this social innovation challenge. Judith, a like-minded and dear friend of mine, also participated. The challenge centered around one main question:

 “How can we better prepare refugees for life after a refugee camp?”

In five sessions, IBM, MOTG and some external participants – including a former resident of the refugee camp near Moria, on Lesvos, Greece – worked closely together using the IBM Enterprise Design Thinking methodology. Together, we came up with a learning solution to empower camp residents. The mission statement became:

“Refugee camps are the most inspiring campuses and have the power to create influential global citizens.”

While we generated ideas and requirements for the solution capabilities, I became aware of another IBM CSR program that turned out to be a coincidental but almost perfect match: the IBM SkillsBuild platform.

IBM SkillsBuild provides job seekers—including those returning to work after leave, the long-term unemployed, migrants, veterans and those changing professions—with the digital content, personalized coaching and experiential learning they need to gain technical and professional skills required to re-enter the workforce. The platform is part of IBM’s CSR program and is only delivered through NGOs.

Time for direct action

It was during the Social Innovation Challenge workshops that Adil Izemrane, one of the founders of MOTG, inspired me.

As a result, I decided to take all my vacation days to volunteer on Lesvos, where there are two camps that MOTG operates: one near the village of Moria and another called Kara Tepe [editor’s note: the camp near Moria is the one that was recently destroyed by fire].

I wanted to help this awesome and innovative NGO provide more dignity to camp residents. However, it also gave me the opportunity to investigate how IBM could move from intent to action and pursue the SkillsBuild platform.

Rick Reesen is among 14 IBM teams and individuals who received the fifteenth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. The award is recognition from IBM CEO Arvind Krishna and is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to employees. It includes an IBM grant for the associated not-for-profit partner or school.