Part 3: A volunteer’s perspective on life in a refugee camp and corporate social responsibility

By | 8 minute read | October 10, 2020

This series of articles by IBM volunteer Rick Reesen (above, far right) was written before a fire on 8 September, 2020 destroyed one of the refugee camps on Lesvos, Greece—the temporary home for thousands of displaced people and the place where Rick volunteered for nearly two months establishing the IBM SkillsBuild learning platform. The camp, near the village of Moria, 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.

In September 2019, Rick Reesen participated in an IBM corporate social responsibility initiative that led him to volunteer with Movement On The Ground (MOTG) and help refugee residents at camps on Lesvos, Greece. This is the third and last part of his story; see parts one and two.]

It was strange that my four weeks of personal volunteering moved both quickly and slowly.  Some days were difficult and emotionally draining; those days seemed to be much longer. While other days were filled with activity, comradery and a sense that we were making progress.

Yet, my time for this first experience of working with the residents, staff of MOTG and the other volunteers was coming to an end.

The last days, full of shivers

On one of my last days, I pulled some boxes from a delivery truck and to my surprise it was a shipment from an IBM colleague in the Netherlands.

She had been collecting clothes from others in the office and shipped them to MOTG in Lesvos, which I didn’t know. Was it purely a coincidence that I was the one to pull the boxes off the truck?  I’m pretty sure it was, but nevertheless it gave me some pleasant shivers.

Another type of shivers, the very cold ones, also ran down my spine on these last days.

After the Design Thinking workshops in Lesvos finished and “normal” volunteering was also coming to an end, we decided to visit the so-called life jacket graveyard in the north of the island.

Visiting this extraordinary site, with tens of thousands of used lifejackets and the piled up remains of rubber boats, I realized that every jacket holds a personal story. It left us in silence for quite a while.

The shivers would happen again, this time coming later at dinner in a very nice restaurant overseeing the sea towards Turkey, where most refugees cross to Lesvos.

During this dinner we saw the WhatsApp messages come in that mentioned that Moria camp was on fire. We had no idea of the scale of the fire at that time. All I could think about was that we had just placed hundreds of dry wooden pallets under the small tents in the last couple of days.

We finished our meal early and drove back to the south to put ourselves, like everyone else from MOTG, on stand-by, ready to provide assistance and basic needs if that would be necessary.

Later we heard the fire was due to a failure in an electric cooking device and burned down a few containers. Unfortunately, one woman and a newborn baby had died.

I felt very sad, but I also experienced a weird feeling of relief because the fire didn’t hit the field with those few hundred tents on the newly placed pallets.

The afternoon of the day after the fire, I flew back to the Netherlands, still in disbelieve [Editor’s note: A subsequent fire in September 2020 destroyed the entire camp].

Rick led a design thinking session on Lesvos, Greece.

Actions for sustainable change

My participation as a volunteer in placing the wooden pallets, for example, is a temporary change or solution. Yes, it is meaningful—families will live more comfortably for a few months in a very unpleasant environment. By doing this together with the residents, a CampUS community, it is an initiative that provides a little more dignity.

That kind of impact is important, and it is necessary. However, it is not an example of sustainable change, nor is it not meant to be.

And this may be an important distinction—that effective corporate social responsibility and programs understand where best to apply their resources and the expertise of their employees. Some actions are better suited for immediate short-term solutions and others for more lasting impact.

The project with IBM SkillsBuild and MOTG is now well on its way—it is a longer-term solution meant for lasting impact. While contributing to the MOTG pillar “from Refugee to Employee” for sustainable empowerment, it taps into the core competencies of IBM and its people: technology and project management.

Participants in the SkillsBuild program enhance their digital skills for possible employment and can display their achievement using certificates and social badges like the one pictured.

Indeed, IBM took its intent seriously and donated the use of the platform, as well as six months of support for the implementation at MOTG; which is being done by me in an official role as the IBM project coordinator.

To that end, I returned to Lesvos in December 2019 for ten days and went back in late January, 2020.

I will make an additional trip at the end of March 2020 to close the project and do a final hand over to the local MOTG coordinator and digital learning lab teachers.

It’s important to note that it is not only the refugees who need to be empowered with future skills as part of the “From Refugee to Employee” activities pillar of MOTG.

What I mean is, only when an organization or volunteer is directly engaged can we understand that the beneficiaries of our good intentions and impact may include some who don’t immediately come to mind.

For example, in order to build long-term dual relationships with the local Greek population in Lesvos, the members of the host community should also benefit from a more sustainable approach to the situation on Lesvos.

This is a well-known and needed dimension in order to create lasting aid and minimize aid fatigue that would likely emerge in the host community, resulting in friction and problems.

We are currently, and deliberately, still in the start-up phase, but we do have well-equipped digital learning labs, a skills inventory, selection and on-boarding processes implemented, and a local Greek coordinator has been hired [Editor’s note: the digital learning lab in the camp near Moria was destroyed in the September 2020 fire].

We have eager teachers and learners from both the refugee and local communities active on the platform. They are working on learning activities that lead to IBM-endorsed digital certificates.

Masoumeh (left) is one of the resident teachers and students in the SkillsBuild program. “She is my hero,” says Rick (right).

In the next steps, we will include coaching for the learners as well. Besides Lesvos, we are already looking at other locations to provide “SkillsBuild continuity” for the refugees along their journey into the future.

Again, the insight gained from being a volunteer in-the-field is invaluable. You will recall I mentioned the electrical infrastructure at Moria camp is extremely fragile.

My friend Judith happens to work for Liander, which is a large electricity network provider in the Netherlands. She recently arranged for a colleague to volunteer and visit the site for an assessment of the electricity network and its safety. This will provide MOTG with expert recommendations on their electricity network and a way to address improvements for the olive groves in a more targeted and impactful way.

And so, possibly, Judith has begun another cycle of corporate social responsibility.

Reflections on “impact”

Inevitably, I reflected on my impact after the initial four-week experience—and especially now that I have transitioned from a personal and general volunteer to one with a very specific purpose assigned by my employer to support the implementation of the SkillsBuild platform at the MOTG camps.

We have and will continue to have numbers and metrics that demonstrate progress and impact. Such as the number of digital certifications earned by residents at Moria and Kara Tepe using the new IBM SkillsBuild platform, or the number of volunteer hours provided to support those residents.

However, there is more work to be done to show how we are truly making a difference, though now I better understand the importance of first-hand experience to inform our measures of success.

Just as I wrote at the beginning of this series that numbers alone do not tell the story of refugees, the impact of some of our actions cannot truly be measured by numbers.

What is the metric for time spent drawing with a child under the shade of a tree? Or the impact of a short soccer match with boys inside their security enclosure?

I must admit that I feel extremely lucky that through this end-to-end experience—from the Social Innovation Challenge that came from a corporation’s intent to help make the world a better place, to my personal volunteering with the awesome people of MOTG and back to a CSR program with the IBM SkillsBuild project—I can help deliver some real impact.

Through this end-to-end experience, I have found purpose, which is immeasurable.

About IBM SkillsBuild
SkillsBuild is an IBM Corporate Social Responsibility program in partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits. The platform 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.

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.