One night in the spring of 2016, Housam Jackl and three of his friends sat around a fire in a refugee camp in the northern Greek town of Idomeni to discuss what could be done to improve the unfortunate situation they found themselves in. Over the course of the next year, they would go on to start a refugee-led NGO and become leaders within their camp.
Previously the men had worked together as volunteers to help refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. But they were now refugees themselves. In March 2016, when Jackl, and the other men arrived at the Greek-Macedonian border from Syria, they found fences and army guards. A populist backlash to the refugee influx in Europe caused nearly all of the borders in Europe to close that month. As a result, 50,000 refugees, including Jackl and the other three men, were stuck in Greece. “My friends and I sat around the fire and asked, ‘What can we do?’” Jackl said.
Making Use Of A Long, Undefined Wait
For most refugees, the answer to that question was, Nothing. Upon arriving in Greece, refugees can’t work; in the camps, meals are provided by the Greek military and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but ingredients to cook and utensils are rarely available. They aren’t citizens, so engaging in the political process that defines their future is also not an option. As a result, most refugees are stripped of agency and have little to do but wait for borders to open, wars to end, or paperwork to make its way through the bureaucratic asylum system—a process that can take years.
This long, often undefined waiting period is frustrating to many who left behind busy professional lives. Prior to the wars that tore their countries apart, many refugees were business owners, doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers, and engineers. They were productive and had control over their lives. As someone who trained as a psychologist before the war, Jackl understood the toll that the asylum process would have on people in the camps. Together with his friends, he decided to try to solve the problem.
“In the refugee camps, we have two things: people and time,” Jackl explained. He and his friends decided that they would organize people to improve the camp. The idea was to solve two problems at once: Give refugees purpose, and make life in the camp better for everyone.
Resourcefulness Born Of Necessity
It began with repurposing shipping material. The men noticed that every day, dozens of shipments of food, medicine, and other aid came to their camp. But once the supplies were unloaded, aid workers would throw the pallets away. Meanwhile, people were sleeping in tents that would flood when it rained. So Jackl led an effort to break the pallets down and use the wood to create platforms on which the tents could sit.
Shortly afterwards, they used scrap wood and torn pieces of fabric to build a school, and eventually found a refugee who was a teacher to lead classes. The philosophy was simple and powerful: Use resources that would otherwise go to waste to improve life in their camp. As word spread of their work on social media, Jackl began to receive offers from people who wanted to donate money to his then unofficial cause. “All these people began asking me ‘What can I do? Can I give you money?’ And I’d tell them, ‘Give me materials,’” he said.
“People think that refugees are weak. But they survived war, smugglers, and the camps,” Jackl explains. His mission is to change the refugee image from one of weakness to one of resilience and strength. Core to that is the idea that refugees can help one another instead of relying on aid workers and NGOs, a philosophy that he adopted from an NGO called Jafra that he worked for in Syria.
Jafra Foundation was founded in 2002 by a group of Syrians that wanted to help the 110,000 Palestinians then living in an unofficial camp outside of Damascus called Yarmouk Camp. In 2012, it relaunched with the goal of helping refugees throughout the Middle East who were fleeing conflict in Syria. When the war began, Jackl was providing psychological support to Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk on behalf of Jafra. That same year, Assad’s regime surrounded the camp and put it under siege. They cut off the electricity, water, and food supply routes, trapping tens of thousands of civilians inside the city’s walls. To make matters worse, ISIS was one of the rebel groups trapped inside.
One day in fall 2014, Jackl and his sister heard commotion outside their apartment. Under the sharia law that ISIS was enforcing, it was illegal for a woman to live with any man except her husband; Jackl and his sister lived with two male roommates. They knew immediately that the extremist group had come to punish them. As soon as they recognized the threat, Jackl and his sister ran to the roof. The militants followed. Then in what Jackl describes as “a scene out of Hollywood,” a rooftop chase began. With the regime’s snipers surrounding them on all sides and a group of extremists on their tail, Jackl and his sister jumped from roof to roof. His sister was shot in the leg before they made it to a safe house.
The next day Jackl decided that it was time for him to leave Syria. At the time there was a standing offer from Assad’s regime: For any Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers that surrendered, they would send in food for civilians. Jackl wasn’t an FSA rebel, but he needed to get out of Yarmouk. He bought a weapon from a rebel, and just before sunset, he walked out of the city waving a white flag. As he walked from the outskirts to the siege’s line, he looked back at his hometown. “It was the first time I’d seen the city from the outside for over a year. I saw the collapsed buildings,” he said. Shortly after surrendering, he was let go; the regime wanted him to send word back that it was safe for others to follow suit, and shortly after his sister escaped in the same way. A couple days later, he crossed the Syria-Lebanon border and began his new life as a war refugee.
After providing psychological therapy to refugees for two years in Lebanon, Jackl decided to make the journey to Europe where he could apply for asylum. “After four years of helping refugees, I decided to help myself,” he said. His original plan was to travel alone. He would take the Balkan route up through Macedonia, Serbia, and Austria toward northern Europe where he wanted to study law. But fate put a wrinkle in his plan. Along the way, he became the unofficial captain of a raft and a leader to some 45 refugees.
In Idiza, the coastal Turkish city where many refugees board rafts bound for Greek islands, a smuggler pulled Jackl aside. “He pointed to a few lights on the horizon and said, Go there,” Jackl said. It was up to him to guide the ship toward Europe. Evidently the $1,000 that he and the other refugees had each paid the smuggler didn’t include a captain.
When they reached the Greek island of Lesbos, he translated for families, explained asylum processes to young men, and eventually led a group toward the Macedonian border. Along the way he checked Facebook and WhatsApp groups that refugees use to find optimal migrant routes, housing, and even sea conditions. That week, the group chats were flooded with posts from refugees informing others that the Greek-Macedonian border had closed. When the group arrived in the border city of Idomeni, they confirmed the rumors.
It was near the border that Jackl and his friends began building infrastructure and finding ways to improve life in the camps. In April 2016, he and his three friends decided to start a Greek division of Jafra, the organization they had worked for in Syria. Each week, refugees would see the work they were doing and offer to help out. For many, volunteering was a good way to regain purpose in their lives.
Over the last year, the organization has grown to roughly 50 volunteers. Despite their efforts, conditions in the Idomeni camp deteriorated and many families moved into other camps. Jackl and the other volunteers with Jafra moved too last summer, taking their efforts to a camp in the Greek town of Lagkadikia. There, with the support of UNHCR they have assisted the 200 families and their children with practical things like waste management and distributions of relief items to bigger issues like setting up a school and recreational spaces in the camp and offering psychosocial support for children.
In the fall, as many of the families moved to Athens to complete their resettlement applications, The Jafra team moved with them. They established many similar services there that they had in the other camps. But there Jackl and his group of volunteers are also opening a shelter for single women and children (the most vulnerable in a camp).
In his makeshift office on the bottom floor of the shelter, Jackl explained its purpose. “In the camps, you have one protection-services volunteer and 100 women. The UNHCR official sits in his office all day filing reports. There’s so much bureaucracy.” The goal of the shelter is to bypass the bureaucracy and provide shelter to women who don’t feel safe in the camps.
To bypass that bureaucracy and create the shelter Jackl and his team at Jafra pooled together a couple thousand dollars from friends living abroad and NGOs, and rented an apartment that could act as a safe house. He gave me a tour of the three-story apartment. In one of the rooms, there were boxes of what appeared at first glance to be junk. But when he showed me the contents inside, I saw canned food, clothing, bedding, and cleaning supplies; they had found the boxes in a donation center a couple miles away.
In one room, we found a 17-year-old-refugee named Bashar assembling an old bed frame. A year ago, after his brother was killed by a bomb in Yarmouk, he left his family in Syria for Europe where his aunt lives; in Idomeni, he met Jackl and soon after began to volunteer. I heard similar stories from everyone that I met.
On the second day of my visit, Jackl had to postpone our meeting for what has become an almost daily occurrence. That morning, he learned about a box of supplies that an NGO was giving away. He scrambled to board a bus and retrieve the box. Everything that he showed me in the shelter—all of the beds, blankets, tables, chairs, and miscellaneous items required to house women and children—had been gathered in much the same way. When they arrive, someone crosses the item off a wish list in their office.
Jafra will become the first refugee-led NGO to manage an official camp later this year. They will go from being unofficial helpers to recognized leaders with authority and a budget given to them by the UNHCR. For now, they still operate in the grassroots way that they were formed.
As for Jackl, his on the ground leadership of the organization that he created is temporary. He has passed three interviews and a security check in the process of being granted asylum in France. He insists that the organization will continue to operate after he leaves, and plans to remain involved remotely from France. But for now, all the volunteers continue to turn to the psychologist to lead them.
Michael Thomas is a writer based in Denver. He writes about economics and business history on his blog, Insatiable Fox.