Guest writer Lavinia Psarras visits Katsikas Refugee Camp, Greece »

June 1st, 2016

Yesterday, my long time friend Jan Manessi and I drove to Katsikas Refugee Camp with a car stuffed full of toys donated by generous people in Corfu.

Now that the borders to the rest of Europe have been closed, Greece has about 30 refugee camps spread out on the mainland. Over 50,000 refugees are reported to be stuck in Greece, living in camps like Katsikas for many months, as they await the results of their asylum applications. As Jan and I sailed across the Ionian sea to Igoumenitsa, we felt apprehensive about what we would find.

The Katsikas camp is a few kilometres south of the university city of Ioannina in Epirus. It houses approximately 700 adults and 400 children, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Yazidis who have been particularly persecuted by ISIS.  The children have very few toys, and little to occupy their time. For this reason, toys made up the bulk of our delivery.

We found the camp easily and were greeted by two small boys on the main road, shouting, “Yiassou!”, the Greek for “Hello”. They showed us the entrance to the camp and ran alongside the car as we drove through the gates. We were soon surrounded by a mass of smiling, chattering children.

The camp was originally set up by the Spanish charitable organisation, “Olvidados” meaning “The Forgotten”. They were soon joined by volunteers from the Swedish NGO “Lighhouse”. Their aim is to “turn Katsikas camp into a lively community for the people staying here. Apart from providing them with supplies and material (they) have created a community centre with an information point (including wifi), a child friendly space and a female friendly space”.
They go on to say that:

“We support the residents in setting up different activities in the community spaces, identifying refugees with skills like teachers, artists and carpenters. The first project was getting supplies for a teacher in English and the first study circle in English for women in the camp was soon up and running, as well as a yoga class!”

They told us that initially they had assistance from UNHCR and OXFAM but this has now dried up. They feel they are on their own now.

We waited for the volunteers to clear the crowds of children before they could begin to empty the car into an old hangar. Fortunately most of the toys were in sealed bags so the children were not able to see the toys inside them.

The only tension we saw during our short time in Katsikas was when two boys aged 7 and 10, spied a “tapsi” (a metal cooking pot) which they both wanted for their mothers and so they had a fight about it. For me, this really brought home the conditions in which these people are living. I found it amazing that these little boys were not interested in the toys but rather, in a rather battered old cooking dish. It highlighted very clearly, their priorities.

The volunteers stepped in and confiscated the cooking pot along with a number of other containers which had been “helped” out of the car. They explained that they would allocate them appropriately with food packs on a priority basis.

While this was going on, a very sweet little girl with enormous dark eyes and a dazzling smile had attached herself to me by slipping her tiny hand into mine and hanging on to my shirt. At one stage a small child climbed into the boot of the car and tried to make off with Jan’s recent MRI and results which she had picked up on her way to catch the ferry.

All the while I kept thinking of the unaccompanied refugee minors in Europe.

When we had finished unloading the car with the volunteers, we were taken on a tour of the camp by a delightful, articulate Danish volunteer who runs the schools.

The camp is housed on an old military airbase and the ground is covered in sharp stones which make walking across it very tough. It urgently needs to be tarmacked.  Our Danish guide told us that she needs a new pair of shoes every week because the stones are so sharp that the lacerate shoes like razors. Olvidados have put out an emergency call for shoes from their Spanish supporters and another volunteer we spoke with said he urgently wanted to find football boots.

She showed us the two tents which are the schools – one for adults and one for children.   They all learn Arabic, German and English and the children also learn mathematics. She told us with great passion that what she really wants is a big school bell which she can ring to remind them all to come to their lessons.

It struck me as particularly ironic that the site of Katsika was used as an allied air base during World War 2. The day before our visit was the 75th    anniversary of the sinking of HMS Hood on which my uncle was killed. Last year the ship’s bell was rescued from the Strait of Denmark and on the anniversary Princess Anne went to the Naval Museum in Portsmouth and struck the bell again (the first time for 75 years).   I said to the Danish girl, “what you need is a ship’s bell” and she completely agreed.

Next to the school tents were make shift medical shelters run by Medecins Sans Frontiers. While we were there, a Greek State ambulance arrived which left me thinking that MSF must be working with the University Hospital in the city.

Beyond the medical tents was a small shelter where Greek army personnel were handing out fresh fruit. By the gate was a shed housing a very low-key and peaceful police presence.

Opposite MSF was a “peace” tent complete with a small, well attended to flower garden, a kitchen and a Mosque. There were quite a few lavatories and row upon row of tents, many of them with washing hanging out on a line to dry.

We bade our new friends a fond farewell and tried to make our way out of the gate, but it was difficult because of the crowd of children still surrounding us. Fortunately, they were distracted by a stray cow trotting down the lane.

The volunteers have given us a list of their most pressing needs which we will publish in the next few days. In the meantime we will be contacting organisations who we think might be able to assist.

As we drove off I was left thinking about the incredible resilience of hum
an beings. And how they adapt to their surroundings. Everybody we had met at the camp was warm, hospitable and welcoming to us. The volunteers who run the camp were articulate, driven and determined despite working with scarce resources in very challenging circumstances.

If anyone has a big school bell they could donate you will make one very dedicated Danish volunteer extremely happy!



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Benedict Kelly looks at the work of StreetInvest in Accra, Ghana »

March 27th, 2014

The next charity that Prospero recommended for me to meet was StreetInvest, which works with street children. 

I met  Selassy Gbeglo from the charity twice. Selassy works with representatives from CAS (Catholic Action for Street children) and SGA (Street Girls Aid), two frontline charities close to StreetInvest. He is masterminding a Research project for StreetInvest called Growing up on the Streets Research.

The last research identifying the number of street children was done in 2006  with 16,000 counted in Accra. This is a three year project designed to learn much more about the numbers / issues / lessons learnt and solutions available.

Street children are usually on the fringes of society and have no safety net. They live in their own harsh eco-system. Selassy has assembled 6 young Researchers from the streets who each in turn liaise with 10 other street children / young adults. The six report to him every Monday morning and  the whole group of 66 meet together every three months

Selassy trained as a social worker 15 years ago and has been active helping in the streets ever since. He took me in the evening to the Mensaguinnea district, a slum well away from the roadside. Walking further in to the complex it got darker and darker as electricity was only for the few. Earth roads became paths and paths soon became two foot alley ways. With no proper sanitation I was pleased to be wearing my trainers and not flip flops.

Selassy was looking for his Researchers and we found four of them. Sibidu, Selassy, Francis and Ebenezer.

StreetInvest Research Project volunteers from left ; Sibidu, Selassy Gbeglo (Project leader), Francis and Ebenezer

Sibidu wants to be a taxi driver (he thought he needed Ghanian 1,000 CDs (sterling 200) to become qualified) and Ebenezer (aged 21 and unmarried) wants to open his own street side barbers shop and thought he needed Ghanian 500 CDs . He had Edmond with him, his one year old son.

At the end of another dark alley and down a hill we met a  Researcher called Comfort with her six month old son Richard  in her 8 foot by 8 foot home. She shares this with two other girls. Outside there were three other young mothers all chatting away.

During my visit I passed many babies and not one was crying and none had any ‘dummies’ stuck in their mouths. This is a young community which is getting along in  their own way but because of extreme poverty they lack the ability to take advantage of life’s usual opportunities.

Selassy Gbeglo with Volunteer Researcher Comfort and her son Richard

Salassy did not know about the other charity I had visited, ID Ghana. I thought they may be able to work together, Salassy has a client base of over 18 year olds keen to start a business and ID Ghana has the expertise to train and lend responsibly to such people. I introduced Salassy and Stephen at ID Ghana via e mail and we should check if they work together in the future.

I end this blog on Ghana’s 57th birthday. I was all prepared with shorts and sun cream and seated in Independence Square ready for the parade.  To the complete surprise of the President and 20,000 people there was a drop in temperature, gale force winds and a truly torrential downpour for 2 hours. Speeches were cancelled and the cavalcade of dark limos whisked away without explanation. No one seemed too fussed and life then carried on as normal.

In an earlier pre recorded speech President Mahama talked about ‘releasing our people of the shackles of poverty’ and the importance of ‘a sense of selflessness’. Certainly two things close to the heart of many charity workers here in Ghana.

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Benedict Kelly looks at micro-finance initiatives in Accra, Ghana »

March 13th, 2014

I’m exhausted, hungry and irritated but so pleased I came! On this one month micro-finance assignment in Accra, Ghana, the  first real lesson I have learnt here is at times you really have to remember that “it’s not all about you”.

I am sure readers will have travelled to similar developing countries. We have driven past street poverty, shopped in run-down roadside community markets and even been on an organised  tour of a slum. At the end of the long hard day we usually find ourselves in our smug, air-conditioned hotel with all creature comforts. Living here for a month reminds me what the charity workers here are living through day in day out for years.

In Accra there is widespread poverty for most of the residents. There are power cuts, long traffic jams, open drains everywhere (which you do not want to fall into), rubbish often piled high and little new infrastructure being built. Everyone talks about corruption being widespread. City living standards feel like 30 years behind Europe and 15 years behind China and India.

It is not a main tourist destination; there are few well-equipped,  air-conditioned hotels and not many local points of particular interest. Even the places we should visit, such as the 17th century Cape Coast Castle, a British-controlled  slave holding camp, is over three hours drive away. It is somewhat underwhelming considering the horrendous things that went on there.

The Christian missionaries worked hard in Ghana and over 50% of the population is converted to Christianity. I was told by one Ghanian charity worker that the missionaries did a good job as they ‘brought education and development’. Churches on a Sunday are overflowing and the loud persuasive sermons and prayers  of the priest reverberate down the street. They come cross as campaigning politicians and many churches are single units driven by one individual within the Christian umbrella. Indeed as I write this in a hot internet cafe there is gospel song  background music.

Sitting in traffic jams gave me time to write down some of the abundant car and shop slogans:

Without Christ you are bound for hell

God is in control

Blessed one auto

Gods way chopp bar

Seek Jesus key cutting service

The one thing Ghanians  have in abundance is a genuine warm and friendly attitude to foreigners. It’s not a passing ‘have a nice day’ here but ‘how are you” and they want a proper answer and discussion! I feel totally safe here.

I am taking the opportunity to visit two Prospero-recommended charities. Entrepreneurs du Monde (working with local partner ID Ghana) and StreetInvest (working with CAS and Street Girls Aid). They both have plenty to do here.

ID Ghana’s Mary giving loans and taking deposits at the ARISE Club of 15 women in the Teshai district, Accra

I first met with Godfred from ID Ghana, a micro-finance charity with over 13,000 active loans in Ghana. He is a Field Officer and we first drove to the Teshai district and then walked as the road turned into a  path. We met with Mary who was having one of her weekly Monday meetings with the ARISE group of women borrowers. The ARISE group is mainly involved with the sale of smoked fish. Mary sat at her desk in the open air surrounded by 20 seated women. She was very much in command, there were long spells of  silence amongst the group as she, calculator in hand, updated her books with a biro with cash deposits and withdrawals.

ID Ghana charges 3% interest per month which is much less than the myriad of for profit micro finance operators who start at 6% and rising per month. Outstanding loans at December 2013 were Euro 1.2m, an average of Euros 90 per individual loan. Bad debts are at a remarkable 3%, there is no security only the integrity of the borrower. To help those who really start with nothing ID Ghana also has a Kickstart programme at even lower rates.  At a higher level the central bank’s base rate is 23% pa. The main banks will only lend to people with employment  income which is channeled through a bank account.

Having counted up the money we then walked, passing a water distribution point, to a training session. This is what makes ID Ghana different. They don’t just lend the money they also have an extensive training programme which in 2013 included participants totaling 34,000 in social skills and 27,000 in business skills. The performance of attendees will determine if they are granted a loan. In addition they help their borrowers with a subsidised State run National Health Insurance System.

Teshai district water collection hour

The ‘Credits Management’ training session was with a group of 45 women called the UNIVERSA Group. Alex was the training manager and amongst the local Twi dialect I heard him say in English: “take advantage of current price” (a hint of high inflation?), “stakeholder” (reminded me of England!), “business setup”, “lack of capital” and “credit period”.

We then  drove in a one hour long traffic jam in Accra’s scrawling low built coastal landscape to ID Ghana’s head office. I met with Stephen Dugbazah (General Manager) who updated me on progress. There is lots going on and the loan book expanded by 60% in 2013 which if this continues will put pressure on the need for new funds to be raised. The all-important training sessions also expanded by 30% in 2013. The charity now employs 49 people in Ghana, up from 41 last year.

The challenge going forward is to expand into more rural areas and it will be important for ID Ghana to see if they can continue the well organised self help groups which are perhaps easier to put together in a close knit city environment.


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Duncan Ross, CEO of Streetinvest »

March 11th, 2014

I went to Sierra Leone last month. There is little doubt that it is buzzing.

There is the traditional resources boom. Property prices are soaring. The CIA World Fact Book has Sierra Leone as the world’s second fastest growing economy in 2012. The government is also trying to see some distribution of wealth with a proposal to raise the minimum wage significantly to Le 450,000 a month (about £70).

Everything is, however, relative. Sierra Leone was still 177th in the 2013 UNDP Human Development Index. The “Big Mac Index” lists Sierra Leone’s minimum wage as the lowest in the world at 3 US cents an hour.  In 2011, StreetInvest helped 197 people from 62 organisations in Sierra Leone count street children in 17 cities across the country. They counted 49, 891 children on the nation’s streets.

I spent my week in the safe hands of Alfred Kargbo, Street Work Director at Street Child of Sierra Leone (SCoSL). He has been at the heart of support for his country’s children since the civil war and was prominent in organising the headcount. I was with him and others when they reviewed the results. To me, the extraordinary thing was not the fact that there were 50,000 children on the streets but the determination of the local organisations to do something for all of them. “No child left behind” is a programme with the simple but uniquely ambitious goal of putting “a safe adult in the life of every street child”.  This will be the first ever national network of street workers.

When I first met Alfred, he ran Codwela, a small group of student volunteers who worked on the streets of Waterloo, an urban area east of the capital Freetown. Now he manages over 100 street workers in 18 cities across the country. The ambitious goal is becoming a reality.

StreetInvest will be providing training and other support to these workers, including training local trainers over the next two years. We are honoured to be part of a project that reflects our own vision. But it is frankly daunting too:

  • The enormity of the challenge is so obvious: 50,000 children (and the rest). The entrenched attitudes of the communities in which they live. The lack of resources for government social welfare provision. Simply the logistical challenges of providing the information “that it works” without drowning those doing it.
  • The fragility of it all: New workers doing work that no one has ever done before. No money to help them do it properly. No money to respond to the myriad needs of the children. Codwela itself still not properly funded – still working part time out of a second story “office” in an unfinished block with a container door for security.

And yet the most moving moment. A child, 11 or 12, head down, concentrating on his daily work. A child who has steadfastly refused school and a home to stay earning his own way, on the street. He eventually looks up, surprised. His serious face breaks into a huge grin. He runs forward and gives the street worker an enormous bear hug.  A moment of real happiness with someone he trusts.

It’s definitely buzzing.

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Bridget Franklin re-visits Aanchal Women’s Aid »

February 14th, 2014

Prospero has visited Aanchal Women’s Aid, a domestic violence charity, at their Ilford or Stratford offices every year for 4 years now. We are monitoring the progress of on-going grant support provided by our client, a private Charitable Foundation. This Foundation is, unusually, enlightened enough to provide unrestricted, core funding to Aanchal and has done so, again unusually, for several years.

“Unrestricted funding” means trusting Aanchal to spend their grant on what is most needed – money like this is invaluable to charities who regularly struggle to pay for the basic costs associated with providing their services. This year, the funding has been put towards the costs of a Senior Advice Caseworker, Fatima, who started at Aanchal as a volunteer. Now she is not only working for the charity but we hear again how much pleasure is taken in her progress, both personal and professional, by the charity.

I remind Fatima that when we met last year, she and the team were waiting for a young woman escaping domestic violence to be taken to a safe house in the North of the country to start a new life. Her bags were ready in the office and she would be sharing the ride with another Aanchal client so she would not even be lonely. Fatima immediately breaks into a wide grin. “Yes and I can tell you what happened to her. She was in that house for three months and we continued to support her. She’s at college now. She calls us every so often. She said we changed her life”.

The phrase “changed my life” is frequently heard at Aanchal, from staff, volunteers and in client testimonies. Yet the volume of demand for their front-line domestic violence services is growing. Fatima and the other staff at Aanchal each work with to 130 clients a year and some cases can take months to resolve. Many are emotionally draining. The work includes legal and benefits advice, liaising with other agencies and providing emotional support. The team is especially proud that they have a 100% record of achieving permanent leave to remain in the country for the many clients who are, because of their immigration status, not eligible to receive help from public funds. How can they provide such a high quality service on what is clearly a shoestring?

 Bhuhi, the Chief Executive and Founder of Aanchal has spent much time considering the pressing issue of providing the quality of service that Aanchal prides itself on, when demand is so high and finding funding is a battle, each and every year. Her experience and passion shine through and indeed, Aanchal is highly respected in the local area. The charity has just won a contract to provide domestic violence services in Newham for the next 4 years, although this will not, by any means, pay for everything. “The main demand from clients is for rescue from domestic violence” she says. “So we will focus on finding the funding for that”. Other services must take lower priority for resources although they are just as important; fundraising work falls to the Chief Executive in this organisation.
What if Aanchal ever had to close for lack of funding? “There are other organisations who will signpost people to help of course. But I ask myself what is the difference that we make, what it is that we do that the other organisations do not?” says Su. “We have a passion for each individual and for healing them to make changes. I can do this myself so we don’t have to find funding for it”. This empowerment work is clearly close to Su’s heart and it is especially here that lives are changed as women find the ability to speak up and make changes. In Aanchal’s experience, it takes at least 6 months to achieve this turnaround.

Fatima agrees. “You have to work with the client, to engage them”. Before she rushes back to her work she tells me how she had visited one client in hospital and paid attention to her children. It was this simple act of initiative and compassion that helped the client to trust Aanchal to help her. “We have to call organisations where people just clock off at 5 pm and leave but domestic violence does not stop like that”.

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Syria: The Trojan Women »

December 19th, 2013


“Syria: The Trojan Women “ a play based on Euripides’ Greek tragedy, has been adapted by Director Omar Abusaada to include the stories of 25 Syrian women refugees. The opening of the play is tonight at the King Abdullah Centre for Culture and Arts in Amman, Jordan


After six months of fundraising, six weeks of intense preparation and, for us,  two and a half hours of hitchhiking through the unseasonal snow, we arrive at the Centre to be there on their opening night.

The play’s focus on the impact of war has lost nothing of its potency since it was first seen in 415BC at the time of the Peloponessian War between Athens and the Pelopponessian League, led by Sparta. Since then, The Trojan Women has been translated into many languages, performed worldwide and adapted for relevance to modern warfare.

The universal themes, female perspective and anti-war message of Euripides’ work remain deeply relevant to a diverse audience.  As the testimonies of those women we have met prove, the way women historically experienced war – through rape, abuse, enslavement, loss and murder – is still very much the same.

The idea for a Syrian interpretation of this play came from Charlotte Eagar, an Oxford –educated classicist and former war reporter. Charlotte, along with her production team Hal Scardino and Georgie Paget, have been overwhelmed by the response when they suggested putting on an re-interpretation of The Trojan Women, replacing Euripides’ chorus with accounts from the women of what they have endured themselves and explanations of why the play is relevant to them.  The play now traces the parallels between the fates of the women of Troy and Syrian women fleeing the violence in their own country.

Funding for the project, has in the main, come from UK donors through the Prospero World Charitable Trust and that is why we have come to attend and to celebrate their achievement on the opening night. The play will run for 2 rather than the 3 nights because of the snow.

On the opening night, the theatre was three quarters full of a multi cultural audience including Jordanians, Syrian refugees and their families, and a healthy smattering of expats and visitors including Charlotte’s cousin who has flown out to Amman for the opening night. Each audience member pays an entry fee of JD5 (about £3.50). Total fees taken will be divided up and shared by the Syrian refugees acting in the play.


To prepare, the Syrian actress Nanda Mohammad trained the women for six weeks. The project has included drama therapy sessions for participants which aim to provide a therapeutic intervention to enable the refugees to work through the emotional trauma they have experienced. While the women work, their children are cared for in a crèche at the Centre with toys donated by  supporters of the project in London.

A visit to the crèche demonstrates that toys are not enough. Children who have witnessed what they have are often violent and not able to play with other children.

Before the violence in the creche begins…

Cameron and I go to play with the children: Cameron is punched hard in the face by a toddler as I crouch down and am kicked, repeatedly, by a four year old boy who simultaneously spits at me. It is a clear display of the trauma they have endured. A psychiatrist, himself a Syrian refugee now living in Amman, was brought into the project to visit the women. When he witnessed the behavious of the children, he extended his work to  them too and will continue doing so after the completion of the project.

Back in the amphitheatre at 5 o’clock, the play start time has been brought forward from 8 o’clock because of the snow. As the theatre fills up with Syrian refugees, the women take their stage. The audience is a healthy split of men, women and children. They come in slowly but the theatre soon fills up with chatter, movement and excitement.

A screen, split into two, appears behind the women. On the left side, the stories are told of Hecuba, Cassandra and Andromache. On the left, a Syrian woman relates her own experience of the Syrian conflict and how that is related to the Trojan protagonist.  Her voice suddenly softens and she pauses for breath. When she looks up, tears are falling down her cheeks as she continues with her story. Despite being entirely in Arabic, which I do not understand, the effect is extremely moving.

Although we do not have the opportunity to meet the women themselves and hear how the project has affected them, it is clear that the project has given them a voice. And the ability to share their own story in order that they may move on and create another, brighter narrative for the futures they are to create.

Publicity of opening night



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Cameron Hill in Zarqua, Jordan »

December 18th, 2013

Our day begins at the UNHCR office in Grab Dheir, a suburb of Amman home to embassies and expatriate compounds, with a soft view of the city spread across its seven hills through thick smog. We join field staff here to begin our journey to the Mafraq refugee helpdesk in Zarqua: one of two in Jordan, it has the capacity to process 250 cases per day.

Although it is only 35 miles from Amman, the journey takes around two hours. Our schedule has been arranged by the head of the UNHCR’s urban response unit in Amman; this is the team responsible for refugees outside formalised camps such as Zaatari. Mafraq is a staging post for thousands in the region. Refugees come here to book appointments to register as refugees with the UNHCR, and to seek general advice on their journey towards more settled lives.

Crawling through choked traffic, we navigate roadblocks and closures, looping back through Amman’s endless highways to cross the city and collect case officers waiting at the roadside snowdrifts. By the time we reach Zarqua, 200 Syrian refugees are clustered outside the centre; a medical clinic run by Mercy Corps that now doubles as a regional registration site. It will take seven hours until the last applicant has been seen.

Many have waited four hours for our arrival. The frustration is impossible to miss. A heavy, metal gate secures the entrance and two volunteers direct the priority admissions: the elderly, frail, disabled and those with young children. People stand patiently with their documents into the afternoon. The final appointment ends at dusk as the call to prayer sounds from the mosque next door. Everyone has been seen.  In peak periods this may not be the case, and some refugees would then need to return the following Thursday.

The stories told are incredible, dismaying, harrowing. We meet Hasam, a 34 year old from Homs. He had lived in the United Arab Emirates, working at a private hospital as an accountant. Enjoying what he described as a stimulating job, he was promoted to a senior position until his passport ran out; unable to return to Syria to renew it, he was forced to come to Jordan and register for refugee status. A return would have involved certain involvement in fighting with either government or the FSA rebel forces, or an unaffordable bribe to avoid conscription. The Syrians we speak to estimate this at between five and ten thousand dollars. Five unsuccessful asylum applications later, he spends his days bored and dispirited, rations affording little else but bread, seldom leaving his room. Life turns on erratic contact with family in Damascus by Skype, daily visits to the mosque and Thursdays at the Mafraq centre to advocate for less able refugees. Desperate for work and a real routine, he feels he is waiting and hoping to provide and start his life again.

Khaled is a 19 year old car welder from Homs and he is illiterate. He has visible scars from six months of torture in a detention centre. The lacerations on his neck and ears are raised and sore, and he points to dozens of cigarette burns either side of his spine. His brother has been arrested and imprisoned by government forces. Khaled has not heard from him for over 18 months. He suspects he has been murdered. He fled Syria the moment he escaped the torture camp and is unable to return unless he wishes to join the FSA which he does not.

UNHCR outreach worker verifying refugee identities

Noor Al-deen is a 25 year old graphic designer, also from Homs. His uncle owned a butcher’s shop there. In January, rebels botched the kidnap of a Lieutenant inside the shop. His uncle was accused of plotting the kidnap. He was imprisoned and starved. His cousin was murdered. Noor Al-deen was deemed guilty by family association. He fled Syria and is here today to register as a refugee.

Others we speak to describe long periods of torture; many say they have no idea why they have been detained. Questions are returned: do British people know what is happening here, and do they care? Without the right paperwork, medical assistance is refused at public hospitals. Can British doctors come to help the sick and injured?

Fatima speaks slowly and calmly, recounting her long journey from Qaysa with her two small daughters. She lost her husband in the fighting and has had no contact with her sisters for two months. Now she is living day by day, sharing a single room with another refugee family. Deeply traumatised, she struggles to support her children with vouchers from the World Food Programme: she is here today to secure cash assistance of anything up to $125 per month- UNHCR say the amount she receives will be determined on her family size, circumstances and assessed vulnerabilities.  Fatima thanks us for listening to her, and returns to join the group waiting outside.

There are many more stories today- recounted with desperation and courage- and but a tiny fraction of the refugee mosaic in Syria. The suffering we hear today at Mafraq is heavy and raw, yet all the refugees here face loss on a scale that is difficult for us to comprehend. Most of all, there is an immense sense of lives left behind. For almost all this extends to the anguish and fear for their friends and family still at risk in Syria. For others, there is the unimaginable burden of grief and bereavement from loved ones killed in this conflict.







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Reporting from an informal refugee settlement in Mawa, Amman »

December 18th, 2013

The end of December has been busier than the UNHCR staff had hoped. Most activity is limited to sunshine hours- the heat is needed to melt the road ice- and the shorter days mean restricted operations. The network of agencies and NGOs is now racing to keep up, and there’s plenty more to get done. Heaters still need to be delivered to refugee families in the camps and other settlements, storm damage to buildings repaired.

All these conditions are difficult, but creative civic efforts are underway in the city. On seeing stranded workers facing the night in their cars, staff in a coffee house in the Aboud neighbourhood stayed on duty, with people sleeping there until sunrise. Drivers with tyres stuck in the snow are helped on their way by teenagers on duty with bags of salt. Passers-by lend a hand at the first sign of trouble. These stories keep coming, and the recounting of them maintains morale.

Adding to the frenetic pace, some important delegations arrived to visit refugee programmes earlier this week. These include the Kuwaiti government: the biggest single donor across the region in this humanitarian crisis. Of course, Zaatari is at the top of every delegation’s lists to visit.

The second largest refugee camp in the world is a pressure cooker, with amplification of noise, tension and distress; there is almost no privacy. Maintaining people’s dignity here is crucial for a safe, calmer camp. So it’s no surprise that official visits can be unpopular, and if handled without sensitivity ‘the stones will start to fly’. One in five Syrian refugees in Jordan are based in the two government run camps: the remainder live in host families in urban and rural communities, or in informal settlements.

It’s easy to notice these settlements around the south western outskirts of Amman; familiar white and navy UNHCR tarpaulin is clearly visible on tents from the roadside. When community leaders invite us to Mawa, a settlement of 150 families in south west Amman, details of the arrangement are quickly discussed. Access will be acceptable to the families living there, and we welcome the opportunity to meet with them.

The outskirts of the city are reached quickly today. Police hurry over to the car when we get lost. They are eager to help and courteous. Later we hear that police call on the settlements from time to time; their main purpose is to enquire about the wellbeing of the community.
The Mawa site is in an arid field, bordered by roads and a steep bank to the north, with an imposing factory just behind. Beyond this is a mosque and uniform blocks of suburban housing. It resonates with the bustle of daily life: clothes drying on washing lines, children exploring a new lake in the pit and noisy goats. The tents look fragile in this seemingly chaotic place.

We meet Majit. He is an authority figure in this community, directing our visit with confidence, introducing us to families and explaining the infrastructure of the place. His responsibility is welfare of the school age children- a near continuation of the teaching job he left behind in Hamah, close to the city of Homs. He lives here with his new wife Fatima- a distant cousin from the same village. Last week they were married in a double wedding, with her sister and Majit’s brother sealing their union too. Both brides are fifteen years old, the men in their early twenties.

The interior of the makeshift school

We sit in the after-school club. It is the largest tent on site, and a much needed resource for around 100 school age children and their families. Before the bombings, children in Hamah led structured lives; Majit thinks the child care here has improved behaviour and general wellbeing. The tent is immaculate inside and has been ingeniously constructed: breeze blocks and compressed cardboard make the basic foundation, salvaged iron poles support a high roof, and the double tarpaulin protects against wind and rain. The floor is carpeted, and a neat stack of home-made desks lines the far wall. But there is no insulation, and the tent is cold in the winter months. A thick nylon sheet would make a big difference here.

Four years ago just two families lived on this land. They were economic migrants from Hamah and maintained links with extended family in Syria. When the impact of the conflict escalated in 2012, Majit’s village faced increasing danger alongside worsening living conditions. With existing links to families already established in Amman, 550 individuals reached this settlement over a six month period. Conditions would be harsh, but families would be safe- and there was seasonal work in the vegetable packing factory. The settlement has grown in size and basic facilities. And there are constraints. Income is irregular, and links to some essential services are poor. The nearest school is 10 kilometres away and there is no daily transport for the children.

The community’s resourcefulness is impressive. There are showers in tents, using water piped in from the factory, and good sanitation with septic tanks deep in the ground. Waste is collected communally and arduous journeys made to a municipal dump in the near distance. The tents are as solid as they can be with the materials available.

Safiyah, Yaseen and their extended family outside their home

We meet Safiya and Yaseen in their large tent; sweet coffee and cigarettes are dispensed. Cartoon programmes play on a television and birds sing in a cage. We are joined by husbands, daughters, cousins and the tent is soon full. The talk is of another wedding, Safiya’s sister, who wants to study English Literature at university, and her cousin. Family structures seem strong. But there is poignancy and sadness. Many villagers left behind beautiful homes and successful businesses to come and live here- and the ability to help others in need is a prized part of everyday life.

There is no government support in this settlement, and a minimal NGO presence. Although it is resilience and resourcefulness that have enabled the community to adapt in this environment, both positive relationships with the land owner and strong diaspora have also made this possible- alongside a broader groundswell of support within Jordanian society. But a ceiling has now been reached with the current community resources. Getting children to the nearest school is the next major hurdle to overcome.

Refugee settlers elsewhere have been less fortunate, and many informal settlements continue to struggle with basic needs: adequate shelter, sanitation and keeping the community together. And exploitative labour, overcrowded and unsanitary housing and forced marriage are common problems both in and outside the camps. Syria’s future is uncertain, but these refugees will need strong ties with local communities, employers and public infrastructure for as long as they are in Jordan.



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Grab Dheir, Amman, Jordan »

December 17th, 2013

Zaatari has become the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. The three square miles of Jordanian desert, 12km from the Syrian border is the second largest refugee camp in the world. It is now the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Established in July 2012, it is home to 130, 000 refugees. At its peak in April 2013, the camp housed 203,000 Syrian refugees. The three hospitals here, mean that  healthcare and mortality rates are significantly better  for refugees inside Zaatari, than for those outside it. Although there are schools, attendance is low at an estimated 25%. Over 3,000 shops selling everything from bread, to scent, to wedding dresses, have been set up along the camp’s main roads, including one known as the Champs Elysee. There are football pitches, taxi services and children’s playgrounds.

But life here is hard. Violence is widespread and gangs are everywhere. Refugees are not permitted to leave the camp freely. Visitors come to visit on their tour buses as if they were on a day trip to the zoo. No-one wants to live here. But many, do not have a choice but to do so.

But despite the media focus on Zaatari, 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camps in host communities, many of them with host families. Their plight is slowly gaining attention.

Today we meet the head of the UNHCR’s urban response unit to hear more about what is being done for those living in host communities. He is a calm, charismatic and considered man. Which is no coincidence given that under his management, his team are responsible for home visits, cash assistance and the provision of healthcare to refugees living outside the country’s refugee’s camps.

Refugees who have entered Jordan must by law, register their status. Their first point of call is a the UNHCR helpdesk.  Many refugees, who have entered Jordan illegally, will have had their documents removed at the border. The task at the helpdesk is to verify the identification of applicant refugees, through corroboration of their stories and supporting documents where they are available, in order to move them on to formal registration at an appointment at one of the UNHCRs two registration centres in Jordan- Helda or Irbid.  Where entire families present themselves at the helpdesk, they will be registered on the spot and issued with their refugee paper.

During this subsequent appointment, refugees have their irises scanned. Once this is complete, they are presented with an A4 document confirming they are a UNHCR registered refugee. This paper must be guarded with their life. It, along with their iris print, entitles them to benefits including cash assistance on average of $125 per month for a family of 5, accessing education through UNICEF and  it is their passport to healthcare.  The UNHCR are working with the Jordanian government to implement a refugee identity card within twelve months.

The UNHCR make home visits to those who are sick or unable to attend the helpdesk. Or rather, their 250 caseworkers do. They have made 130,000 home visits to date, to assess refugee status and what to do next.

The cash assistance programme uses a biometric iris identification system to prevent fraud. The process is this. Refugees receive a message on their mobile phones once a month, telling them that money is ready for collection. They in turn go to one of 100 specialist ATMs fitted with an iris scanner to identify the refugee, and their cash is distributed from the cash point. They receive this form of cash assistance for 6 months before they need to re-register as a refugee.

The system has been piloted in Jordan and designed by a Jordanian company who provided the first several thousand transactions free of charge as part of the UNHCR pilot.

Cash is a compliment to other services, including World Food Programme vouchers, which entitle refugees to food.  It is not intended to provide beneficiaries with the full cost of living.  Cash assistance is provided to refugees to compensate for laws that prevent them from working in Jordan. Many of them do so of course, in the informal sector- 25% if estimates are correct.

The level and speed of help is assessed on a case-by-case basis with at risk groups including children, female-headed households, the sick and the elderly being prioritised.  The UNHCR estimate that 30-50% of registered refugees fall into this category.

Of those who apply to be registered by the UNHCR as a refugee and receive their benefits, 5-10% are rejected as human rights violators. Others choose not to because they are independently wealthy or because they simply do not want to, despite the Jordanian authorities requiring them to do so.

It is unusual for the UNHCR to be providing an emergency response in a middle country like Jordan. However, their mandate is clear. To safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. To ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.

Tomorrow we visit Mafraq to see how the UNHCR enact this ambitious mandate.

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Amman, Jordan. December 2013 »

December 16th, 2013

When most people think of Jordan, images of Petra, the Dead Sea and the desert dance into their mind.

Today, in complete contrast, a thick carpet of snow awaits us at Amman airport. Storm Alexa has wrought havoc. Men in keffiyehs teeter precariously along icy pavements, cars glide on ice-glazed tarmac at a top speed of 3 mph and boulders of ice litter the road. Meteorologists report that this is the worst storm to hit the Middle East in 60 years. On the ground, we can certainly attest to the effects.

Last Friday, images of the Pyramids after Cairo’s first snowfall in 112 years went viral. In Jerusalem, Hasidic Jews prayed at the Wailing Wall while snow tumbled around them. Children in Lebanon sculpted round snowmen, Palestinians braved a foot of snow in Hebron clutching weekly shopping bags, and in Jordan, King Abdullah helped to push free a car stuck in the snow on an Amman street. Schools and government offices have been closed for days.

In Amman’s university district, students slide over banks of snow that harden again overnight and bring the city to a standstill. We meet an Arabic student from east London, snowed into accommodation for three days, describing an Amman gridlocked, shops re-opening slowly and an emergency national holiday in response to the standstill. Over shawarma and fatoush, we notice two Syrian kids in warm but dirty clothes, selling colouring books of the Disney princesses. They play in the snow in a larger group; later the staff hand them cartons of juice from over the counter. Half of Jordan’s current population of Syrian refugees are children.

Later, in the hotel, someone curses the freak weather, but thinks the melt will be good for the fifth driest country on earth. Mastering the hot water supply leads to dismay (run it for eight cold minutes first). Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster across the border in Syria cycles on rolling news as helicopter bomb raids in Aleppo kill dozens.

Jordan is bordered on the north by Syria, to the east by Iraq, by Israel and the occupied West Bank on the west. It is home to at least 300,000 refugees. 250,000 of them are from Syria, including 120,000 in Zataari, the world’s second largest refugee camp. The snow, sleet and biting winds have deepened the troubles of those living in makeshift shelters and tents as temperatures remain freezing. With water supplies frozen, many are melting snow on their stoves to access drinking water. The donated warm clothes and sleeping bags we crammed into our luggage to pass on are more needed than ever and we wish we could have brought more. There are grim predictions of families burning the few clothes they own to keep warm.

We are here for a short trip to visit two very different responses to the Syrian refugee crisis here in Jordan. First up will be Syria: The Trojan Women, an adaptation of Euripides’s play that has been reworked to include the stories of women who have fled the war in Syria. The play opens tomorrow in the King Abdullah Cultural Centre. We pray we can actually get to it. The UN have needed to postpone our visit to a refugee registration centre tomorrow because of the extreme weather conditions.

In Northern Europe, we may be dreaming of a white  Christmas. In the freezing refugee shelters around the region, the white dream is a white nightmare.

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The Social Impact Programme | African Social Enterprise Fund »

January 27th, 2017

Prospero World’s Social Impact Programme is dedicated to empowering and supporting emerging leaders to incorporate social impact into their business models and communities. We provide world-class leadership training, mentoring, financial support for product development and placements driven by social and environmental concerns.

The African Social Enterprise Fund (ASEF)

The African Social Entrepreneurs Fund (ASEF), part of our Social Impact Programme, is a long-lasting philanthropic opportunity to enable outstanding African entrepreneurs to create positive social change. The ASEF supports those working in high growth potential, creative industries in Africa, to become socially minded entrepreneurs.

The ASEF was formally launched in London on 3rd December 2016, at a high profile Award Ceremony hosted by Arts Global and Sotheby’s. Prominent leaders, investors and creative industries’ influentials with a strong interest in Africa, gathered to celebrate creative African talent. Presentation of African art, live music by the London Afrobeat Collective and the fashion show were the highlights of the evening. Three ASEF Awards, in the categories of Fashion, Arts and Music, were launched on the night. The Social Impact programme will take place in 2017.

Fashion Award

The Textile and Manufacturing industry has an enormous potential and is expected to thrive in Africa in the coming decade. The fashion industry is directly related to the Textile and Manufacturing industry, which creates opportunity for Africa to have a larger presence as a global contributor to the fashion industry. Supporting and training African designers to build sustainable, social and environmentally – minded business models will enable them to display their resources and talents; attracting more business and increasing the continent’s economy, which is crucial for its prosperity.

Arts Award

The visual arts are a prism through which we can gain a deeper understanding of the world around us. The role of the artist as a powerful agent for change allows him/her to be a spokesperson for social injustice, a bridge for creating empathy or as a commentator on any given situation. The artist acts as a catalyst to effect change in our communities. The ASEF art award will be offered to an artist who wishes to bring his/her unique skills to the needs of a community. The award allows the artist to explore and develop his/her own work around the identification of a particular issue or concern to the community. Through a collaborative effort, the artist and community members can positively impact one another.

Music Award in partnership with the Roger Hammond Memorial Trust Fund (RHMTF)

The causes of poverty and environmental degradation are complex and interrelated. Different skills and perspectives are needed to understand the challenge and identify solutions. Science has a role to play but cultural transformation is more than just the application of technical knowledge and critical thinking. Choosing a new direction is an emotional as well as practical response to the world we live in. Music is a vital tool for bringing people together and helping them explore and express the common values and interests that underpin our collective future.

The Selection Process

  1. CV, Application form, project links and images, prepare a short presentation for the interview
  2. Interview day/presentations
  3. Results

The Minimum Requirements

  • African origin, experience living and working in African markets
  • Under 36 years old
  • 3 years minimum experience in African Fashion
  • Has visa and accommodation in the UK
  • Available for the leadership programme 23/07/2017-3/08/2017
  • Able to travel/get visa to Italy

The Criteria

  • Originality: does the nominee have a fresh and sustainable approach to the use of fashion as a tool for promoting positive social change? Is their idea truly transformational?
  • Determination: does the nominee have a proven track record of achieving change? Do they have an exceptional ability to solve problems? Have they demonstrated this in their personal as well as professional lives?
  • Imagination: does the nominee have the creative ability and adaptability to maintain the integrity of their vision as well as ensure its practical application?
  • Social Impact: Is the nominee’s idea likely to solve an important social problem at a widespread level? Can it be placed on a sustainable financial footing? Will it inspire others to adopt and replicate it? Is it scalable?
  • Character: does the nominee have integrity and how is this demonstrated? Their personal stories of how they came to do what they are now doing.
  • Commitment to monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

The ASEF is designed to grow and develop new Awards in the years to come. Prospero World welcomes comments, interest and partnership proposals for our Awards scheme. For further information, please contact

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The Athenian shelters providing sanctuary to unaccompanied refugee minors »

August 10th, 2016

On March 23rd, it was my birthday. Like many of us, I had been watching the refugee crisis unfold and felt impotent to help as a flow of human traffic continued to engulf Greece, the crisis-stricken country of my childhood.

Just under one-million refugees and migrants reached Greece in 2015. Amongst them were thousands of children and teenagers who arrived alone. Many had lost their parents during the journey, others were sent by parents to flee war.

I was particularly struck by their plight, not least because when I was seven my father died, very suddenly and unexpectedly. Days later, I found myself in a foreign land that would become my home (UK), traumatised by the sudden loss of my beloved father, my home, my friends, my school, the familiarity of a language in which I could read and write, and the life I had known. My world as I had known it, had collapsed.

I viewed my birthday as an opportunity. I set up an online birthday appeal on behalf of the Bodassaki Foundation, a Hellenic organization working to protect and support unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece. On this trip to Greece I was able to visit their shelters and see for myself what my friends’ and family’s donations had helped to achieve.

Europol estimate that 10,000 unaccompanied refugee minors have gone missing since arriving in Europe. They have simply “disappeared”. It is a shameful contravention on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, which has been ratified by all EU Nations.

Greece, has registered nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors (2,951 to be precise) between January 1st and 18th July 2016 alone. This is four times higher than the rate recorded at the same time last year.

Existing shelters in Greece are full. Nearly half of unaccompanied refugee minors registered in Greece, are homeless. They have not only endured traumas that necessitated them leaving their home countries, separation from their families, or the ordeal of journey they have made, but 330 of them have been detained in police stations and in detention centers. They are vulnerable to human trafficking, prostitution, child labour, the drugs trade, and gangs.

I flew into Athens airport on Thursday morning fresh from the refugee camps in North Western Greece, to visit the Bodassaki Foundation and see their work on the ground.

My first point of call was a shelter, nestled discretely in the quiet, residential neighborhood of Kypseli near Athens’s centre. A small plaque on the door, told me I had arrived at the right place.

The shelter is run jointly by Stegi Plus and PRAKSIS, a Greek NGO working in partnership with the Bodassaki Foundation.

Sofia Kouvelaki of the Bodossaki Foundation and Sisi Levandi of PRAKSIS

I was greeted by Sisi Levandi, the shelter’s charming, bilingual coordinator. We were joined shortly afterwards by Sofia Kouvelaki, the program coordinator for the Bodasakis Foundation’s Unacompanied Refugee Minor Programme, Suzanne, The Executive Director of an American Foundation and Papa Jacobos, a 23 year old Harvard graduate who is now a priest, and who I later discover, drives faster than Michael Schumacher.

The shelter was established in January 2014. It is one of two operated by PRAKSIS, the second being in Patras. Greece’s Third Largest City some 215km from Athens.  Each shelter has the capacity to house 30 unaccompanied refugee minors.

The ethos of the shelter is to provide a home.

The shelter houses 30 unaccompanied refugee minors. The day I visited, PRAKSIS had successfully reunited one boy from Afghanistan with his uncle in Germany and another would shortly be going to Finland. Including them, the shelter that day, housed 12 Pakistanis, 9 Syrians, 8 Aghans and 1 Bangladeshi. All of them are boys between the ages of 12-18.

Sisi told us that they have seen a rise in the number of unaccompanied refugee minors of Pakistani origin, since October 2015. Their understanding is that ISIS’s recruitment in Pakistani schools has fuelled this.

The day after my visit, three more boys were due to arrive. They had been referred here by The National Centre for Social Solidarity (E.K.K.A.), a state department mandated to provide social support to people in crisis.  The shelters three new guests will be escorted here from their point of origin to ensure safe passage. PRAKSIS work alongside the IOM and Metadrasi, another of the Bodassaki Foundation’s partners, to escort minors to the shelter.

Once they arrive the newest members of the shelter will meet with lawyers with whom they will share their story. The lawyer will in turn speak to them about their rights, educate them about the dangers of trafficking, and then create a plan of action. Lawyers work in partnership with the shelter to establish whether there are family members with whom they can appropriately be reunited. This is a complex and sensitive process that typically involving cross border DNA testing to ensure the authenticity of claims.

While the legal mechanics are processed, boys at the shelter enjoy as normal a life as possible. They attend a local inter-cultural school, have language lessons at the shelter (mostly in German, though there is also a summer school in which they can learn Greek), play sports and once a week they are taken to the theatre. They are also provided with psychosocial support including from the centre’s psychologist and participation in drama therapy.

PRAKSIS are determined that the boys should feel at home here. And the shelter really does feel like a home. Physically, the centre is situated in a traditional Athenian town house. Each boy has their own bed in a bedroom which they share with a maximum of three others (there are 8 bedrooms in the home). They help to prepare food in a homely kitchen and there are computers on the ground floor which the boys can use to access the internet, watch films and do all the normal things any teenager does.

Where language lessons are held

On average, boys are here for three-four months before moving on. They seem happy here. The atmosphere is familial and relaxed. It is surprisingly, given the trauma that these young people have endured, a cheerful place.

Upstairs, there is a further bedroom, which PRAKSIS refer to as the Transit Room. The room has two sets of bunk beds in it. It is used in emergencies when children are in urgent need, typically because they have been found on the street. PRAKSIS are able to scoop them up and offer them temporary sanctuary here, before referring them to EKKA who will provide longer-term solutions.

PRAKSIS are clear that having this room is a luxury. They feel fortunate to have it. Government regulations in Greece mean that the maximum number of unaccompanied refugee minors permissible in centres of this sort, is 30 at any one time. The transit room is separate to this.

We left the centre an hour and a half later and scrambled into Papa Jacobos’s car to whizz through the backstreets of Kypselli to a second shelter. Our racing driver Priest multitasked impressively, driving at speed, texting, map-reading, talking on his phone and speaking to us about the work that is being done. I didn’t know whether to be impressed. Or press an ejector seat button.

We arrived at the second shelter, another Athenian town house set on a quiet street in a residential area, intact. This shelter has been supported entirely by the Bodassaki Foundation and will be called “Giving for Greece” when it opens in August.

The quiet street on which the shelter is situated. The shelter is the yellow building on the left

It has been a day centre since 2008, but the Bodossaki Foundation have now taken it over and are transforming it into a shelter modelled on the one we have just seen. The Foundation have succeeded in getting in kind support for the works and has invested just €20,000 here, a fact by which I am hugely impressed! It is to this shelter that my birthday fund went. Together my friends and family contributed around 25% of the renovation costs.

We are greeted by Iasonos, who will be the home’s coordinator when it opens. He has been overseeing building work at the site since work began three weeks ago, painting and busily preparing for its opening. He is exhausted but relentlessly committed to what is happening here. He has one of the kindest faces I have ever seen.

He explained to us that the team at the shelter will include 3 social workers, 1 psychologist, 1 cleaner and 3 night guards. The house will be a home to 16 boys between the ages of 12 and 15. They will be given English, French and Greek lessons here and the shelter will be run on the same model as the first home we visited. Initially, the home will be accepting unaccompanied minors from Samos. They have been refereed here by EKKA.

After a quick look around the home, the Americans, Sofia, Papa Jacobos and I return to the car (I gripped the chair in front of me tightly feeling like an extra in Starsky and Hutch) and raced to our final destination.

10 minutes later we arrived at another quiet street and walked to a large building displaying a brass plaque that said Malliopouleio Paidiko Asylo Kypselis. The Malliopouleio Foundation was established in 1922 following the population exchange between Turkey and Greece. The population exchange resulted in an estimated 3 million Greek refugees of Asia Minor origin arriving in Greece. 300,000 of them were resettled in Attica and Central Greece. The Malliopouleio foundation was set up to provide support to the many thousands of unaccompanied refugee minors who arrived in Athens alone.

The parallels between that situation and the situation in Greece today were not lost on any of us. And neither it seems, had they been lost on  the Malliopoulleio Foundation who have donated this historic building to the Bodassaki Foundation in order to create a shelter for unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece today.

Until 2008, the centre was a kindergarten offering support to impoverished families in the area to enable parents to work. It has since 2013 been abandoned. But soon it will have new life breathed into it.

Architectural plans

Manolis, the architect responsible for renovating the building showed us around and explained how the building will be transformed into a state of the art shelter to accommodate a further 30 unaccompanied refugee minors. They will be given the same services we have seen at the previous shelters. The shelter, like the first one we visited, will be run by PRAKSIS.

The Bodossaki Foundation have through their network, secured in kind support from a local building contractor who have agreed to do all renovation work for free. Given the level of work needed (over €100,000’s worth) and the current economic climate in Greece, this is an extraordinary act of generosity. IKEA have agreed to equip the building. A consultation has been conducted amongst the local community who are extremely supportive of the venture.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment. It illustrates clearly the exceptional nature of the Bodossaki Foundation and their ability to bring together not just organisations, but individuals and companies, to support unaccompanied refugee minors.

I am so heartened by what I have seen. From the chaos and hopelessness in the refugee camps, to the organised, structured and strategic work that is being done by the Bodossaki Foundation and its partners. I feel that there is a plan. That the most vulnerable are being supported by a strong, determined and thoughtful team of people, with not just the ability, but the commitment to practically support those who have arrived in Greece alone. They are determined to protect the most vulnerable and provide them with the best possible chance of a positive future.

It costs the Bodossaki Foundation €30 per child, per day to do this. I have spoken to donors in the UK who believe this is expensive. But I have this to say, in response.

The Bodossaki Foundation are not just feeding, clothing and sheltering those they support. They are bringing together NGOs, individuals, Foundations, government departments, commercial enterprises, doctors, lawyers, host communities and of course racing Priests, to provide tangible, holistic support to the most vulnerable faces of this refugee crisis.

They are giving them legal representation, family reunification, DNA testing, psychological support, education, access to proper healthcare. And above and beyond everything, they are giving them a home. A sense of family. They are in some way, seeking to ease the pain experienced by these young people, so that they are able to move beyond it and create a better future for themselves.

Nelson Mandela once remarked “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. €30 a day seems a small price to pay.




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Filippiada: Where Time Stands Still »

August 3rd, 2016

Filippiada refugee camp is set four kilometres northwest of the small town of Filippiada, Epirus, in a former military base. The disused army barracks now act as a warehouse bursting with donated goods. They are desperately in need of men’s clothing.

The camp opened in March 2016. It is is now “home” to 441 people. Most are Syrian, though there are also Afghans. As in Katsikas, half are children. Some have been moved here from the now infamous refugee camp at Idomeni which swelled to 12,000 people after Western Balkan countries sealed their borders to Refugees trying to reach Germany, causing chaos and sparking  accusations that European nations were passing the migration crisis buck. Idomeni camp was shut down in May and refugees evacuated.

In order to enter the camp individuals must apply in advance for a permit from the Mayor’s office. We need to collect our permits in person from the Town Hall. After weaving through the narrow, blisteringly hot  backstreets of Filpiaddia in search of the Town Hall and after a seemingly endless wait once we get there, we are told that permission must now be granted from the army.

We are dismissed, instructed to find the army chief and told that we may, or may not, need to return to the Town Hall once we have spoken to him. We are given vague directions to the camp. These are thankfully supplemented by a cleaner who, having overheard our conversation, helpfully embellishes the minimalistic directions we have been given. Everyone here it seems, knows about the refugee camp.

When we finally reach the camp, we drive through a military entry point and seek out the head of the army who gives us permission to enter. The reason for this procedure is to prevent smugglers and human traffickers from entering the camp.

Marta Larrea-Pombo, Volunteer, Olvidados

We then find Evangelia Boboni, a volunteer with CalAid who has helped to coordinate our visit, and introduced to Marta, a bilingual engineering student from Madrid who shows us around the camp. She is spending her summer here, volunteering with Olvidados, the Spanish NGO we met at Katiskas. Olvidados were invited here in June, by the Greek army on the basis of their work at Katsikas.

The Greek army’s resources are severely stretched. As one would expect with an army, their expertise is in combat and defense, not managing a refugee camp. They are grateful that their efforts here are supported by Oxfam (to a minimal extent), the UNHCR and Mercy Corps as well as Olvidados.

I am told that Oxfam provide food and hygiene products here, though a volunteer later tells me that the army are the sole providers of food. A German NGO called Mobile Fluechtlingshilfe have created a community space where tea is served to refugees (it’s the closest thing to a café one can imagine in a refugee camp), and Olvidados generally oversee the camp.

Donations of clothing, shoes and basic good have been made predominantly by the local population, but also from overseas, especially from Spain through Olvidados and the UK through CalAid. We unload our carload of donations with the help of Dawood from Afghanistan, who escaped over the Turkish border in the boot of a car. I suspect he is about 16 or 17. He is here alone.  He repeatedly thanks us for the donations as he works.

A crumbling, disused building to the right of the warehouse, composed of two rooms, has been given a lick of paint and transformed into an impromptu school. Between the warehouse and the school, stand a legion of canvas tents with the UNHCR logo emblazoned on their roofs.

The informal school runs each day except Friday and Saturday and is attended on an adhoc basis by children of primary school age. Their lessons here include maths and history. A mural of the Little Prince has been painted on one of the school’s exterior walls and translated into English, Arabic and Dari for the camps Afghan inhabitants. Inside, three alphabets have been painted on the walls. The school is run by refugees who teach in Arabic and Dari. Volunteers supplement their efforts by providing informal English lessons. Marta says to me ”It’s not ideal because some children don’t want to go. Or their parents wont let them. It is only for children up to the age of 12. They all need better education.” A painted clock is permanently set to 2:50.

Beyond the school, stand 50 portable lavatories and a shower block. There is no hot water.

Behind the shower block, a vanity space has been created to help boost morale, and an improvised hairdressing salon has been set up. Somehow this strikes me as the most cheering thing I have seen. It is so normal.

A third building has been renovated by a team of Spanish volunteers and painted by the refugees.  When it is finished, the three-roomed construction will include a sewing workshop (non electrical machines are needed), a children’s play area and a yoga space. Until the building is ready, volunteers organize activities for the children that include painting and sports.

The UNHCR, whose efforts in Greece have been widely criticized as inadequate, are at least present in this camp. Around the camp, men sit in the shade of their tents patiently constructing solar powered lamps given out by the UNHCR. Oxfam are trying to secure solar panels to provide proper electricity to the camp.

There is also a prayer tent.

Behind the camp a dense forest leads to a river, which though difficult to reach, provides the camps inhabitants with some much welcomed and refreshing paddling. Women collect firewood here to light fires in the camp at night. Open fires are not allowed by the army (there is a high risk of forest fires), but as the camp has no electricity, they turn a blind eye to it.

Throughout the camp refugees have planted herb gardens outside their tents. The seeds were provided by Olvidados. This is not just a bid to grow herbs to add to the flavourless food that is provided daily and which volunteers tell us is almost entirely lacking in nutritional value. It is an attempt to take pride in their “homes”, to channel their energy positively and to invest in a future that many have accepted is likely to involve remaining much longer than anticipated in Greece.

The majority we speak to have family in Europe and they are desperately keen to reach them.

Amar is a teacher from Damascus who proudly shows us his herb garden. He is here in the camp with his family. But he is trying to reach the U.K where his mother and sisters have been living for 13 years. He left Syria a year ago, travelling first to Turkey, where he stayed for 8 months, and then on to Greece. He paid a trafficker $2,500 to smuggle him and his family from Izmir to Greece in a plastic dinghy.

He says he had no choice. He could not stay in Syria with bombs and bullets raining daily from the sky. There was no future there for his children. He said that worse than the chaos of war, was the fear of looters who routinely pillaged and intimidated people by regularly turning up at their houses in the middle of the night. He says they did not know if they were thieves, or regime spies.

So for now, Amar and his family sit and wait. They occupy their time as best they can. Building solar lanterns. Digging gardens. Playing cards. But it seems absurd. A doctor, in a place where medical professionals are urgently needed, not allowed to work but instead made to idle his days away by and just wait. The perpetual waiting.

The atmosphere in this camp is different from what we saw at Katsikas. It feels more organized. The people are more hopeful. The conditions in which they are living are still very basic. On a psychological level, they are not simply dealing with the trauma of war, loss and the journeys they have undergone. They are dealing with uncertainty and waiting for permission to continue their journeys.

On a physical level, they are living in great discomfort with the most basic supplies, in an inhospitable place plagued by snakes and scorpions (the army have set snake traps). On a social level, there are reportedly tensions in the camp between the Syrians, who are automatically granted refugee status because they are fleeing war, and the Afghans who are not classified as fleeing war and therefore not automatically granted refugee status (tell that to someone fleeing the Taliban).

But as in Katiskas, the volunteers, NGOs and army are doing the best they can to make the situation as bearable as possible. It is now a waiting game. Like the clock painted on the school wall, time for the refugees here, seems to stand still….

Please contact us for further information about our Refugee Fund

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Greece’s Warehouse of Lost Souls »

August 2nd, 2016

Over 1 million refugees passed through Greece in search of sanctuary in 2015. The EU-Turkey deal, signed on 20
th March 2016, has left an estimated 57,000 people stranded in the Eurozone’s most crisis-stricken member state.

Today, they are living in 30 makeshift camps and detention centres across the country. 48% of them are children.

In most of the camps, the Greek army provides food, while the government is responsible for the provision of medical care. Our NGO partners report that the majority of the camps do not have electricity or hot water. As MSF reported in May:

“It is not hard to see why people do not want to come to the government-run camps… Near the Albanian border, in Ioannina City, the Katsikas military-run camp hosts asylum seekers who spend their days in the heat and freeze at night. They sleep in tents without mattresses and have nothing but sheets to keep warm on the cold, hard, and rocky ground.

A Greek army truck comes twice a day to distribute food and water, and people spend their days avoiding snakes and scorpions. They rely on camp fires to provide heat and to sterilize water in order to prevent their children from suffering from diarrhea.”

I feel anxious and uneasy as we approach the camp at Katsikas. Although I have visited countless emergency response projects in Sub Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East,  this is different. This is my home country.

We arrive at Katsikas, in 37 degree heat, with a car bursting with donations from the people of Corfu following an appeal by my mother and a friend of hers. Like many, they have felt impotent to help in the face of such a crisis. But they have responded by collecting clothing, shoes, toys, cooking pots and school equipment and bringing them to the camps on the mainland. They have spent days collecting and sorting through the donations. Our sitting room at home, has in recent months, doubled up as a sorting depot. This is my mother’s second visit to Katsikas in six weeks.

The camp itself is set on a disused airfield, 15 minutes outside the Byzantine city of Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, Greece’s North Western province. Epirus, has few resources and its mountainous, rugged terrain makes agriculture difficult. According to a 2001 census, it has the lowest population of Greece’s 13 provinces. Tourists are drawn here by the region’s natural beauty and rich wildlife which includes, bears, wolves and lynxes. Lovely for tourists: Less lovely for those living outdoors, in tented communities.

The village of Katsikas itself, has a population of 2,500 people. At its peak in May 2016, the refugee camp here housed 1,500 people.

On arrival, we are redirected to a rented warehouse, a ramshackled building that also houses an improvised pharmacy, about 2km from the camp. Here we met with Berta De La Dehesa, an actress from Madrid who has been volunteering at Katsikas since March.  She helps to coordinate the camp’s logistics.

Berta told us that they have been overwhelmed with donations of clothing, predominantly from their supporters in Spain, but also from Greeks who have been very supportive of the refugee community, offering not only donations but simple comforts like showers in their homes when the camp was first set up. The warehouse is full. With the exception of a large bag of shoes, some school equipment and a bag of clothing, we shut the boot of our car without unpacking the donations, agreeing that we will instead take them on to another camp tomorrow.

But there are two things that they now urgently need. Shoes. And money to buy bread. €67.50, or €0.13, per person, per day to be precise. Although they initially had assistance from the UNHCR and OXFAM, now they are on their own.

Despite being classified by the UNHCR in a recent evaluation as one of the better camps, Katsikas is bleak.  The ground is littered with sharp, jagged stones. Volunteers tell us that the terrain is so rough that they need a new pair of shoes every week. Electricity is sourced illegally from overhead pylons. It is boiling hot during the day. At night the temperatures plummet.  It is also prone to heavy rainfall. On the day we visit, it hails.

Katsikas was classed by the UNHCR recently as one of the better of Greece’s 30 camps. Seeing the conditions here, I cannot help wondering what the circumstances are like in the lower scoring camps. All the while I keep thinking: “This is Europe. This is Greece.” A few miles away holiday-makers are reveling in the sunshine. Enjoying grilled octopus for lunch. Building sand castles on the beach. Is this really the best we can do?

In April when Alternate Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas visited the camp, he noted that Greece had been asked to accommodate more than 50,000 refugees very rapidly, after countries to the north closed their borders, and that some camps, including Katsikas, had more problems than others. He said:

“Our goal is to very quickly overhaul the existing hospitality centres so they reach at least a medium standard.”

But it is clear that the conditions in the camp, 3 months later, remain inadequate. There is nothing hospitable about this place. The NGOs working here are doing the best they can to support the primary needs of the refugees.

The volunteers have travelled thousands of kilometres, at their own expense, to support these efforts. The response of civil society has been inspiring. The Greek government are doing the best they can, to respond to the refugee crisis. But they are themselves, a nation in crisis, seemingly with little external support despite the European Commission’s pledge that it would support Greece with €83m, in April this year.

Today, the camp is home to 537 people, mostly from Syria. Half of them are children. The plan is that they will attend school from September. But how children will be subsumed into local schools is not clear, beyond assertions that they will be taught in Greek, with local children.

There are numerous complications associated with this, not least that this Arabic speaking community do not speak Greek. Nor do they particularly wish to. Most of them want to get to Northern Europe. Nor is it clear how local schools will be supported to accept their newest pupils without additional funding or support. Unlike refugee communities we have visited previously in Jordan, children will not attend school in shifts or be segregated. No-one we have spoken to has been able to answers basic questions about how the process will work.

Although the Greek army is officially responsible for the camp at Katsikas, it has been supported by the Spanish charitable organisation, “Olvidados” meaning “The Forsaken”, who were invited to work in the camp, in March. Olvidados were soon joined by volunteers from the Swedish NGO “Lighhouse” and AIRE, another Spanish NGO. These organisations are determined to make life bearable for the refugees here.

Whilst Olvidados and AIRE attend to basic needs such as the provision of water, food and clothing (to date, Olvidados have provided 44 tonnes of food to the camp), Lighthouse’s aim is to “turn Katsikas camp into a lively community for the people staying here. Apart from providing them with supplies and material (they) have created a community centre with an information point (including wifi), a child friendly space and a female friendly space”.

Since April, Lighthouse Relief have been providing children with language lessons in Arabic, Kurdish, English and German as well as mathematics and science in purpose built tents (the refugees helped to construct the tents). They also provide English, French, Spanish and computer lessons to adults.

Medecin du Monde are also present and responsible for the primary healthcare of the camp, but in reality, simple cases such as fevers are usually referred to hospitals in Ioannina.

Currently, a team of 70 volunteers run the camp.

Katsikas’s Yazidi community, an Iraqi ethnic and religious minority who have been violently persecuted by ISIS, of 250 left two weeks ago, saying that they did not feel safe after graffiti mentioning ISIS was seen in the camp. Their aim was to travel to Patras, some 250km south of Ioannina where there is a Yazidi only camp, but there was no space for them. Instead, Katsikas’s former inhabitants have set up an independent camp on the outskirts of Ioannina.

Olvidados are providing them with basic support but no-one is able to provide detailed information on what will happen to them in the long term. This situation is not uncommon. Refugees have freedom of movement within Greece’s borders. The numbers of people in the camps changes almost daily, as people set off to alternative camps in search of friends or family.

Nobody seems to have a long-term plan, or a clear picture of what will happen to the refugees as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. Many are swiftly losing hope that they will be able to join their relatives in other European Nations. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras description of his country as a “warehouse of lost souls” last February seems bitterly true here.

All the refugees can do is await decisions about their asylum applications. And for the time being, that means relying on the goodwill of  volunteers and the donations they are able to inspire.


We have set up the Prospero World Refugee Fund to accept tax efficient donations to support a number of outstanding interventions, including Olvidados  in Katiskas. Please click here to donate  

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On Astro-biology, Spanish Olive Oil and the Sinking of the Titanic »

June 3rd, 2015

The Cornucopia Club joined the How-to-Academy for a long weekend at ‘Trasierra’ a beautiful home masquerading as a hotel in the middle of Andalucia, Spain, owned by Charlotte Scott.

A host of writers, academics, entrepreneurs, and a scientist specialising in that hot, new unexplored discipline ‘astro-biology’,  joined our guests for 3 days of  lunchtime and pre-dinner talks on a range of subjects. We had ‘Shakespeare and Science’ given by the talented children’s writer and academic Katherine Rundell,  ‘How to Survive the  Titanic’ by Francis Wilson, ‘How to rebuild the World from Scratch’  and ‘Hunting for Aliens’ by the rising star in astro-biology, Lewis Dartnell, ‘Spanish Olive Oil’ by George Scott, ‘Lorca and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Keegan, ‘Night-climbing’ (means scampering up buildings like the Battersea Power Station, at night) also by Katherine Rundell (a multi-talented young lady) and a completely impromptu and brilliant talk by  Cornucopia Club member Nadeem Shaikh who founded  Anthemis, on ‘The Future of Money.”

These talks were spread out over 3 days and it was possibly a little like being at the Hay Festival, but with only 17 people around a table laden with delicious food and wine,  and the opportunity to continue to talk  thoughout the afternoon, or walk in the olive groves where one might meet Lola the white donkey loitering on the tennis courts. The grand finale was a midnight supper in a wild garden, while Lewis pointed out stars and various (invisible) moons while the conversation turned to intelligent design, space-travel and – at our table – the benefits of cremation.

John Gordon’s idea of bringing us all to this beautiful place and keeping us hostage was genius: it brought the Cornucopia Club salon into the sunshine with the How-to-Academy’s brilliant speakers and guests.

I have never been in a situation where I have been immersed in so many well-presented and eclectic new ideas – at least, not recently, not over three days, and certainly not with endless plates of Jamon, cups of freshly made gazpachos and glasses of  Campanas. It was surprisingly stimulating and has triggered off a whole constellation of new ideas. As Lewis Dartnell reminded us, the moon has no dark side, only a far and a near side…

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The ebola epidemic is not only an international aid failure, but an international scandal, says Jacqueline de Chollet, founder of the Global Foundation for Humanity and member of Prospero World’s Cornucopia Club. »

October 10th, 2014

As ever, the west looks at a catastrophe such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa by the wrong end of the telescope.

Why do I say so?  This is simply because the outbreak of Ebola is a public health problem. Western aid has not focused efforts on helping to build public health systems. Sierra Leone ranks among the worst health care providers in Africa. Yet, 3 years ago when I visited Sierra Leone, most Foreign Government Agencies were represented in Freetown and other parts of the country. Among them USAID, DIFED Irish Aid, Norad ,Swedish Sida,  Italian Aid CORDAID among others. All major UN agencies were represented, UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO, World Food Program and others. There were also several NGOs and volunteer groups such as IRC, Mercy Ship, BRAC, Goal, Sierra Leone Red Cross, Save the Children, MSF, Merlin, Marie Stopes, Handicap International, Action Plus, CORD SL, Health for all Coalition, Network Movement for Justice and Development(NMJD), Plan Parent Association Sierra Leone(PPASL), National Aids Secretariat(NAS) and others. Most of these organs work fully in health care or cooperate with other groups for health care.

The UK is the biggest bilateral donor in Sierra Leone. DFID plays a leading role in shaping donor aid policy and strategies around transitioning Sierra Leone towards a developmental path of prosperity and growth. The UK’s aid programme has a strategic focus on infrastructure and improved health services.

Despite their presence, the nation remains at the bottom of UN Human Development Index with very poor and despicable health care situation.

What did I see while I was there?  Car parks full of Toyota Land Cruisers going nowhere. In a remote town of Kono, I met a Canadian nurse who had spent a year teaching nursing with no text books. I also saw labor wards in a hospital with no doctors and with untrained nurses or nurse aids. This was the story repeated all over Sierra Leone.

The main people I came across who were nurses and were involved in public health and education were the catholic nuns. They are working nonstop and see their colleagues dying around them. They seek to bring quality health care to the average and poor people who cannot afford the very expensive health facilities in Freetown. They educate the young hoping that this exposure to literacy and life skills will help the young contribute in changing the situation in the future. A few out comes can now be seen as more young people are going into degree nursing programs, medicine and laboratory technology as well as public health. The venture of the nation’s First Lady to seek a reduction of infant mortality and protect pregnant women is almost being frustrated as some of the nurses collect medical fees where they should not and groups like Marie Stopes which should provide free reproductive health facilities continue to charge patients and families for their services thus discouraging people from availing of medical help. A lot of Sierra Leoneans seek medical help from nurses at their homes or from pharmacies.

That has been my experience in Africa:  fund the nuns. There are the most efficient delivery of public health systems. Yet they do it on a shoestring.

The scandal is a western one for not funding the right objectives, for funding programs that do not look at the long term – health and education are the only thing that matters and builds for the future.

Now the whole world will panic about the epidemic – of course especially if it comes to Europe and the U. S. Meanwhile, the people in West Africa will continue to die.

With a proper public health system, the epidemic would already have been contained.

That is if Western Aid had done the right thing – which is has not. We should be ashamed.

Jacqueline de Chollet

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Photovoice Report: Social Media for Social Change. »

August 7th, 2014

30 July to 5 August.

Like: 1 Point Comment: 2 Points Share: 3 Points

Posts: 6

1-     30 July 2-     31 July 3-     1 Aug
4-     2 Aug 5-     4 Aug 6-     5 Ago


Post Date Posted Likes Comments Shares Total Points.
1 30 July 13


0 2

6 Points

19 Points
2 31 July 8

8 Points


2 Points

0 10 Points
3 1 Aug 8

8 Points



0 8 Points
4 2 Aug 7

7 Points

0 0 7 Points
5 4 Aug 8

8 Points

0 0 8 Points
6 5 Aug 6

6 Points

0 0 6 Points


Likes:  50 likes= 50 Points

Comments: 1 Comment= 2 Points.

Share: 2 Shares= 6 Points.

Total Points: 58 Points 

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