South African Entrepreneurs Map out Coworking Space for Refugees

Coworking is often considered to be a conduit to address various needs faced by communities, whether that be the lack of affordable infrastructure, community and support. For today’s freelancers, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers, coworking spaces have been a godsend, helping individuals to avoid isolation and find success in their professional lives. Yet, aside from the professional benefits, the coworking concept has been also been considered by some to be a valuable tool in addressing social issues.

Entrepreneurs, Vasili Sofiadellis and Paul Keursten, have realized the potential of utilizing coworking a social tool, and have recently announced their plans to open a coworking space that will cater to the needs of the countless individuals suffering from the current refugee crisis.

In October of 2015, they travelled together to Lesvos in Greece, an area of Europe that has witnessed one of the greatest concentration of refugees, the majority of them fleeing from Syria. We spoke with Vasili about their experience in Lesvos and how they plan to move forward with this inspiring space.

Hi, Vasili. Can you please tell us a bit about your (and Paul’s) experience with coworking and what led you ultimately travel to Lesvos?

I am a South African Greek National, based in Cape Town, and I have been visiting the birthplace of my parents, Lesvos, every year for the past 10 years. I have my own company, from which I plan to launch a socially oriented health tech accelerator.

Previously, I was running a PriceWaterhouseCoopers office within a local tech incubator and coworking space. In addition to my own projects, I am also a board member of the Silicon Cape Initiative, which is a not for profit entity focusing on supporting tech entrepreneurs. I am also a founding crew member of the StartupBoat, an initiative to find tech solutions for the refugee crisis. In 2015, We traveled to Greece twice with the goal of finding ways tosupport this crisis.

My colleague, Dr. Paul Keursten is an entrepreneur and consultant, who places innovation, entrepreneurship and learning at the core of his work. Paul focuses on supporting others to fully develop and utilize their talents in order to achieve success and contribute to a better world.

Together with Mark Seftel, Paul started OPEN, a collaborative workspace company that designs, builds and manages coworking and innovation spaces across South Africa. Paul’s work in OPEN builds on the experience he gained in Maliebaan45, launched in 2008, which was the first high-end, boutique coworking space in the Netherlands.

At the 2015 Coworking Europe conference in Milan, you and Paul presented your idea to create a coworking space that would cater to refugees. Can you please tell us a bit about the concept, and also about some of the ideas that you came up with at the unconference?

I work from Paul’s coworking space here in Cape Town, and upon returning from Greece, Paul and I discussed the refugee crisis. Paul was immediately keen to set up a coworking space in Lesvos through which we could create an enabling environment.

At the unconference, we presented our idea to several representatives of the coworking community who are very interested in supporting our project.

You cited that when you visited Lesvos you were inspired to start this project. What were some of the stories that you heard while visiting with refugees?

Firstly, what stood out was how amazing these people were. Not one of them wanted to leave their homes, which really brings home the point that they had no choice in the matter. Secondly, many of them were highly educated and had their own financial independence.

One man, an industrial engineer, shared his story with us, explaining that all he wanted was to be safe and to find his wife and daughter, whom he was forced to leave behind. He had moved twice while in Syria, but was ultimately forced to leave. We also met a man, and his three beautiful daughters, whose wife had stayed behind with the youngest child because he did not want to get onto a boat. All three of his daughters spoke English, and were studying at university.

What were some specific needs that you discovered while meeting with refugees in Lesvos?

The immediate needs were for wifi and electricity to charge their phones. They wanted to communicate with their loved ones. We notice that every refugee had a smartphone.

Secondly, the biggest need was for people to recognize the tough road and many challenges that the refugees faced. It is important to acknowledge their bravery for undertaking this journey into the deep unknown! When these people arrive, they are celebrating with tears of joy for arriving safely in Europe and also the prospect for a better future. Many have lost not only all of their belongings, but also family members and loved ones.

It was completely inspiring to see the sheer determination and optimism these individuals carry, as they have the attitude that the glass is always half full. After arriving on shore and celebrating, most refugees then walk for over 72 km to reach Mytilini. Many of them have no idea what awaits them or how they’re going to get there, but the one thing that they do know, is that they are going to get there no matter what (« there » being mostly Germany and Sweden).

You mentioned that many of the refugees were entrepreneurs, what did they say were their biggest obstacles?

My opinion of an entrepreneur is someone who perseveres in that which he believes in. This was not more evident than it was in the determination of these refugees. I have new-found respect for the Syrians of whom I was fortunate enough to meet.

I am certain, that given half a chance to run a business, or any other opportunity, these people will succeed with flying colors! It is imperative for Europe not only embrace these people, but to also create an enabling environment for these inspiring people to integrate into communities and provide them with the opportunities through which they can become self sustainable.

As coworking is based on a value system that is primarily inclusive, a shared and supportive space seems to be the perfect place to start such an initiative. But, as with everything, there are inevitable obstacles and there often has to be a long-term goal set in order to build a successful platform. What are some of the ideas you have that would help refugees to become self-sufficient?

These are very determined people. The ideal scenario would be for them to present their ideas to angel investors / VC’s who would fund some of their ideas in partnership with local entrepreneurs, such as joint solutions that could be co-founded. One example could be to fund a Syrian refugee to start a local restaurant.

In Lesvos, we will look at the possibility of holding a hackathon which will be attended by local Aegean University students, tech entrepreneurs, local NGOs, and, of course, refugees. The objective would be to create tech solutions for the NGO, in addition to other challenges with teams that would be inclusive.

What types of programs would you offer in order to support this community and have you had thought of making potential partnerships with other aid organizations, or even coworking spaces for that matter?

The overall idea is to raise funding for these solutions to be “incubated” within the coworking space for at least a three month period. We would also encourage a large corporation to set up an office in Lesvos that would ideally be focused on tech skills for an R&D centre and also to look to attract refugees that have these skills to Lesvos. We also plan to have a “quick” assessment of the various skills that refugees have, as an attempt to relocate them to areas where their skills are required. As we do this, we would also look to teach software skills to those that are interested, as these skills can be used irrespective of where you are.

We have had various discussions, and also met with one of the leading NGO organisations, thus we would most certainly look to collaborate with all stakeholders. The Mayor, Mr Galynos, has truly been exceptional and in general very supportive. His vision is to transform the island into a place where “Pain is turned into Hope”.

Would you make it a priority to help integrate the refugees into the greater community? If so, what would be some of the ways you would do so, and do you think this would be effective in order to achieve long-term success?

It is imperative to integrate the communities, and we believe that through jointly funding initiatives this would be a good way to achieve integration.

A bi-annual event where sports and cultural activities are celebrated would also be very important. It’s vital that people recognize that we are all global citizens, or at least we should strive towards this mind set. We should also look to celebrate, as soon as possible, success and feel good stories of integration between the different cultures and refugees.

Do you think that this initiative could help to change some of the negative perception people have of refugees, which often pushed by widespread divisive media coverage?

Absolutely, no doubt. In fact, we need to raise awareness in the media of who these people are and their brave journeys.

It is not possible for someone to understand this without actually speaking to the refugees. The minute you speak to the first refugee and hear their story, it’s simply not humanly possible to not be touched and inspired. It makes you want to make a difference and help in whatever way you can.

The minute I met the first refugee, it changed my life right then and there. It’s out of pure ignorance that I did not act sooner. This is a crisis. Every person needs to assist, and this crisis could be considered as a golden opportunity to transform Europe and the world. Our actions today will determine what our future will look like.

Lastly, I would also like to add that the people of Greece have been nothing short of exceptional. Whilst undergoing one of the most severe financial crisis in its history, with the highest suicide rates ever, the people of Greece have recognized that the needs of these unfortunate are greater than what their needs are and have been acting accordingly. It is simply amazing and they should and will be recognized for this. They have shown us what humanity is, and should be about.

An event is to take place in Lesvos later this year to share and launch the project. Details will be announced in WEF in Davos on the 20th of January 2016.

Amanda Gray 

This article originally appeared here.

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