Refugee crisis has lessons for NC

Editor’s note: Christopher Gergen recently traveled to Greece and had an opportunity to learn about innovative approaches to support the refugee community.

Mohammed grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and went on to university to study as a multi-lingual translator. As events overtook his country, he left his family last year to embark on a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean.

Today, he lives in Athens in public housing with 400 other refugees. There are several buildings just like it in his neighborhood, spilling over with newcomers from throughout the Middle East.

Since 2015, it is estimated that over 1 million refugees have arrived in Greece via the Turkish Coast. Of these, 52 percent come from Syria, with the balance migrating from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Forty percent are children and 22 percent are women. This year alone, over 127 have died at sea and another 20 are missing. This past March, Macedonia closed Greece’s northern border leaving 50,000 refugees, like Mohammed, stranded in Greece.

This has put incredible strain on the Hellenic Republic. With a 24 percent unemployment rate and struggling under austerity measures, Greece has become heavily reliant on the financial and volunteer assistance the global community is providing to support the surging refugee population. But amidst the flow of government aid comes a growing grassroots entrepreneurial movement with valuable lessons for North Carolina.

Mohammed is part of this movement. Within his housing community, he has gotten actively involved in helping provide continuing education to hundreds of children whose formal schooling ended when they fled their home country. He’s also working side by side with the Greeks to think about better long-term housing options for recent newcomers. As he says, “I like Greece and have found a very supportive community among the Greeks. If I can stay, I will. But we need to create better economic opportunities and living conditions. I want to be part of the solution.”

One group he has recently partnered up with is Startup Boat. Described as a “network of mobile innovators who create and grow opportunities together – beyond borders,” the floating entrepreneurial incubator/think tank was started by Paula Schwarz. The 25-year-old, who is half Greek and half German, was leading a social enterprise in Berlin when it dawned on her that the entrepreneurial mindset could be a great asset in addressing the refugee crisis.

“Startups look at a problem as an opportunity,” says Schwarz. “They see a gap and fill it. … A system is applied, usually with technology, to develop a scalable solution for the challenge.”

With this in mind, she leveraged her network and called on partners like Facebook, Lufthansa Innovation Hub, and McKinsey to help launch Startup Boat, a multi-day hackathon on a private boat in which invited participants take on a specific, actionable refugee challenge. The first step is to work directly with the refugees to better understand the problem. Then participants work in a highly collaborative fashion to develop potential solutions and think through an operational plan that can be launched and sustained well beyond the initial brainstorm. Refugees help test solutions immediately to assess their potential and help work through a process to improve the product, process, and ultimate impact.

For their first challenge, Startup Boat focused on the lack of information available to refugees when they first arrive in Europe. The result was, a free pan-European, multi-lingual website providing basic but critical information such as where to register for residency cards and where to get basic support such as access to food, shelter, transportation, and medical supplies.

Since it launched last year, over 10,000 people have accessed the information through the site and its corresponding social media platform.

In their most recent hackathon, Startup Boat participants developed more efficient strategies to distribute medical supplies throughout the refugee community. This was chosen among the more than 50 short-term and long-term challenges presented to the Startup Boat for consideration. To further foster creative problem-solving, Schwarz also helped launch Migration Hubs – co-working spaces in Berlin and Athens that are free to anyone working on mass migration issues. In addition to supporting the entrepreneurs and creating a highly collaborative problem-solving environment, the hubs also provide workshops and a community for recent refugee arrivals.

Though the refugee crisis in Greece is profound, the mass migration from the Middle East is affecting most countries and communities, including North Carolina. As we look to create a dynamic support environment for high potential refugees like Mohammed here at home, there is clearly much to learn from around the world.

Christopher Gergen is a founding partner of HQ Community, CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.