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Refugee Support Structures, PART 1.
How Independent Volunteers structured Cyprus’s main refugee camp, Kofinou, and ran a national support network.
Refugee Support Structures, PART 1.
How Independent Volunteers structured Cyprus’s main refugee camp, Kofinou, and ran a national support network.
Since 2017, a holistic community-driven strategy has been deployed in Kofinou. The plan had been then designed by Domï Sea and carried out by groups of independent volunteers across the island of Cyprus.
Being in the right place at the right time can allow even one person or a handful of people to bring a tremendous change to our communities.
In Cyprus, it was a group of independent volunteers that started running island-wide operations, stepping up in the absence of leadership and inclusive plan from any governmental agency, subsidiary or NGO.
We are writing this analysis of our action now, as a testimony to the months and years of unfunded and unrecognized sacrifice and dedication of private individuals that allowed the current landscape of NGOs and governmental agencies to build upon in a way that completely changed the dynamic of the Cypriot’s third sector.
What we wish for in the future, is to see more cooperation between official entities like traditional NGOs and governmental agencies and their contractors on one hand and us on the other : the think tanks, the activists, volunteers and philanthropist that paved the road that enabled national change in ideologies, approaches and policy.
If you wish to work with us to expand on our work in Cyprus, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
KOFINOU CAMP FOR REFUGEES & ASYLUM SEEKERS – CYPRUS.
The Kofinou Camp for Refugees and Asylum Seekers is Cyprus’s main reception center managing and hosting refugee migrants in Cyprus.
– Lack of community management authorities inside the camp. Kofinou’s management has been outsourced by the government to a security company working on premises solely on entrance clearance security and administrative matters. No authority was in charge of providing support of any kind to the camp’s residents, with the exception of translation services (1 part-time translator) and catering services (2 meals per day).
– Lack of supervision around the distribution of donations. People who wanted to donate money or resources to the camp had no one to address. Material donations by rare donors were thrown over the camp’s fence in garbage bags. In the past years, groups of dominant men claimed ownership over all goods thrown over the fence. The donated goods were sold by a small minority of camp residents, leaving mainly women and children with no access to donated resources.
– Lack of maintenance services provided for basic hygiene and living condition norms overview. Broken toilets, broken showers, broken cooking areas, sewage systems spilling on the camp’s property, broken heating / cooling systems and lack of proper resources such as mattresses and blankets were daily occurrences and health hazards that the camp’s residents needed to learn to live with and navigate.
– Lack of coordination, strategy and leadership between the NGOs offering activities and occasional support to the camp (mainly Protestant Church, Mormon Church, Oasis (Catholic organization), the Red Cross & Caritas). The NGOs being mainly religious christian organizations offer charitable and spiritual support delivered sporadically by missionaries. The cultural barrier with the majoritarily Muslim population of the camp, the limits of the charity-driven mentality, as well as the evangelisation involved in the NGOs’ actions lead to a favoritism of converted camp residents and an inappropriate importance of religion in humanitarian outcomes.
– Widespread suicidal tendencies, high suicide attempts rates, several cases of suicide per year in the camp and dozens per year for newly intergrated refugees living in Cypriot communities.
– Medicine-induced Alcoholism & Drug abuse : Many camp’s residents arriving to Cyprus in a state of severe PTSD were given strong antidepressants and pain medication without any additional treatment, psychotherapy or even much explanation about the drugs they were prescribed. For many this has been the gateway to apathy, isolation, self-medication and addiction that they are being blamed for and made their integration into society that much more of a struggle.
– Isolation, abuse and discrimination towards women. Segregation between men and women and the exclusion of women in rare participatory activities that advantaged men
Rumors of frequent cases of rape and abuse were reported to the volunteers although no cases go officially reported to authorities as there is no support system for women seaking protection or justice.
– The police’s refusal to enter the camp in case of 911 calls. All camp resident’s attempts to contact the police (that we have heard of or witnessed) have gone unanswered, including that regarding a threat of immolation made to our own team of volunteers who locked themselves inside the distribution center for protection during a risky situation.
– Integration Discrimination : Inability for refugees to find housing and employment outside the camp based solely on openly racist discrimination by potential landlords and employers.
– Endless bureaucracy with no humane explanation about contexts and development possibilities. Most of the camp’s residents did not know how long their asylum application or transition to another country would take, no resources other than word of mouth and legal documents were made available. Waiting periods for what is supposed to be a “transitional state” in the camp can extend to years, 21 years being the longest registered waiting period for a refugee living in the camp.
More insidious problems are on this list, linked to the presence of specific people in leadership positions guarding and halting the development possibilities of the camp, matters which we have to navigate with caution as doing otherwise will make the future of our involvement uncertain.
We wanted to make sure that we create a long-term operational environment instead of just a plan. Our long-term goal was to develop a holistic action – rooted in user-friendly decentralized automated digital tools for coordination, needs management and recruiting, in order to remove the need to be dependent on singular people or organizations – aiming to create a unified strategy and management platforms allowing to start a cooperation between all Cypriot NGOs, grassroot initiatives and governmental organizations that worked on refugee matters. We also focused on the importance of the central place of the members of the refugee community themselves in order to carry out those plans – we wanted to make sure that the members of the refugee community are in managerial positions of power, in order to create employment opportunities, educational / professional growth opportunities and a place in society. Our aim was to develop one branded initiative inside the refugee camp in order to increase the efficiency of the camp and solve all pressing problems for the community’s safety, health and future hope. This initiative was to serve as a root strategy to which we could branch unlimited projects, both independently led and in cooperation with national and international organizations.
- Creation of a Distribution Center managed by independent volunteers : with the support of the camp’s authorities, we assigned a space that served as a distribution center for all goods donated to the camp. Twice a week, resources gathered from several donation points around the country were redistributed evenly to the camp’s residents based on their living situation and track record of past resources acquired. The tracking of donations and overall accumulation of data allowed us to make sure that we are designing a fair distribution system leaving no one without access to bare necessities of life.
We started our first platform independentvolunteers.com. A holistic platform for collaboration around causes, featuring the following support tools :
- 1. IVOnline (Independent Volunteer Online) : allowing people to volunteer online and register to volunteer in person to support local causes and NGOs in Cyprus. It was then the first digital platform allowing to volunteer online in Cypriot causes and projects on task-based missions.
- 2. United Causes : Needs & Offers Listings. A page listing the needs of causes and initiatives around the island on one hand and listing bulk donations for material goods and valuable free services that could benefit causes on the other. We mainly focused on big causes without representation (like the refugee camp)
- 3. IV Media – We provided photo / video recording equipment and article templates to volunteers on missions with NGOs in Cyprus in order to livestream and document humanitarian and geopolitical conferences and create content for NGOs and initiatives in Cyprus. Our hope was to open the digital windows to the conversations held behind closed doors and allow to progressively open-source humanitarian development and innovation. We also built websites for free for grassroots initiatives around us.
- 4. The first donation platform in Cyprus (or perhaps even in Europe – to our knowledge) for cryptocurrencies at the service of causes around the camp as well as our human trafficking support pojects
+ blockchain technology experiments applied to non-profit management of data. A platform that we created with the help of a volunteer who had been among the first cryptocurrency miners in Sweden and Iran back in 2009. Since we were experimenting during the Bitcoin boom of 2017, our activities linked to cryptocurrency donations and trading allowed us to significantly multiply our budget, allowing us to fund multiple safe houses for trafficking victims rehabilitation and refugee integration.
*In 2019, we pulled the platforms from independentvolunteers.com because our maintenance needs surpassed our managerial capacity. Also, our lack of visibility, a lack of support from the national media and organization because of our “experimental” and likely foreign nature, as well as multiple sources of plagiarism of our pilot projects from well established NGOs were interfering with our development goals. One of our current goals is to relaunch each digital project in the upcoming two years, hopefully in a way that can this time last the test of time.
- Corporate donations & CSR : The creation of the distribution center and network of interconnected volunteers working in collaboration country-wide opened the door to a communication campaign advocating CSR steps to companies. Corporate donations allowed us to accumulate resources in large quantities for items such as hygienic and cosmetic products, oil and conservable goods, left-over luxury catering and baked goods, furniture and the occasional more valuable items such as electronics.
- Recruitment automation of volunteers : The increase in donated resources to be distributed to the camp’s residents increased our need for volunteers’ turn-over. After many struggles for approval, we launched the camp’s Facebook page as a main point of contact for volunteers and people desiring to contribute to the camp’s development and support and have been able to drastically increase the camp’s efficiency, visibility, message and launch a country-wide notion of understanding of the refugee community that was up until then discriminated against, even openly by the media.
- Coordination & Transport of Goods and Volunteers : We launched partnerships with NGOs in Cyprus hosting EVS volunteers (now called ESC volunteers) in order to send their volunteers to the camp’s distribution missions, thus having a more predictable source of volunteers recruitment since ESC / EVS is an European Union funded program with predictable numbers and time periods of service.
Since the Kofinou camp is situated in a very remote location with no access by public transport, and considering the fact most volunteers helping the camp were young foreigners with no car in Cyprus, we started working with Cyprus’s main carpooling networks, and helped the carpooling networks grow in size as it was not a common practice in Cyprus. Through the coordination between the carpooling network, the NGOs sending EVS / ESC volunteers, the eagerness of our young volunteers to learn and contribute to the fullest, several municipality’s ability to provide us with warehouses to stock goods, corporate donations of goods, as well as some grassroot initiative focusing on the development of the Cypriot circular economy, and the link to some of our other projects rooted in cultural integration, education and entertainment, we managed to implement something that was overall very practical and useful, making a big difference for Kofinou and the refugee community in Cyprus. What we were most proud of was the fact that it was all tied to very humane and very real relationships with the people who needed support, in a way that pierced traditional barriers, both cultural or institutional, surrounding the activities of the camp.
- Confidentiality Contracts & Children’s Protection : Trending social media activism has brought on a new source of danger coming from the well-intentioned volunteers themselves. It might not come as an obvious fact to all that the refugee camp is a place hosting people in extremely vulnerable mental and financial situations, as well as people in actual physical danger living abroad in secrecy. The notion of consent even for a picture or recording is a grey area when we are dealing with power dynamics such as those between refugees and the people responsible to give them access to resources. This is the main reason why we introduced a project regarding dignified representation, as well as confidentiality contracts for volunteers and a child’s protection policy in all public communication about the camp. Our plea was carried out by all organisations both public and private involved on any aspect with Kofinou, including the UNHCH, the Cyprus Refugee Council and all religious organisations, that stopped featuring refugees in positions of vulnerability for promotional purposes, and started blurring the faces of children in all of their communication channels.
- Participation in yearly commission with the UNHCR, Cyprus Refugee Council & other involved authorities : Leading of the briefing, agenda and development plans for the camp.
- Life Watch – suicide prevention teams & training : This was an initiative we hoped to be able to pursue further, as matters of personal disagreements around the camp’s Facebook page’s administration got in the way of our work at a very dark time. A wave of suicide attempts and acute suicides had hit the refugee community. We set in place a training program rooted in positive psychology and a very easy to learn / low risk to execute support system rooted in Maslow’s pyramid of human needs was taught to a small group of volunteers who were then able to become supportive guides and companions to a number of people at risk in the camp, taking them step by step through Maslow-inspired steps-like activities and field trips to discover life in Cyprus and find their way back to a sense of hope and meaning in life.
CURRENT STATE :
Prevailing Issues : Our main struggle with Cypriot authorities and organizations is the overly academic, bureaucratic and simply stuck-up approach to dealing with community development matters. Nationality, formality and financial ties matter more than smart efficiency, democratization of power and open kindness. Speed, drive and structured layered development plans are looked at as suspicious agendas. The monopole of recognized authority by traditional and mostly senior individuals with a distaste for technology and speed of action, and an actual yet disguised tendency for racism that perpetuates ways in which refugees are supervised and not empowered is another serious barrier to an open and inclusive path towards progress for the refugee community in Cyprus and hopefully in Greece.
Volunteer with IVunited
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