Backpacks for the Refugees-The Day After

Summer 2015. It was nearly the end of August when Kos Island turned into a battlefield during a registration procedure. Hundreds of protesting migrants demanding quick registration began blocking the main coastal road. The local police attempted to break up the crowd with batons and by spraying foam with fire extinguishers. An officer was being filmed slapping and shoving migrants queueing outside the local police station.

My grandmother came to mind and her story as a refugee child from the area of Pontos (Northern Turkey) in 1922. I just couldn’t believe that something like that could happen again. Despite the fact that Greece, in the throes of its worst ever financial crisis, was straining to accommodate the inflow, most Greek islanders were doing their best. But still there was an ominous feeling in the air.

And then I saw that photo. A young woman with her two frightened children hanging onto her arms. Walking to nowhere, barefoot. Beyond endurance, angry but determined to survive the crush. Fearless, though! Imperious! I got angry. I stood beside her, out there in the dust. I’m just one step away from being like her.

That moment I realized that there isn’t any Deus ex Machina to save them. To save us.

So, I started thinking… What would I need if I were there? What should I carry to help my children withstand it? What should I bring with me for a little break? …and their feet! What will happen to their feet? And the sun? It’s hard being a parent in peace. In war and in refuge, only a hero.

I wrote a list* with the necessities. The obvious, the necessary, even those things that seemed unnecessary. The goal was to ease the burden of parents, to give a smile to children. A breath until the next aid. A hope…

I post the list in my private facebook profile. I couldn’t imagine the impact of this simple action. In a few days people were coming to my place, bringing bags full of nearly everything! Friends, neighbors or strangers were coming to help. We‘ve been preparing backpacks and sending them to Idomeni, to the islands or anywhere they were needed. Many schools adopted the idea and soon the campaign went viral. In around 8 months, hundreds of people became mobilized and focused on helping this endless wave.

It seems that we could tell a lot of stories about, and because of this, but the point now is what emerged from this need. There’s a lot of information coming out in the aftermath of this experience.

There’s a mountain of questions that we didn’t answer…

Is there any kind of system in the world that could cope with that amount of people?

What was wrong and why didn’t anyone know how to react or to organize?

Why weren’t we ready? Why didn’t governments, NGO’s and independent groups cooperate? And when they did, what happened?

What socks are most appropriate for their long trek?

How can we fit all the necessary items in a backpack?

And what about the weight?

How can we gather the right clothing from the world?

Have you ever try to sort thousands of clothes?

Is it true that women from Syria didn’t want to wear rain boots?

And what about UNHCR’s wool blanket?

And all those tons of food wrappers, wet wipes, bottles…?

Sadly, it turns out that there was no rescue plan in place. Greece seems to be inefficient and Europe appears like an impregnable fortress. This brings up the question “What if a sudden disaster left millions of Greeks or other Europeans homeless and helpless?”

Local authorities and their services operated superficially while the government was obviously unprepared. On the other hand, citizens reacted vigorously and passionately despite the fact that they didn’t mobilize immediately.

It’s also notable that many conferences, workshops or unofficial brainstorming meetings took place and new technology-oriented groups were created.  New ideas and solutions were proposed and innovative applications were developed from people all over the world. However, most of those didn’t fall on fertile ground for wide use, thus must be investigated thoroughly in the future.

Due to my profession as a fashion designer and manufacturer, when I heard about all those calls for clothing needs I started wondering who will manage all these diverse supplies. When facing a disaster, food and medical aid are considered top priorities but it’s not widely known that wearing inappropriate clothing under extreme conditions can become life threatening.

It’s noteworthy that if we focus on specific issues we can come to interesting conclusions e.g. Public misinformation by “official” announcements that were based on internet searching or common knowledge about clothing. As a result, there was a shortage of A-shirts (tank tops) while, considered useless, thousands of used socks were gathered although it costs less to buy new ones. Also, acrylic socks were suggested as the most appropriate. But when there’s no luxury of changing them anytime, other materials are more suitable like; wool, bamboo, cotton, tactel etc.

Obviously, a problem, arisen from common everyday items, is more complicated than initially thought and requires an expert’s opinion.

So, without surprise, no one reached out to experts from the clothing sector for professional advice and assistance. Moreover both government and UNHCR ignored any proposals or contact efforts.

Surely, the day after was going to be a nightmare. Inexperienced volunteers struggled to adequately classify, pack and distribute huge amounts of donations. Very often the same material had to be sorted again and again for multiple times. The inadequate coordination among government authorities, NGOs, solidarity groups and other stakeholders in combination with the anxiety of refugees led to a disappointing result. Large amounts of food, clothing, medicines and a lot of useless things (that could be a separate funny story), were being carried around Greece like a giant pinball machine. Unnecessary shipments, aid wasted, corrupted by mold, insects or still remain in inappropriate warehouses. A serious waste of resources.

In conclusion, the refugee crisis gave rise to a strong solidarity network and also an opportunity for local communities and the society in total. An innovative strategic plan seems to be a necessity, in order to coordinate and manage all the available resources successfully.

We should focus on organizing and training ourselves for cases of emergency. Based on the strength of these sharing communities, we should work, in innovative ways, which could bring people together around common concerns, recognize and increase their skills and knowledge and instill in them a belief that they can make a difference.

In addition, it’s important to develop a survival handbook with the aim to provide “how-to” guidance based on practical experience in combination with academic knowledge. And the challenge is to respond to all these arisen questions. Or add new.

“Could humanitarianism be evolved as a profession or it could be a new way of living?”

P. S.

More than 1/5 of donations is unsuitable for the refugees, thus is channeled to other vulnerable groups directly or in cooperation with already existing structures.

Most of the volunteers gave up, burned out or feeling unable to help. Meanwhile the main responsible for this failure get paid.

More than 60.000 refugees stuck in Greece. The majority were transferred to military camps, old factory warehouses or other abandoned and unhealthy places. Out of sight, out of mind. Lost and forgotten.

*The winter list for children: Small backpack, waterproof poncho, aluminum blanket, flashlight, socks, rain boots, sports shoes or plastic clogs, underwear, a tracksuit or a change of clothes, cap, gloves, scarves, lunch box, plastic spoon, fork, knife, a bottle of water, cookies, nuts, dried fruit or other snacks, wet wipes (small package), tissues, toothbrush, samples (of sunscreen, shampoo, toothpaste etc.), a toy, note or drawing pads, crayons, pencil, sharpener, eraser, a whistle and a wish (!!) (We also ask for big scarves to use them as ring sling baby carriers or as sheets)

The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016.

I’d love to discuss this some more

I have a background in materials and engineering. I haven’t done the trip but I spend time outdoors and walk some good distances with my little one, and often thought about the issue.

I would probably add/change (not necessarily for children though):

  • cordage (e.g. paracord, even dental floss or duct tape can vastly improve temporary shelter, duct tape or other adhesive doubles as band aid), some shock cord (elastic) can also be very helpful.

  • alcohol for desinfection (e.g. the hand wash gel type)

  • another space blanket (very little weight high utility especially with some how-to, also good as toy), with your background you might find a way to rig it into a jerven bag like thing.

  • pieces of sleeping pads, probably sized to be large enough to sit on when folded once, becomes more useful with cordage.

  • Power for phones: booster for charging from small batteries, buck (alternative) for charging from car battery (1 has enough for 200 phone charges), should probably be ruggedized e.g. by dipping in candle wax.

  • for kids a hand warmer can help out a lot in increment weather (single use)

  • at temporary camps a rugged bluetooth speaker could really help the kids unwind

  • maybe replace the gloves by more socks that can be worn on the hands as well

  • I would recommend 2 caps (beanies that go over the ear) if you have enough

  • some water bottles have a special kid friendly openings but attach to regular bottles.

  • In terms of shoes I think slightly oversize croc style (rooms for woolen socks, or maybe inner soles?) are the best minimum stress options.

I am mulling over a system that lets you improvise a “suitcase on wheels” with sticks and cordage. The parts you neet to have of course are the wheels (ideally in pairs, anything from skateboard to scooter will work - they all have 6 mm inner diameter). So this or this would be needed on site. But the two screws that “go in” would have to be replaced by something like 5mm (I think) threaded rod, which would become part of the axle.

Me too!

@trythis thanks for adding items and tips! The list you see at the post it was only for the open calls. I prefered  to keep it simple so the people could bring things from home as soon as possible. And something else important! Not asking questions! Most of the backpacks included more items and many of them prepared for adults so the list was different. When you gather things for the crowd it’s more complicate than it seems. The people want to help but very often the misunderstand  the announcements and they want to ask for details. About months I was on line (every line!) nearly 24h. For example they could understand why we asked for plastic crocs style (I avoided the word “crocs” and use the word “clogs” because many people thought I’m trying to advertise them). Especially for this, a woman from a “…welcome” team laught at me and insult me in public. She told me that these type is useless when crossing the european rivers and she refused to share the posts if i didn’t ask for rain boots or athletic shoes. I wasted (or maybe not) about an hour to explain that this type of shoes are chosen because: it’s easy to use them when you want to go to the bathroom at night, to wash your feet, to rest for a while when you have only one pair of shoes for walking, the are light weight, you can hang them out of the backpack, they are cheap e.t.c. So, you see, sometimes it’s …hard to explain…

Anyway, the list I have in mind now it’s going to be …peace prepared :slight_smile: So, I need every tip, tool, trick you know or imagine! We’ll keep in touch!

I can imagine that

Yeah - I can very well imagine the arguments (everybody has a slightly different background, experience, perspective, and very little time to communicate). Thanks a lot for being there for everyone though!

Let me think out loud about the list a little.

You need to give a lot of information in very little time. It is important that it can be understood quickly. It is also important that people understand why some things are better than other things. Here is what I would try:

Try to use a combination of images and text, a little like a meme. The image is most important (says more than 1000 words) and will ideally explain most of the things that have been discussed in many hours before. Ideally the people who are really deep into the topic do a thorough image search and you pool them together, and then photoshop or redraw. Of course one image (even if it is very good) can’t explain everything, that is why you need a little text (english, greek, arabic probably). Similar to this (called "exploded view) or this (but so you can photocopy it - so brighter and increased contrast) or this (the words explain the “why” not the item, if it is too difficult use another illustration). You may want to have one page for as a sort of inventory and one page as a sort of manual (e.g. there is a lot you can do with the space blanket that needs a little extra info (maybe Lizzie could also check the list?)).

Some more things I thought of:

  • It is much easier to get kids to wash their hands while they play with something. Small pebbles or pearls also rub the hands so they get cleaned much better. Kids are big bacteria spreaders. More on hygiene. You can make a sink with the space blanket and duct tape, or an old plastic ice cream package (1L weighs 30g).

  • for washing clothes you can use the space blanket.

  • I would recommend 3 (ziplock?) plastic bags with sugar (perhaps with stevia - more weight efficient), salt, and a piece of soap. One bag big enough for this hot water “bottle”. Heating or use hot rock or sand.

  • sterile saline solution (smallest possible), if you need more desinfected water, you can also boil

  • a comb (or just half)

  • vasiline (part for real use, but more for “magic cream” placebo effect)

  • kids earplugs (use alcohol to desinfect!), probably smart to tie in a piece of string for safety.

  • antiseptic wipes (can be “refilled” with alcohol)

  • in terms of clothes I would try to reduce cotton. Wool is fine for warmth if you have a windbreaker, if you can have at least one set of synthetic undergarments as they dry much faster than cotton.

  • personally I love wool leg warmers combined with short wool socks in the outdoors. Socks can be swapped and kept dry without much extra weight. The warmers can be regulated while walking and can be also used in many different ways. I’m not sure if they work well for kids though.

@trythis thank you! I ‘ll study all these carefully! We don’ t do backpacks for the refugees anymore so we focus to backpacks that we can prepare for ourselves or other people and keep them for an emergency. So, we have to think about many diffirent things. For the refugees I’ve done this:

But this is a draft. It needs something professional with the same style in a platform on line. When somebody wants to prepare a backpack could use specific items and also a list with more details for its item. What is this? How to use it e.t.c.

In terms of materials and organization

If you want to upscale cost effectively you may have to look outside of the traditional materials selections. Something that is durable and available at large scale is Tyvek. I have an outer layer for a sleeping bag to make it rainproof which I suspect is of very similar material.

For (DIY) backpacks which hold a little more here is an interesting channel: this specific version may also work with the inline skate rolls without too much work.

Regarding organization I had some thoughts (but mostly focused on immediately after a disaster) which may be more helpful for the refugees to get a little more organized (and perhaps interface with you better). It is a heuristic approach, so it is not intended to produce the optimal or ideal result - but to be reliably better than nothing, and it is mostly information focused.

Like this!

You guys made my day. Thanks!!


@Alex_Levene this is the kind of question and expert input or exchange we’d want at the hackathon to support refugees in Jan/ Feb!! It’s pretty awesome, and imagine including all these kinds of info in a curated, structured document for any given question!


This kind of input really is helpful and i can already see a ‘Citizens guide to supporting people in an emergency’ style document that contains these kinds of ideas and responces.

They key will be to get lots of people who have experience of working with refugees already, together with lots of people who have useful experience from other areas of life. Then both sides can bounce off each other.

I still think that a hackathon like this would be best suited to taking place in Greece or Italy, where the incoming flow is still increasing and there is a high likelihood that another disaster may occur (i’m thinking about the recent Italian Earthquakes).

Istanbul is very high on my list

In terms of earthquake and emergency response. But I agree Italy and Greece are too.

I’ve toyed a lot with the idea of having two-stage events, where the travel becomes part of the (optional) first stage. For example if we meet somewhere in/around Athens for the second stage, you can have a distributed first stage start in Izmir (and continue on the ferry to Athens), or on/around some of the airports that fly into Athens (may not be the best example as air travel is very fractured time, unlike train or ferry). Just a thought.

Alternatively one could try to do 1-2 prior hangouts where we use Edgesense (and of course human input) to either stirr the pot, or find close matches (as people prefer). If feel like meetings can be far more helpful if we already warm people up beforehand and not go in “cold turkey”. Also, people who cannot attend physically can still help with the hangout organizaton - and can try to partner up with an “agent” who will be attending physically.

Thessaloniki or an island

Thessaloniki or a Greek island is better choice because people are more involved. And don’t forget that is the project I 'm running now. So why, in Athens?

It was only an example

It wasn’t meant as suggestion. :slight_smile:

This guide is one of the reasons I decided to establish the assosiation “Cosmus diy” (the bureaucracy part). Most of the people here have experience at Idomeni and still have at the camps. But I think it must be more wide. Not only about the refugees’ wave or about a specific place/country. Maybe a few things can be the same but every place should have a diffirent guide. And then we can map and add people and skills or knowlenge.I also have an idea about the clothing problem and how we can do “smart balls” with clothes anywhere This is more complicated and I think it needs a video.


do we think that we could find a funding agency willing to cover some of the costs related to pulling this project together?

I look around and see many people on here who have 1st hand experience of dealing with crisies and disasters around the globe. I assume all of us could reach out to at least 2 or 3 major organisations who would be interested in contributing to a large scale  useful project like this.

i wonder if we could approach an organisation like Wellcome Trust as a humanities/health cross over project? What do you think @Bridget_McKenzie? Would this be fundable if we polished up the process and deliverable ideas?

German / EU crisis reaction budget

I’ve used this opportunity to dig into some of the recent German gov publications on such issues, and it turns out that .

“Die Kommunikation mit der Bevölkerung ist in Deutschland aktuell nicht Bestandteil von Notfallschutz-Übungen.In den zuständigen Behörden liegen in den meisten Fällen keine Krisenkommunikationskonzepte vor. Kommunika-tion über soziale Medien wird bisher nur unzureichend berücksichtigt.”

Communication with the population in Germany is currently not part of emergency response exercises. In the competent authorities, there are in most cases no crisis communication concepts. Communication on social media has so far only been inadequately addressed.” (this comes from the radiation guys who are somewhat important historically).

Also they see the need to coordinate better within the EU as quite simple events (big fire, toxic chemicals released) can overwhelm national stockpiles easily - especially if there were a series of such events. So if the event you plan could include this as a facet, then I think this could be potentially be budgeted. Also, here is a German centered (intl at bottom) list of emergency reaction organizations (mostly centered around “Civil Protection”) and some other relevant organizations. If your event allows for it, I could try and see if there are a few that would be interested in dialing in and listening to how your discussion is going. Perhaps they could also answer some questions that may come up.

Check out

Potential info or participation:  /


I would expect they could also point out funding opportunities. Perhaps one could divert some anti-terror money to useful activities in resilience?

A simple way would be to coordinate with some of them: Masterstudiengänge – for a master thesis project.

He was in charge of “cross border support workshop”  (I’ll update if I find something English, this is Austrian-German), and works with the gov civil protection.

@Alex Levene when will you visit Greece? Let me know your plan so maybe I can help.

I have sent you an email.

I would suggest you remove your email address from the post above to protect your security


Thank you!

“Citizens Guides” exist

Of course with some different focus groups and cases, but “The Citizen” does not exist. So what I’d think is crucial is the presentation format and delivery method.

For example after a catastrophy (or on the march) very few people will have the time to read about it in Red Cross or USAid pdfs even though they would probably remember critical things much better than in a classroom. Some can understand scientific papers, and others cannot read. Generally, if you want to be prepared you need to invest some time into practicing or reading e.g. “Where there is no Doctor”, or stocking some tools or supplies before shit hits the fan. Not many people are ready to do that. It is much less glamorous than posing with big guns and other stuff. Often people (correctly) feel it is unlikely that they would get a return on investment for their effort. Also, crises affect different regions (e.g. climate) in different ways, in those regions e.g. urban areas will be affected differently from rural, in those places different people (age, occupation, gender, minority) will again be affected differently in short to long term.

Most documents I know are written in a linear fashion, either for “the general populace” or authorities, or a few select critcal professions. Research articles in the field are often a bit better (if you can get them and understand them) as they show more of the detail under the hood. There is quite a bit out there in English, German, and I am sure French language. I would expect that other languages can be a very mixed bag.

Interestingly almost none of the materials I know are intended for reproduction and dissemination (perhaps modification) in the field, which I think is a critical shortcoming. Economically you often cannot but be largely unprepared for low frequency large impact events. If you could could start quickly copy-pasting stuff from a relatively few seeds once the event has come to pass, you would very quickly be able to deliver information and organize action far better.

I think the most realistic forms of reproduction in the field are (including grid down, excluding perhaps nuclear EMP scenarios):

  • Copies via smart phone, either onto micro-sd card or using e.g. bluetooth file transfer.

  • Recording of spoken/played material via phone, perhaps eventually put into writing.

  • Pencil/coal stick/copy machine copies of simple illustrations/heuristics/nmemonics/ not more than a few lines in most cases.

My suggestion would be a less linear and mostly digital collection of material (even if the grid will be down it will be relatively easy to charge a smartphone/tablet/etc from solar or car batteries). Ideally most of it can be accessed through different lenses - weighing urgent vs important, for the specific “type” of audience, in a (or several) appropriate formats. On the latter point I would strongly recommend inlcuding something that is audio based with separate illustrations (and check lists, e.g. in playing card deck, or digitally as “album art” format) and incremental navigation (e.g. if you need to know more on this topic press forward 9 times and you hear the announcement “xyz”). An audio lecture then could be made up of a summary of 1. the most important things to know in a hurry, 2. the main content, 3. mnemonic take aways to repeat to yourself.

Audio has the advantages that you do not need to drop everything you’re doing, you can do it while walking, and you can do it in the dark.

If you use 64kbps (clear spoken language) mono mp3 audio you need approximately 1 MB for every 2 minutes. If we assume 24h of spoken material that would be 720 MB. This fits into almost every memory card (or CD), mp3 player and can be copied using bluetooth version 3 in 5 minutes, and version 2 in 30 minutes. The most important things everyone needs to know should probably be available in different languages but be only 3-15 minutes in duration. Additional material can be provided in ebook format (which can be referenced in the audio) with very little space required.

My schematic in the other comment is an example for non-digital content that can also be reproduced in the field, when you actually have demand. It could also be airdropped as leaflets of course.

I wanted to make a heuristic approach to re-establish some skeletal form of organization which can catalyze coopreration (especially in the 48h hours of pro-social behavior mostly observed after an acute catastrophe). I thought this is necessary because very often there exists no effective interface to the local society that the “professional care & aid circus” can dock into, and many of the respective group’s fuck-ups would be easier to avoid if there was such an interface. The idea is to establish channels on the ground within the local community which accumulate, curate (discuss), and disseminate critical information. Those information dense hubs can relatively easily be found and interfaced with the professionals. If the crises do not have a clear onset like an earthquale or flood, but is more creeping other approaches may be more effective though.

The implied understanding that may motivate people is the following: Doing difficult situations alone is usually not a good idea*. Put 20% into helping each other, and if the majority survives you’ll probably be among them.

The simplified instructions: 1 of 5 connects and helps to coordinate. 1 in 5 helps to coordinate coordinators. Information must flow in both directions fast, and critical aspects need to be documented.

Make a group in which you will quickly be able to trust, care, and communicate (so about 5). Then make groups of groups and dedicate 10-20% of your resources to communication & cooperation, about half “upwards” and half “downwards”.

*Something that rarely gets enough attention when you superficially glance at the prepper scene. Alone you are probably prey to your own stupidity, germs, or pack hunters. Your gun does not help when you are sleeping.