COSMUS (diy) - One to One: Donating backpacks full of care

In August 2015, as the first large waves of refugees started landing on the Greek shores and stuck along the border of Idomeni, I started this initiative of collecting and filling backpacks with first need items for refugees. At first, this has started very modestly, with a few friends organizing clothing donations through the Facebook . At the beginning, I wasn’t expending such a big response to my call, but volunteers -known and unknown- started visiting my clothing shop in Thessaloniki, bringing clothes and helping out to fill in the backpacks.

Within two months, this action spread virally all over Greece. Over time, I networked with other grassroots initiatives active in refugee care, such as the Alternative Immigrant Centre of Thessaloniki (@To-Steki) and Oikopolis. In some cases, people followed our instructions and respected our philosophy of unconditional giving, but there have also been problematic cases because there were also people that tried to hijack the process for personal gain.

I have learned to live with the dynamics, and I started helping out at Oikopolis, to create a clothing storage, explaining an internationally used methodology of inventorying, so refugees were able to serve themselves on their own. This system still works, where refugees can come, try and take the clothes they need for free.

While continuing to work with clothes, I now focus on providing school items for children and the campaign has shifted focus. From just catering for refugees, we also provide care for native homeless people. Through a Facebook page, we are trying to organize volunteers who adopt the schooling needs/items of children in need. These needs may be covered through a donation of items or money, and this is open to everyone. So far, the stock gathered so far through donations, is enough for about 250 kids. In parallel, I am organizing seminars and crash courses on repairing clothes and upcycling old objects to create, for example, pencil boxes.

There is another task, which is more time-consuming and complex, in terms of research. I’m in the team-building process that will eventually become a non-profit legal entity, to develop a Handbook for the Management of Material and Resources, in cases of emergency. For example, due to my professional background, I know how to sort and store thousands of clothing items. Somebody else might have other skills. This is also connected with the sharing of knowledge of alternative treatments, practices or hacks, that might offer cheap and practical solutions to people in need. For example, using cocoa powder as a shampoo, or other uses of baking  soda, salt, etc.

I come from Thessaloniki, and my ancestors were refugees. Initially, the response from my immediate environment has been disappointing. My job is in the clothing sector, however, being an elected Municipal Councillor at the City of Thessaloniki, people know my public activity so it was easy to build trust. Furthermore, I am sitting at the Management Board to the Municipal TV100 station. Having many contacts with journalists helped to communicate the action widely. All this combined has resulted in the massive spontaneous response of a community of 1500 citizens from all walks of life. Including people from Europe and the US, who donated waterproof jackets and blankets.

As s municipal councilor, I am in contact with local authorities. Sadly the Municipality responded very poorly, compared to what it could do. Same goes with the Ministry of Immigration Policy. We talked to the consultants, they appreciated our effort, but there was no practical result.

Unfortunately, the public sentiment is negative. Mass media shape the opinion that the refugees stopped crossing borders, so people believe that they stopped coming. Others falsely believe that refugees are to blame for anything wrong. And since the beginning of the summer, most volunteers disappeared. This has, inevitably, resulted in a fatigue in the area of refugee care.

Nevertheless, I have no other option but continue. I wish to launch a crowdsourcing campaign, so the venture can continue. I imagine of a list of people with different skills, who -in the case of need- will be ready to take up a certain role. A type of inventory of what human assets exist and what everyone can contribute.

1 Like

hello, maybe I can be of help for the chapter ‘how to cope with emotional/mental suffering’ in your handbook. In fact, I plan coming to greece with my Trauma Tour Bus - providing trauma information and therapy, and also ‘help for the helpers’ - we need to take care of our own energy and ressources too… Take a look at my website and contact me if you think we can work together.

@ybe thank you for your interest! I’ d like to know more about your work but there something wrong with the link. Could you repeat it?

here’s the link again

@ybe thank you!

I’ll be back soon!

When will you visit us?

@ybe I’d like to know when will you visit Greece. I think it will be helpfull for the team.

december 2016 / January 2017

@Aravella Salonikidou I plan to visit Greece in december 2016 / January 2017 - I can stay a month or so


@ybe hope to see you soon!

Make sure you guys keep us in the loop!

We all stand to learn much from @ybe 's visit to @Aravella_Salonikidou . If you could find the time to blog about it, I (and, I think, many others) would be super-interested in reading and commenting.

I’ll keep you posted !

I’ll keep you posted :slight_smile: . I may be going to Calais as well - via Alex Levene, keep you posted on that too.


We stand ready to diffuse your posts in the Edgeryders network, @ybe – and we would be happy to host them, if you do not have a blog of your own.

I have a blog on my website. What is easiest to do for you to spread the news? What do you need from me? Bloglinks? Newsletter subscription? I blog ca. once a week, newsletter is more like once a month. And on twitter we’re already connected :))

Hang in there

@Aravella_Salonikidou very interesting to read you, over the past year indeed we in other parts of the world are reading a lot of Greek groups’ efforts to respond to the refugee crisis… all very vocal. I wonder: with so many diverse community efforts, haven’t there been any events where active people can do the kind of mapping which you mention, where they can say what is needed from their side and try to collaborate more?

I realise it’s a lot to expect though, I imagine coping with an unpredictable situation already takes a lot of effort.

I remember @Alex_Levene writing about the camp in Calais and the fact that coordination happens through medium to long term volunteers. Could they be the kind of primary asset that can help do inventoring, mapping, research for this stage you’re at?

@Noemi The situation is not so simple as it seems. In Thessaloniki for example there were more than 50 different solidarity groups and thousands of individual people that activated to help the refugees in a way. But it was too much. Thousands of naked and hungry people. No time for planning. It was impossible to organise something that could work seriously. Only the goverment could  make a general call and most of the NGO’s worked separately. We 've tried workshops through libraries, marathon brainstorming for mobile apps, mapping groups and needs etc but nothing in a professional way or with cooperation with expertise.

At the moment I’m focus to create a solidarity net that can be prepared for crises. In this network everybody could have a role that can “play” in case of emergency. Also a survival handbook with forgotten or unknown tips and tricks that can solve problems in such crises. Especially for clothing, I ‘m trying to solve the problem with an idea called “smart boxes” (difficult to explain at the moment). I don’ t know if there’s something out there that can help. This is why I’m here…

Teaching each other how to respond

Wow, @Aravella_Salonikidou , what a story. My favourite part, however, is this:

At the moment I'm focus to create a solidarity net that can be prepared for crises. In this network everybody could have a role that can "play" in case of emergency. Also a survival handbook with forgotten or unknown tips and tricks that can solve problems in such crises.

In the language we use here in Edgeryders, you are working on a community and documentation for it to operate on common knowledge. There are also opencare’s main elements. This is the community equivalent of what venture capitalists call “scaling”. You extend your reach, but without large money investment and unwieldy hierarchies.

Maybe someone’s already asked, but… there is a chance we might help you get funding for your initiative (if that’s what you need). We are working on a sort of collective proposal, where the proponent is not just us, but a whole “smart swarm” of grassroots initiatives like yours. More information is here.

I understand

What you say makes complete sense: at the end of the day you have a major crisis and not enough professionals anyway to deal with it. So, large mobilization doing suboptimal work is still better than the alternative of not helping or having enough help.

@Franca Locati mentioned something I couldn’t forget: she says you can sometimes help someone too much. She was refering to the way organisations work in providing services for newcomers. You two should definitely connect, Franca worked for quite some time in the Italian system of refugee reception, for the City of Milano, and managed to set up a platform for connecting a lot of language teaching organisations around to make a more coherent service to the people needing it.

“So, large mobilization doing suboptimal work is still better than the alternative of not helping or having enough help”

this is definitely the case at the Calais camp


@Alex_Levene and @Aravella_Salonikidou (and whoever is interested), let’s all make a note to go deeper into the notion of suboptimality. I think it could be important. Normal policy is that fast, messy, large scale response has to be stopped. Citizens are told to stay home, stay out of the way as the professionals dust off their contingency plans. If we can make a case for this to be the wrong thing to do in some case, it is goping to be an important policy contribution.

Will think and post here

I think there’s a lot to be said about suboptimality when it come to care and response. I will have a think and put some words together for you.

So i’ve been thinking a little about this`

Just a few thoughts on suboptimality to hopefully drive the discussion around this topic.

It is the case from Alberto’s comment that “fast, messy, large scale response has to be stopped. Citizens are told to stay home, stay out of the way as the professionals dust off their contingency plans”

It seems that this is true in cases where: a) a contingency plan already exists (e.g. Earthquake in Nepal, Disaster Relief in Sub-Saharan Africa) The above examples are plans for disasters that occur frequently and regularly in places that share a geographic similarity or border. It would seem logical to expect that, for example, a disaster relief plan for helping people in Nepal would also be of use if a similar problem occurred in Kashmir, or Bhutan. Since similar types of disaster are likely to occur in those place it makes sense to defer to NGOs on the ground in those areas.

But, in order for us to ‘leave it to the professional’ there have to be NGO’s willing, and able to step into that role in the space.

What has happened in Greece and Calais is we have seen NGOs step up initially, but then step back from the problem. Often because they cannot work with the changing political situation. I am thinking here of MSF pulling out of Lesvos after the EU-Turkey repatriation deal occurred. (

The French government’s reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Calais camp has created a vacuum. So, NGOs have struggled to work in that area. Because they cannot work under license, they cannot reduce the suffering there, except on a micro scale.

Perhaps the idea of sub-optimality in the system comes back to a wider idea. One that is floating around in other areas of the site, that of ‘unlicensed behavior’. Once an organisation or NGO becomes ‘legitimate’, it tends to deal with Governments. It starts to operate at a higher level politically. This brings with it more constraints on the way it can act (at least overtly). It becomes more constrained to do things ‘the correct way’ and less able to focus on doing what is required.

When there isn’t a precident for dealing with a disaster on the scale or in that location two options remain. Either improvise or adapt. Both options work with sub-optimality from different directions.

The NGO is most likely to adapt. They will find solutions used in other areas, or to address different problems, and adapt them to the new situation. These solutions are ‘tried and tested’ and so they can point to evidence that shows where they have worked in the past. The NGO avoids looking bad if this approach fails, because they can show ways it has worked before. Their cultural and political capital stays strong and they can work on a new response in the long term. I expect that the lessons learned by MSF et al during this decade’s refugee crisis in Europe will lead to contingency plans that will be used around the globe in the future. They struggle to deal with the problem in real time though.

At the other end the improviser continually adapts what they are doing to try new solutions. They are willing to try anything. They are willing to fail because they have no social or political capital to diminish, except with the people they work with directly. This means they do not provide a consistent service, but they can evolve new solutions quickly through ongoing prototypes. They risk creating failures, but know that they will move on to another possibility the next day. This behaviour can be seen in the citizen organised projects in Calais and Greece.

What is required is a way of feeding the experiences and innovation prototyped by the improvised, citizen-led organisation into the institutional learning of NGOs