Last month we heard about plans for a new skills and innovation hub on the Greek island of Lesvos, designed to offer support for refugees fleeing atrocities in Syria and other countries. We caught up with entrepreneur Vasili Sofiadellis, one of the founders of the initiative, to hear how the idea came about and the latest progress.
Vasili, whose Greek parents live on the island of Lesvos, has seen first-hand the situation greeting refugees on the shores of Greece. “It’s a life and death situation,” he said, having visited refugees in parts of Greece earlier this year. “Talking to them, hearing their stories, that changed my life right then and there. They’ve lost so much, and yet they are so positive. It’s unbelievable.”
In Lesvos, now a major landing point for refugees making the perilous journey by boat, Vasili plans to transform a building at Mytilini harbour into a hub where their professional skills can be matched with work opportunities in Europe.
“We’re moving forward with discussions and it’s all looking good,” he says. “I’ve already had conversations with the Mayor of Lesvos and the head of the Chamber of Commerce. When we met the Mayor, we had a 30-minute meeting that turned into 3 hours. He ended up driving us around the island showing us areas we can develop. He is sincere about it.”
Vasili has gained significant support from the coworking community. Indeed, it was from a coworking initiative – StartupBoat – that the idea for a hub in Lesvos was first ignited.
StartupBoat is a collective of professionals working together to develop solutions for social change run by Berlin entrepreneur Paula Schwarz. Earlier this year, Vasili joined StartupBoat when it set sail with the specific aim of crowdsourcing ideas to tackle the refugee crisis. As part of the journey, the team visited Greek islands to meet with refugees and local authorities to discuss ways to alleviate the crisis.
“We used our networks and connections to get as many people onboard as possible. It’s one thing to sit and talk about these things or read about it. But being there – meeting and talking to these people – that changed my life right then and there.”
Although progress is noticeable, one of Vasili’s biggest barriers is general perception towards refugees, a challenge that Vasili is working hard to overcome.
“These people are looked upon as migrants, not as the professional people and the good people that they are,” he explained. “We’ve got to change that mindset. What we need to do is create an enabling environment where these people, who are highly qualified and entrepreneurial, can flourish.”
Recounting some of the refugees he met, he added: “The first guy I met was an industrial engineer, another a doctor, and they both spoke fluent English. They are entrepreneurial people who are determined to work hard. If you give them the opportunity to do business, they will grab it with both hands.”
“If we can get this to happen in Mytilini, and we will, it’ll be the catalyst for the rest of Europe to follow. We would like to enable talented refugees to excel and be in a position where they can create employment opportunities.”
Vasili has opened dialogue with a number of high-profile corporates in order to gain their backing for awareness and investment campaigns. As for next steps, he is currently working with various organisations and authorities in Greece, South Africa and around the world to gain official support and funding. And, along with coworking operator Paul Keursten, he continues to work closely with the coworking community to drive awareness through collaboration.
“Coworking people are the best people – they’re entrepreneurial and they understand how to create an enabling environment. It’s all about how you collaborate with stakeholders to achieve certain objectives.
“Once you create awareness and a communication platform, that’s where the magic happens.”
More information on the project will be posted as soon as it becomes available. If you wish to offer support to the Lesvos initiative, please contact Paul Keursten on [email protected] or Vasili Sofiadellis at [email protected]