Setting yourself the goal of turning some of the most miserable, hopeless places on earth into hubs of opportunity and creativity may sound like a mission for the fatally naïve but this is exactly what Daniel Kerber has done. Working in refugee camps across the world, the German entrepreneur has a simple rule to complete this testing task: stop seeing those fleeing violence as victims or as problems but instead as creative people who are themselves the source of the solutions to the challenges they face.
The practical expression of Daniel’s principle is More Than Shelters: an organisation that helps refugees redesign their own camps using pre-fabricated but adaptable structures called Domos. In Za’atari, Jordan — one of the biggest camps in the world — the method has led to the establishment of community centres, schools, an urban farm and even a tech lab turning out 3D-printed prosthetic limbs.
The news that refugees are starting to arrive in Europe at three times the rate for last year and the latest clashes in Eastern Europe means that Daniel’s outlook will be more needed in his home continent than it has ever been. This is, to say the least, a challenge. The overwhelming response of the media and politicians positions the refugees either as a group in need of urgent support from government or as a potential threat to the interests of European nations. Victims or problems again.
This is not to belittle the very real security challenges of such a vast movement of people nor is it to deny that many refugees are in desperate need of immediate care and support. But when hundreds of thousands of people arrive on your doorstep, the challenges are not short term. Very many of these people may not be able to return to their home countries for years. Indeed, if previous waves of migration into and across Europe are anything to go by, many of the new arrivals are likely to remain in the continent for the rest of their lives. Their children and their grandchildren will be born and grow up here.
Seeing and treating them as charity cases or threats is the worst way to start the process of the longer term integration of refugees into the social, political and economic life of Europe. Very quickly the complaint that migrants will be isolated and alienated communities living on the fringes of mainstream society dependent on generous government support will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fortunately, there are others like Daniel who recognise the risks. People such as Ahmad Eldibi whose organisation Dubarah is mobilising Syrian ex-pat communities and no less than 80,000 volunteers to help refugees find work, secure investment for their business ideas and get basic advice on adapting to unfamiliar cultures.
Or Nathanael Molle who set up Singa, a network of successful entrepreneurs who were once refugees to inspire and support others to set up their own businesses.
Or Mary Nally whose organisation, Failte Isteach, is unleashing the creativity of local indigenous communities as well as refugees by mobilising thousands of mostly older volunteers to teach migrants the language of their host countries.
This is about empowerment. It is about developing tools that can turn a group so often the powerless objects of pity or disdain into "changemakers": agents controlling their own fate.
If Europe can adopt more of this spirit then like Daniel Kerber’s vision, the continent may become more than just a sorry shelter but rather a place for flourishing and creativity. And that will be good not just for the new arrivals but for the Europeans who already call the continent "home."