By Kevin MacRitchie
At NetHope, we believe in the power of technology to connect people. But last week, at the Diavata refugee camp, we saw that power extend beyond the virtual world, and into the real world.
Earlier in the week, I was approached by a Syrian tribal elder, who told me that he wished to co-host a special dinner for the NetHope team, to thank us for establishing Wi-Fi at their refugee settlement camp in Northern Greece. Soon after, the Afghan and Kurdish leaders from the camp spoke to me as well. It quickly became clear that this was a huge honor for NetHope, one that would bring together the different ethnicities and tribes that resided in the camp, including Iraqis, Yazidi Iraqis, Syrian, Kurdish and Afghanis. The dinner had the blessing of the Greek officials that are managing the settlement camp, so I readily accepted on behalf of our team.
Ten members of the NetHope team arrived at Diavata camp before sundown on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. We took our places on a long mat, which stretched between two rows of tents. We were soon joined by Fotis Gkouzkouris, from the Greek Ministry of the Interior, and Major George Morfidas, the commanding officer of the Greek military stationed at the camp. Both men have been strong allies and collaborators in NetHope’s effort to get all 2,000 residents of the camp connected to Wi-Fi.
All told, about 35 to 40 people attended the dinner, including the NetHope team, camp dignitaries and our gracious refugee hosts. The elders’ wives did all the cooking, and the elders did all the serving, passing around plastic platters of incredible food: handmade grape leaves, salads, chicken and rice. The meal, a mixture of Syrian and Afghan cuisine, was easily one of the best I’ve eaten in years.
Each dish was evidence of how resourceful and generous our hosts could be, in spite of the hardships they have faced. Because Arabic spices and rice cannot be had at the camp, the elders' wives asked Major Morfidas to drive them the 35 minutes to Thessaloniki to buy supplies. And given the amount of food, the preparation and cooking must have taken hours.
“Considering these people have lost everything, and have dire living conditions with nothing but camp stoves and open fires to cook on, it was an amazing effort and show of appreciation,” said Sue-Lynn Hinson, manager of Cisco’s Tactical Operations team, which often partners with NetHope. “According to camp officials, to have people from these warring tribes and nations come together in such a community effort was historic indeed.”
As we cleared our plates, the elders told us why connectivity is so important to them. “Every refugee needs Wi-Fi to speak with family and friends,” said Gaith, who hails from the Aleppo area. Hamid, from Kandahar, Afghanistan, agreed. He told us that NetHope Wi-Fi provides his only means of communication with his wife and daughters, who are waiting for him in Germany while his asylum paperwork is gradually processed.
As we said goodbye, a young translator named Tarek summed it up simply: “Having internet makes us feel safe and at home.”
The NetHope team in Greece was deeply touched by this gesture of appreciation and friendship. The dinner was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that none of us will ever forget -- a reminder of our common humanity, and need for connection.