Western Union Continues to Stand With Refugees

Global Issues By Stefan Zechner February 2, 2017

I’ve learned so much over the last few months as I have met and spent time with the wonderful people that most of the world refers to as Refugees.

Like many, I don’t like the term Refugees. It’s generic and somehow gives the impression of a common identity. It takes the humanity out of their stories. Refugees are people like you and I – who had real lives, attended school, held jobs, lived full of hope and dreams for their loved ones. However, left everything behind due to conflict in their home countries.

The Refugee crisis is a global humanitarian issue. On average, Refugees have to put their lives on hold for over 18 years. During that time, they are stateless and often unable to access education, jobs nor able to participate in the global economy. This creates a lost generation, impacting children the most.

I am lucky to work for a purpose driven company that serves so many customers who are on the move and “dual-belongers.”

Our employees are global citizens who understand the world of today and the world of tomorrow. They are embracing the Refugee cause and leading the way to find ways Western Union can leverage its assets and strengths to be part of sustainable solutions.

Together, we are exploring three focus areas – education, employment and enablement – to support Refugees in concrete ways.

  • Education: We’re pursuing alliances with NGOs who are innovating access and delivery of education, to optimize refugee opportunities and jobs to participate in the global economy. For example, entrepreneurship and technology training.
  • Employment: I am now more convinced than ever that the solutions to this global crisis lie in harnessing the talent of young refugees. Many Refugees have highly-valued skills. They’re accountants, graphic designers, programmers, engineers, teachers, carpenters, with skills that are very useful to the world economy. Beyond financial inclusion, employment provides refugees with dignity and purpose. Western Union has begun hiring refugees in Lithuania and is exploring opportunities to hire refugees in other countries where we have significant operations. In addition, we are looking at ways that we can outsource freelance and contract type work to Refugees.
  • Enablement: We know that in many parts of the world where refugees are hosted, it is difficult for them to access a number of financial services. Yet financial inclusion is critical to participation in local and global economies. Western Union, truly, is uniquely positioned to efficiently and effectively serve the evolving financial needs of Refugees and the organizations that support them through its global network of Agent locations, its money moving platform and its innovative spirit.

In a world where many are willing to help, Corporate Social responsibility has to go beyond grants and evolve to leveraging corporate assets to address critical world issues. This is not only the right thing to do but it also feels right thus creating virtuous cycles of shared value.

I am proud Western Union is one of many leading the way to embrace Refugees. Join me and others in the journey to help those who need it most, Refugees.

I learned so much when I first visited Refugee Camps in April with other Western Union colleagues. The connections I made with refugee families during that trip changed my life forever. These are real people like you and me with know-how, experience, hopes and ambitions… But there’s one difference between me and them. Their realities were blown up by conflict.

I soon decided to return to a Camp on my personal time with two of my four children. Friends, family and colleagues asked me why are you going? Are you going to volunteer? Do you know what you are doing? Are you not worried about what could happen?

All I could say is that my children and I couldn’t wait. I had several objectives: to teach my children about the broader world; to understand how other global citizens like me could make a difference in just a few days; to better understand the education needs and opportunities in a Refugee Camp. But most importantly to spend quality time with my refugee friends, who since I met them, had been transferred to the Skaramangas Camp in an old Naval shipyard on the outskirts of Athens.

Young Talent Waiting to be Unleashed

“Skaramangas Camp houses almost 4,000 refugees, but it is not easy to find since its hidden out of sight. Half of the refugees the around the world are children and Skaramangas is no exception. There were beautiful smiling children everywhere, and they were interested to welcome and play with us, the ‘newcomers’. Our first stop was the Camp’s school – we were led there proudly by a group of children.

At the school we met an inspiring young man from Syria who had created the school program from scratch. He holds a Masters in Archeology and used to work at the Palmyra Museum in Syria but was forced to leave due to the war. He passionately explained that he immediately realized that education was vital for the children in the Camp. So he and his best friend started going door to door surveying families for their educational needs and then recruited 20 teachers. Thanks to his initiative, most of the children in the Camp now go to school for 2 hours a day. He also has big – and meaningful – plans for his future. He wants to replicate what he has achieved in Skaramangas across Refugee Camps worldwide. And one day he wants to become the Global Minister of Refugee Education. Wow.

We found my refugee friends and met many many more.

We met groups of young adults who are highly educated, and eager to use their know-how skills to contribute to society. Pharmacists, plumbers, archeologists, electrical engineers, lawyers, professors… So much know-how and talent! But most of them were sad that they have so much time on their hands with “no purpose”. It’s sad, a waste. And a risk…

We met a charming young man from Afghanistan who had proclaimed himself the Camp’s lifeguard. He took his responsibility very seriously by checking homemade buoy systems, keeping the children safe. He told us “I have so much time with nothing to do. So here at least I’m useful. And it takes my thoughts away from all our problems and my sadness”.

We also met a young barber charging €1 for a cut and style. And 8 year olds fishing for dinner.

Entrepreneurship and proactivity driven by brilliant young minds at every turn.