More than sixty people gathered at the Viadukt Thursday evening for Action From Switzerland’s first independent general assembly. The event was generously sponsored by Impact Hub Zürich, the British Cheese Centre, and the International Beer Bar, providing an inspiring meeting space and delicious provisions to fuel engaging conversations. The assembly began with a summary of the team’s work in 2016 and the vision for 2017 and beyond, followed by break-out engagement sessions led by team members Gabi, PJ, Maya, Angie, and Rahel. Action from Switzerland runs entirely on private donations – dedicated efforts from private individuals who believe in the cause. Event attendees were able to support AFS throughout the evening by purchasing #MakeItSafe campaign wristbands, handmade soap generously donated by Patrizia Pedrazzini, and beautifully crafted pictures from Giovanna Del Sarto’s Polaroid from a Refugee project.
After providing support in 2015 to refugees in Hungary, Serbia, and Italy, AFS focused in 2016 on one of the starting points of the refugee journey: the Greek islands. With a plan to stay for only three months, volunteers from AFS arrived on the island of Chios on 20th January 2016 with your donations to provide food, clothing, and infrastructure support to incoming refugees. To promote safety and ensure dignified and safe landings, the team also participated in nightly shore patrols and met boats in rescue operations with the Chios Eastern Shore Response team.
At the time, the population on Chios was highly transient, with most individuals staying on the island for two to three days. When the European Union and Turkey made a deal to stem migration into Europe, enacted on March 20th, the situation changed dramatically for both refugees and AFS.
The EU-Turkey deal effectively trapped refugees in Greece, turning their time spent on islands like Chios from days to months. The Greek government set up “hotspots” to facilitate the process of applying for asylum but Chios’ hotspot, Vial, rapidly became a detention center with abysmal and inhumane conditions. Though all refugees are in desperate need of further aid and support, AFS set up a center focusing on one particular vulnerable group on the island: women. With feedback from female refugees detained on Chios, AFS opened the Athena Centre for Women on July 20th to provide a safe space in which women could enrich their lives, connect to one another, and recover their identity as individuals, not just as refugees or mothers. The Centre was founded on three pillars: education through language support (English, German, and French), information (contraception, hygiene, personal safety), and psycho-social support (art therapy, yoga, dance, etc.) and has served more than 300 women since opening its doors. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the Centre quickly became a community hub for women on Chios, providing essential stability, comfort, and safety to refugees for six hours a day, six days a week.
Additionally, AFS launched several local initiatives to support refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland. We hosted integration events such as soccer games and a barbecue to connect refugees to Zürich residents and for two years running, we donated nearly a hundred gift cards to asylum centers that are the temporary home for unaccompanied minor refugees.
While AFS will continue to support the women on Chios with the Athena Centre, the organization recognizes the dire need for support in Athens as refugees slowly move through the Greek asylum process after their transfer to the mainland. Even when refugees are granted asylum and gain the same rights as Greek citizens, successful integration and financial independence is rare because of a lack of applicable language and job skills in a desperately struggling Greek economy.
More details of our Athens project will follow in a detailed announcement.
AFS also plans to expand integration projects in Zürich, adding new activities and additional support to the refugees looking to integrate into our community. New opportunities will be posted on the website and social media channels. Have an idea? Please reach out to Rahel.
The greatest challenge AFS faces in 2017 and beyond is funding. For the many of you who have already generously donated: thank you. Our work would be impossible without you. Please consider making a direct debit donation to provide greater stability to our revenue streams. We also welcome independent fundraising events – let us know how to support you.
After the summary presentation, event attendees had the opportunity to participate in one or several breakout sessions on topics pertaining to AFS’s direction for 2017: fundraising, alternative business models to fund and expand AFS, Zürich integration projects, the immediate and long term impact of the EU-Turkey deal, and women’s rights and advocacy.
The tremendous enthusiasm, stimulating questions, wealth of new ideas, and offers of support from participants in these breakout sessions was uplifting and inspiring. We look forward to sharing more information on the outcomes of these sessions in coming weeks.
Thank you to everyone who attended our event and made it such a meaningful and engaging evening. The AFS team looks forward to another year of supporting and empowering refugees in both Greece and in Switzerland. Stay connected by following us on Facebook and Twitter.
Thank you again to our sponsors for tonight’s event.