It was just over a year ago when the world became transfixed by the images of a three-year-old Syrian boy who died crossing the Mediterranean. For many people, this marked their first realization of the magnitude and devastation of the Syrian refugee crisis. But the fact is, this story is one of thousands in the five-year-long conflict in Syria, and one of millions around the world. The United Nations reports that 65.3 million people have fled from conflict and persecution across Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
A colleague and I were recently invited by our partner Mercy Corps to visit refugee camps in Greece. Here, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and more than a dozen other countries make a temporary home while they wait for their future to be decided. With the help of their supporters and using Mastercard technology, Mercy Corps is providing Mastercard prepaid cards to refugees in Greece and other countries to cover their basic needs. We wanted to better understand the conditions and needs within the refugee community, see how our solutions are helping refugees and what we can do to further impact the crisis.
Nothing can prepare you for an experience like this – hearing and seeing first-hand the heart-wrenching stories and reasons for the journeys by the refugees. For example, while visiting Pikpa, a small but inspiring camp on the island of Lesvos, two small children played in their tent while their mother recounted the harrowing journey from Pakistan, the pain of starvation and losing her father to criminals along the way. She still doesn’t know his ultimate fate.
Later we heard the story shared by parents of four boys who, on the day they left Syria, needed to make the unimaginable choice of leaving one 10-year-old behind because he could not be found at the moment they needed to leave. Again, they live with no knowledge of his fate.
Even in these terrible situations progress is being made. Humanitarian organizations are making significant contributions to put lives back together and help Greeks build inclusive communities for these refugees. For example, Mercy Corps gives each refugee family a few hundred Euros on a Mastercard prepaid card every month to offset the costs of food, clothing, transportation and medical care.
The amount of the aid is not much but the power of giving refugees the choice of what, when and where they want to buy is amazing. It was truly a priceless moment when a young mother in one of the camps ran up to a Mercy Corps leader and thanked her for the card she just received, recounting a list of things she was going to buy for her family.
We also had an insightful conversation with the Mayor of Athens. He and his team are finding innovative ways to integrate refugees into the local community – through housing, social programs and economic engagement. The Mayor shared his desire to energize tourism and bring economic vitality back to city. With needs that range from housing to tourism – these are all ways the private sector can contribute with solutions.
As world leaders convene in New York for the 71st UN General Assembly this week, solving the global refugee crisis will be high on the agenda. Mastercard has been recognized by the White House as one of fifteen leading companies that have already taken significant action. We will join President Obama at his Leaders’ Summit for Refugees to further engage on this critical issue.
With a greater appreciation for the urgency and complexity of the situation, my colleagues and I are as committed as ever to helping solve this crisis. The time is now for the private sector to step up and identify ways we can all contribute to improve the plight of refugees and support the countries struggling to provide a place they can call home.