Reconnecting refugees with loved ones thanks to the Cisco Disaster Response Team

December 11, 2015 - 24 Comments

Last month, I had the privilege, as part of my job, to go to Greece to deploy emergency communications infrastructure. Cisco was asked by partner NGOs to support the influx of people passing through the Greek islands due to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Half the country’s pre-war population, more than 11 million people, have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are attempting the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece, hoping to find a better future in Europe—and unfortunately not all of them make it across. Those who do, then face steep challenges from strained resources and minimal services due to the enormity of the situation.

This is why they need our help. The majority of the refugee community in Greece is Syrian and the rest are Iraqi and Afghans, trying to escape wars there. The current humanitarian aid effort is led by UN agencies working with the national governments and a multitude of NGO aid organisations. The overall response has been humbling to see, people providing shelter and power to sites, and the local support offered by Greek citizens in welcoming the refugees has been inspiring.

Copy of _SOS0827-PanoTen of us (from Cisco, a partner NGO and other corporate disaster response teams) have just returned from the region. We went there with one aim in mind; to install secure Wi-Fi zones and charging stations so that the refugees could contact their loved ones and families back home. For many, they had been out of touch with those that mattered for so long and this was the first opportunity they had to let them know they were safe and ok.

When we first arrived on Greek shores, most of the refugee sites had no communications infrastructure in place at all. The Disaster Response Team had been tasked to bring connectivity to various points along the migration routes, starting in the Greek islands. The importance of this was brought home, as we learned that one of the first questions refugees ask when they get rescued out of their boats is, “Do you have Wi-Fi?”

For people arriving from these boats with very few possessions, little money, and certainly no local currency, the chance to just let people know they were ok had a hugely positive effect. We often forget how much we rely on digital communications in our day-to-day lives. Once we’d set up the networks, people were immediately able to get back in touch with those they’d lost along the way who had ended up in other camps. They were also able to relay vital information about conditions and supplies to others on the migration route.

One of the biggest challenges we faced before deploying any Wi-Fi capabilities, was getting political administrative approval. But luckily we worked hard to sign off everything quickly and were able to get all targeted sites up and running in just two weeks!

As a provider of network solutions, our Cisco Meraki portfolio was chosen to deploy a Wi-Fi, routing and content security solution. As this is cloud-based, we were able to get the Wi-Fi service online in no time. This immediately allowed the refugees to access critical mobile communications applications similar to WhatsApp.

Copy of _SOS9941

Our Cisco Meraki solution can also be managed from wherever we are, giving us the ability to remotely optimize and monitor the bandwidth. This is crucial as we can now make sure the Wi-Fi service is able to continue running optimally, even after we left. We also ensured continuity of support from local resources to maintain the secure Wi-Fi networks in the event of any possible outages.

It was humbling to take part in a project like this, and help others who have left everything behind for a chance at a better life. At Cisco, we globally have 350 trained volunteers, who are willing to leave their day job to do whatever is needed after a natural disaster in their region. These volunteers work under the supervision of Cisco’s Tactical Operations or TacOps team. TacOps is a small but dedicated highly skilled team that responds to disasters globally, enabling critical communications when normal infrastructure has been degraded or destroyed. Trained to operate in austere environments, the team provides mobile and portable IP-based communications solutions over satellite or other Internet backhaul, during the acute phase of an emergency. Cisco is also supporting the Europe refugee crisis by matching employee donations and volunteer hours to related NGOs.

In this instance, our Disaster Response Team did a phenomenal job in just two weeks, installing a total of 12 Wi-Fi networks and a multitude of mobile device charging stations across five islands and the Greek mainland. In total since installation, these networks have supported thousands of clients and securely transferred hundreds of gigabytes of data.

Copy of _SOS0515

It was great to see so many people’s happy faces from being able to give them something as simple as Internet access. Cisco’s response to support the refugees will continue…

Photo credits @ Nethope

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  1. Awesome. So proud to be part of Cisco. Where “Just Do It” means ” JUST DO THE RIGHT THING”. Canada is also bringing in more than 25000 refuges by mar 30/2016

  2. What an amazing effort and incredible job you’re doing. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Amazing Work Cisco and NGO, People can rely on you people when such catastrophes emerges out of nowhere. Your great Network plan was much of a mitigation for those refugees.

  4. WELL DONE !

    Cisco People and Cisco Corp ROCK!

    • Definitely cool and nice to see our Meraki Gear being able to quickly and simply support this kind of deployment.

  6. Amazing and I am proud of Cisco. Keep up the good work. The refugees need our help.

  7. Awesome to hear!

  8. This is absolutely amazing and so proud to be part of a team and company that understand the refugee crisis and supports the innocents feeling from wars! Thank YOU!

  9. Well Done! Awesome job indeed. Very proud being part of this amazing team.

  10. It awesome to witness how one’s work makes a difference. Great job. The entire team should be very proud. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Excellent work guys ! proud to be part of Cisco !

  12. Amazing work guys

  13. Awesome job John and the Cisco Disaster Respons team! Your impact of your efforts cannot be measured.

  14. Big thank you to John and all others that helped make this happen! The efforts of this team have truly helped refugees enduring an extremely difficult situation in a foreign land. I can’t imagine how priceless it was for them to be able to finally connect with loved ones. I am so proud to be part of the Cisco team.

  15. Great to read this John!! Happy holidays to you and your family

  16. Great job Cisco Disaster Response Team. Kudos and I have always had great respect for this team who jump in to help at the time of crisis. Just curious, there was a heavy flood situation in Chennai, India last month which was of epic proportions. Was the DRT even informed about it or aware of the same since it happened in India and lots of people were renedered homeless. Curious to know if Cisco DRT team was ever alerted or was there any action from us on that end please if there was an alert. Thanks again for the wonderful job that you folks do.

    • Anand,

      To answer your question, yes, the Cisco Tactical Operations Team (of which the DRT is a part of) was actively tracking the floods in India, just like we do elsewhere in the world. We had made contact with the Cisco country team in India, but we only launch into a crisis if we know there is a specific mission for the team. In the case of the recent flooding, we could not confirm a specific tasking. You can find out more about the team (and how to activate the team) at

      Rakesh Bharania
      Cisco TACOPS

  17. Awesome. So proud to be part of Cisco. Where “Just Do It” means ” JUST DO THE RIGHT THING”.

  18. Awesome stuff!

  19. Thanks for sharing this experience, John. I find your article to be both inspiring and heart-wrenching at the same time. The circumstances are unfortunate, but I appreciate that Cisco’s Disaster Response Team could provide something positive among the chaos.

  20. John – great work! Sounds like you have had quite a humbling experience, I net it would great to help out in this way.

  21. Well done!