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