When Zoë and I first arrived in Rome during the fall of 2015, our intentions didn’t extend beyond sipping cappuccinos and slurping down pasta. The tech startup I had co-founded had just suffered an inglorious death, so relaxation and quality time with my fiancé were my only priorities.
Once in Europe, however, the devastating scale of the Syrian refugee crisis became apparent. In America, the crisis feels like one of the many international stories that rotate in and out of our news cycle. In Italy, media coverage was omnipresent. We noticed that the coverage was often reported from an island called Lesvos. The reports included devastating images of under-supplied refugee camps and, with alarming frequency, the drownings of men, women, and children. The small Greek island had become the primary entry point to the E.U. and, from how it sounded, simply did not have the resources necessary to respond.
We were moved, but unsure how we could help. We were not doctors or emergency response professionals. We didn’t speak Arabic or Farsi (or Greek, for that matter). We weren’t even entirely positive where Lesvos was prior to consulting a map. We booked a flight to Mytilene (the largest city on Lesvos) nonetheless, with hopes of contributing in some way and gaining a greater understanding of the needs of the refugees.
Once on the island, the needs became apparent. These war victims had fled their homes with only as much as they could carry, and many had lost much of that along their journey. They needed the basics immediately (food, shoes, clothing, medical supplies) and, more broadly, they needed a compassionate world to provide them with asylum. At that moment, they weren’t receiving enough of either.
As Zoë and I distributed the little that we could, we racked our brains on finding a means to simultaneously create a revenue stream for the purchase of aid WHILE generating advocacy for the asylum of refugees. We needed something simple. We needed a conversation starter. We needed a solution everybody could be a part of.
Zoë Bands are uni-sex awareness bracelets made out of the actual life jackets that Syrian refugees have worn, and they are our means to accomplishing those goals.
"People put on those life vests knowing they could drown over the course of the next several hours, as several thousand already have."
These life vests are the perfect medium to launch the productive conversations that need to take place. People put on those life vests knowing they could drown over the course of the next several hours, as several thousand already have. Furthermore, they understand that even if they survive, they face an uncertain future and a rising xenophobia in Europe. Even with all this considered, THEY STILL CHOOSE TO GO. That is how bad things have become in their home country. That is how limited their options are. That is how deserving they are of our compassion.
To get Zoë Bands up and running, we would need local partners. The needs of the Syrian refugees change rapidly, so we needed boots on the ground to determine what is required and lead distribution. We had decided to manufacture the bands locally to aid the struggling economy of Lesvos, so we also needed individuals capable of overseeing the manufacturing process. Enter Taxia Koskia and Vangelis Koutalianos, two well-respected community members of Molyvos, Lesvos that were dedicated to helping those in need. Our founding team had become four.
Over the last few months, we’ve worked at a feverish pace to bring this solution to fruition. We hired local “modístras” (seamstresses) to create the band. We found the perfect clasp through a manufacturer in Athens and worked with a packaging company in Lesvos. We identified the NGO’s we will partner with to distribute aid and the local stores we will buy resources from. Zoë and I even flew back to Lesvos one more time to meet our newly expanded team and approve the final design.
Zoë means “Life” in Greek. This project is all about improving lives. We aim to improve the lives of the refugees, who have lost most of their possessions and don’t have the ability to earn for themselves and their families until they receive asylum. We aim to improve the lives, whom we employ and purchase aid from; they have faced extreme economic hardship and had it compounded by this crisis. We aim to improve the lives; the practice of actively helping others and spreading compassion has an amazing effect on our own health.
We invite you to join us on this journey of helping Syrian refugees!
Alexander Schultz, Zoë Bands co-founder