Seemingly feeling impotence towards the unjust suffering of most refugees in Europe, Erasmus University College (EUC) student Nabeel Khan (22) definitely feels more has to be done about this issue. Most importantly, Nabeel acknowledges that having a ‘normal life’ is more of a privilege than a given.

After all, he believes he avoided a similar fate as some of the current refugees. “I think one aspect that really influences my thoughts on the current immigration crisis is that my family is originally from Kashmir, a border region between India, China and Pakistan. It is widely regarded as the world’s most militarized zone since there are territory disputes between the three countries. Fortunately, my parents left Kashmir for England where I was born and raised. Thinking about your background affects you somehow; in a stroke of luck I avoided the experience of growing up in a conflict zone.”

A helping hand

Looking into the current refugee crisis, Greece is one of Europe’s most affected countries after taking in a high percentage of the 1,8 million incoming refugees since 2014. Conditions within the peninsula for most migrants are critical when considering both Greece’s economic woes and the staggering influx of refugees looking for safety. For this particular reason, Nabeel first set his sight on Greece with classmate to cooperate in refugee camps two years ago.

Nabeel quickly recounts his first volunteering experience in Greece. To his dismay, the experience wasn’t quite the one he was expecting. “When I arrived at the camp, I felt quite sad after seeing the conditions. My personal experience was quite unfulfilling as well – only carrying out miscellaneous tasks such as moving food around or maybe packaging clothing in the warehouse. I truly felt my impact was limited by these tasks.”

His initial experience wasn’t much of a setback for Nabeel. A year later he was again in the hunt for another charitable experience around the world, hoping to collaborate in other refugee camps in Turkey. It didn’t pan out the way he had initially planned.

Nabeel arrived in Greece again a year later after he had received no response from any organization except Happy Caravan. “We inadvertently stumbled upon Happy Caravan, and read on their school project for young refugees. They were the first charity that responded from all the ones I had contacted. However, it wasn’t until my experience with Happy Caravan that my attitude towards charity completely changed. Specifically, it happened after I met Ala, the founder of Happy Caravan.”

Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

Following the caravan

Before the war razed the whole country, Ala was an interior designer in Syria’s most populous city: Aleppo. Once the sirens of war started populating the skies of Aleppo, Ala decided to join the anti-Assad rebel groups in the ‘Kamikaze’ teams delivering medical supplies to people who were fighting the revolution against the Assad regime and ISIS simultaneously.

“Eventually, Ala ended up as a refugee like thousands of other Syrians”, Nabeel continues. “He was smuggled into Europe and started travelling with BlaBlaCar. He then received refugee status in the Netherlands under quite some poor conditions – one room for almost six people, huge lines for food, inadequate sanitary conditions, among other things. Eventually, he had the initiative to start Happy Caravan. He realized that in the Thermopylae refugee camp in Greece – an abandoned hotel where whole families live in diminutive rooms – there was an empty building next door. He then decided to return to Greece and established a small school for all the young refugees missing out in their education.”

Nabeel worked in the school as a teacher for two weeks. “Before, I felt I was only helping to keep them as refugees instead of change their circumstances. Through Happy Caravan I was able to actually connect with the people, even make them feel human – they weren’t refugees anymore, instead they were kids that wanted to learn English or Math. These kids were losing some of the most important years of their life due to the war in their homes, and through education we are ensuring that they will be able to integrate into society in the future.”

Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

Every caravan has its container

Nabeel came back quite reinvigorated from his second experience; a stark difference from his initial trip. Not only Ala’s mission and story resonated with Nabeel, he also felt the great need to continue helping the Happy Caravan project. “I knew right away that we had to do something in return for Ala and the refugees.” Thus, Nabeel and his classmates involved in the project first contacted the charity committee that runs the EUC butler auction, a regular event hosted by the EUC to raise money for charity.

“After introducing the Happy Caravan story to the committee they were fully sold in. Happy Caravan was able to raise 4,200 euros at the event– the biggest amount of money the EUC has ever collected for the fundraiser. People were also going wild selling things such as morning pancakes or male stripper services. Ala even went on stage to cut his beautiful, long ponytail for 500 euros.”

Nabeel and his team member’s gratitude towards Happy Caravan didn’t stop there. While participating at the EUC’s version of the honours program, ‘The Leadership Program’, they were assigned to pitch a self-directed project. This is where Nabeel and his five EUC classmates saw the opportunity to device an expansion project for Happy Caravan, which they named Happy Container. “I remember pitching the idea on the phone while I was in a North Korean Propaganda art exhibition – literally with a picture of Kim Jong Il as my background. Fortunately, my project did get selected by the other participants in the EUC Program.”

The messenger

The project Nabeel and his teammates created aims to expand on the initial Happy Caravan idea. Within the Thermopylae camp they aim to bring a livable atmosphere by setting a huge container next to the school to be used as a recreational center, or in Nabeel’s words a ‘public living room’ within the camp. As Nabeel explains, introducing a community center has implications that will affect a great group of people in the camp positively.

“We decided that with Happy Container we were aiming to solve important social issues that the current curriculum can’t address. We want to incorporate more women or teenagers within the project, and add extracurricular activities for the kids other than English and Math. The community center will host events every day, such as more elaborate play acting to really mundane events like a tea gathering with music on the background. It aims to bring people together, not only young students, while at the same time allowing them to unwind from their everyday experience in the camp. Other programs to help teenagers, such as tech classes, will be incorporated in our plan as well.”

About to start the showcase for Happy Caravan Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

The project may still be in the workings, but Nabeel and the team of Happy Container are moving quick and with intent. “In January the whole team is planning to book tickets and fly to Greece to do some field research. We are also in contact with the person who will supply the container.” Additionally, the team is always in the lookout for creative ways to raise more funds.

“We are still aiming towards finding bigger private investors. Yet we won’t only focus on this. We have organized small parties –‘fund-ravers’ ­– where all entrance funds go to charity, and we are planning to have another giant butler auction. It is also noteworthy that anyone willing to volunteer with the main branch of Happy Caravan should do so since they are always willing to take volunteers.”

On a final note, Nabeel feels he should credit not only his incredible teammates, but also the people from Happy Caravan. “I want to emphasize that I do not really see myself as the sole creator of this project. If anything, this project was only made possible with the help of all team members, and it was mostly inspired by Ala himself.”

If you are feeling the joyous Christmas mood, you can help the Happy Container team by donating money through their website.


part of special

This was 2018

2018 is (almost) over and therefore we are looking at the past year in review.