Gene Keys Refugees Project: from Despair to Hope

Idomeni, a tiny village of 300+ people, became a symbol of the tide of refugees that swept out of the Middle East and North Africa in 2015-16. Children, women and men fled by boat and on foot into Greece, hoping to leave violence behind and find refuge in Europe. Within 18 months, nearly one million people had trekked through the Greek mainland to cross its border with Macedonia at Idomeni.

Then Europe shut its doors.

Hungary (which received most asylum applications relative to its size) closed its frontier first. Other countries followed. When Macedonia shut its border on 9 March 2016, an already struggling Greece had to shelter and feed thousands stranded in bleak winter weather.


Outnumbered local villagers tried to help strangers caught in a downward vortex of despair. Greek authorities constructed a makeshift camp for 2,000. Too little. Too late. More than 12,000 refugees were soon camping on railways tracks in Idomeni.



Two thousand miles away, a young couple in England started a charity called Luck of Birth to help refugees denied access to the UK and other rich European countries. Their goal was limited, a drop in the ocean, given the enormity of the ‘refugee problem’. Yet delivering and erecting 30 large 20-person tents for basic shelter at Idomeni was practical and met an immediate need.

Samantha and Theo’s neighbour, Richard Rudd put out the word on Luck of Birth. It struck an immediate chord for those of us searching for where to offer direct help. Richard’s call raised over $40,000 in a week through friends and Gene Keys donors. He went out with Theo to erect tents and sent back pictures and stories to raise awareness and galvanize additional support.


Still just a drop in the ocean? Yes.

Yet, between March and late May, Luck of Birth protected 5% and more of Idomeni’s refugees from the worst of the elements.

This could only ever be a short-term response of heart and gut to an inherently inhumane situation. Idomeni’s refugees were unwelcome in a Europe whose governments preferred to shift an overwhelming and politically embarrassing ‘refugee problem’ elsewhere. Only Germany’s response to asylum requests came close to addressing the challenge and even its citizens often felt overburdened. Some outright rejected Merkel’s call for compassion.



While Theo and Richard were driving across Europe, the EU was busy doing a deal with the Turkish government to receive its unwanted refugees. Two months later, Greek police evacuated Idomeni. By 26 May 2016,t, the camp was forcibly closed. Its refugees were herded into seven state-run facilities in Greece to await relocation. Humanitarian agencies expressed concern at the new refugee conditions. The fetid air of tents packed too close together bred disease. Food, water, electricity and toilets fell far short of the need.

A year later, Greece’s support of original refugees and those still arriving remains inadequate. Overcrowding, resource shortages, physical and psychological stress, violence, and sexual exploitation are reported in many of its 47 camps.

The ‘refugee problem’ in Greece and worldwide has not gone away. Rather, it has been exacerbated by international responses to requests for asylum from rich countries often complicit in the violence that created these refugees. Today just 10% of world refugees find asylum within our wealthy nations



Sam and Theo Nelson did not stop when Idomeni closed.

They moved their family from England to live just one hour away from Idomeni, in the Aegean city of Thessaloniki. There they have rolled up their sleeves to co-found a local refugee housing project in a new Greece-based organisation called Filoxenia. Gene Keys donations continue to give modest support to their efforts.


Why did Sam and Theo choose Filoxenia as a focus for Luck of Birth? The name of the project gives us a clue. It means ‘friend to the stranger’ and it draws on an ancient virtue of hospitality in Greece and beyond, whereby any friend of a friend arriving at your home must be offered food, drink and a place to clean up, before being asked any questions. In this ancient honour system, a visitor is similarly bound to behave virtuously toward their host.

Filoxenia has so far extended hospitality to 115 such ‘strangers’. Refugees from Greek camps have found independence and safe living conditions in 17 two-bedroom furnished apartments. The organization has formed partnerships with seven humanitarian agencies, including Medecins du Monde, Save the Children and Care International, who together provide comprehensive medical, social and educational support to Filoxenia’s guests.


Nearly three quarters of refugees are from Syria. The remainder is Iraqi. Two thirds are children and more than 70% of adults are women, mainly aged 26-35.

The cost of the project so far? Less than $1,000 per month per apartment for set-up and ongoing expenses and $7.50 per person per day. Costs will reduce progressively, the longer the program is operational.



Filoxenia encourages all residents to meet weekly, to collaborate fully in every aspect of the housing program, including activities and events. The community’s very active and popular Social Space is where Sam and Theo currently invest Gene Keys donations.

An independent impact study* reports 100% satisfaction from Filoxenia’s residents: “We are very happy with what Filoxenia is doing. Everything they do is to help us so we are very grateful. We’ve been here for 9 months and do not need a lot more than this.”

Says one mother: “My life has changed… we had a lot of problems in the camps, the tents, the water, everything was bad. My children were in a very bad state before coming here. My 8-year old daughter didn’t talk when we lived in the camp. Her mental state was not good. But after living in the apartment for a while, [we] heard my daughter speaking again. My children are very different now, they are much happier.”

Residents face challenges, like schooling for their teenagers, who cannot enrol in secondary school without Greek primary education. And adults do not expect to stay in Thessaloniki, so none has attempted to learn the local language. When asked, they respond: “Why would I learn Greek? I am going away from here.” Already 50% have been relocated, while more than one in three has also been reunified with family members from whom they were separated when fleeing their homes. Just 13% have received Greek asylum…



Sam wrote to us recently: Thank you again so much for all your hard work fundraising and all the moral support! Luck of Birth fills in the gaps for Filoxenia and this would not be possible without you all, really the project would not have got out of the starting gates without the support we have received from you all. 

This report really highlights the positive impact the project has had, the people we have reached through Filoxenia have benefitted as a direct result of every penny and every positive message we have received from you all.  We cannot begin to thank you enough. Please allow these positive effects of the project to be yours as well as ours, together we have achieved this.  

If anyone wants to come to Thessaloniki to visit us and the project, we would welcome you very warmly!”



It’s easy to slip into shadow about refugees. At least 65 million people are currently displaced worldwide. They are our collective global shadow. Yet, as with any shadow, we may find hidden treasure if we are willing to embrace it, like Sam and Theo have. They have given the Gene Keys community a trusted point of contact that enables our donations to reach refugees now and make a real difference in their lives.

Sam is gracious in her gratitude, yet congratulating ourselves for supporting a project that has offered refuge so far to just 82 of Syria’s displaced 7.1 million people might seem to some premature, limited and/or even itself displaced.

Unless, perhaps, we happen to meet one of those people and their families…

Treating symptoms of the current refugee crisis instead of root causes offers no long-term collective solution. Yet the flame of humanity stays alight in such encounters. 82 people from Syria are in this moment leading safer, more stable lives thanks to our donor dollars. And 33 Iraqis are too.

How do we eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Millions around the world want to offer practical help – often much more than official government responses indicate. Getting resources through to people in need that can make a tangible difference in their lives is a priority in most donor choice of where to put their contributions.

Some also prefer to focus on other external and internal ways to influence events, systems and people. Many paths can lead to a transformation in global mercy and justice. All are paved with grace.



If we wish to continue the relationship, Sam and Theo strongly recommend supporting their project partner, Mobile Info Team, a small dedicated agency that provides asylum advice to refugees**. Sam: “ I can’t tell you how amazing this group is – Michael in particular is like an angel, he has worked since Idomeni like Theo. He is tireless, he arrives every week to Filoxenia (and to many other housing schemes and camps) to give loving support to those living in complete anxiety. The information available to people would be non-existent without him. He remembers every single person, he knows every case, he truly cares – he’s a beautiful gentle soul! We love him and so does every single one of our families.”

Until the community speaks otherwise, we’ll continue to channel refugee donations to Luck of Birth and its partners. Meanwhile, are we ready as a Gene Keys community to begin a dialogue together? Shall we talk with each other and examine our relationships to philanthropy in general and our support to the refugee elephant in particular? Is this one of our preferred elephants for the long term? Does the prospect of eating more of it engage us as individuals, and as a collective? Do we feel motivated to continue along the path on which we set out in early 2016 with Sam and Theo?

Let’s keep ourselves informed about refugees and hold them in our hearts, as we begin to explore this and other philanthropic projects about which we may feel passionate and where we may also want to focus Gene Keys community attention.

If you are a Society member, please join the Gene Keys Philanthropy – Let’s Talk! thread in the Gene Keys Society Forum, to share your own ideas, reflections and responses.


* For a full copy of this independent report and a detailed financial report, please email us at and label your message with the subject header Filoxenia Impact Report

** If you wish to read Mobile Info Team’s detailed proposal to the Gene Keys Society, please email us at and label your message with the subject header Mobile Info Team

Filoxenia International

Mobile Info Team.


This report was compiled by Midi Berry from desk research on refugees. As Society Steward, Midi facilitates the Gene Keys – Luck of Birth / Filoxenia partnership.

In the 80’s, Nelson Mandela’s defence lawyer, Joel Joffe, invited Midi to consult to Oxfam, when he became a trustee of the charity. Joffe knew her peace work and organisation transformation consulting in South Africa and he chaired her government-funded grassroots work with jobless teenagers.

Midi has worked with and for refugees and internally displaced people in Rwanda, Darfur and Northern Kenya. Her fieldwork days are now over, yet she remains committed to make a difference. She shares Joffe’s credo that combining passion with effectiveness gives the best return on a donor’s contribution.


  1. Thank you for this illuminating article dear Midi. So touching and timely.
    This morning a friend released this song and video that responds with creative offering to the refugee crisis….65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their homes recently…we are all called to feel, to love, to respond to stand in harm’s way…..

  2. Midi Berry says:

    Hi Momo

    Thank you so much for sharing Amanda Palmer’s haunting song and video.

    Do you think Amanda might be willing for us to feature the video also on our Society YouTube Channel? It might offer some more online exposure and attract more donations.

    I see that the group she is associated with is Dutch-based, like the Mobile Info Team whom the Society has been supporting financially this year for their work in the camps and housing projects.

    Lesvos continues to be on the front line for arrivals and numbers of refugees arriving by boat in September were reported to be on the increase…

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