We have a choice. We can be pessimists. We can resign ourselves to the idea that nothing is going to work. We can give up and, in turn, ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can grasp the opportunities that do exist, the rays of hope, and say, 'Well, maybe we can make it a better world.' For us, that's not much of a choice.

Engineering Better Days' Unique Approach to Humanitarian Aid

Better Days is a Swiss-registered non-governmental organisation founded by Elena Moustaka and Anrika Velychko in Zurich in January 2016 in response to the influx of refugees on Lesvos, Greece. Shortly thereafter, we established Better Days Greece. Together we are known as Better Days. Our story begins in November 2015 when volunteers from around the world came together to provide emergency aid to refugees sleeping rough in sub-zero temperatures in the olive groves of Moria camp in Lesvos, Greece. Our first project was the Olive Grove, an unofficial camp adjacent to Moria. During our first six months of operation, Better Days and its partners provided aid (medical, food, shelter, and non-food items) to approximately 70,000 people. Since the Olive Grove, Better Days has implemented more than ten projects providing services including legal aid, recreational activities, non-formal education, and counselling support. Today, our integrated approach provides educational and counselling services for displaced young people with the purpose of enhancing their opportunities for personal development, academic growth, and independence. 

Over the years we have supported over thirty humanitarian organisations in Greece, Serbia, Lebanon, Syria, and most recently in Poland and Pakistan. Today Better Days’ work is known around the world, and three of our blueprint programs have received global recognition for their contributions to sustainable aid. 

Our team is united by a fierce determination to bring humanity and compassion into the delivery of humanitarian aid, particularly in creating positive, safe spaces. At the heart of everything we do are the child’s best interest and the belief that a holistic approach to aid can positively impact the future of vulnerable children and young people. Since 2015, we have created blueprints that can be replicated globally in honour of our commitment to a sustainable future that guarantees access to quality education and prosperity for all displaced children in the world. Having witnessed the humbling effect and collateral impact that individual flourishing has on displaced communities, we built our humanitarian philosophy on the principles of de-victimisation and empowerment through personalised education, participatory practices, and positive space.

Our work excels when we combine formal and grassroots practices and succeeds through collective action and dialogue. Better Days implemented several humanitarian interventions in Moria camp, responding to emergencies and critical gaps in aid while facilitating collaboration between institutional actors and the grassroots community.  Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, our work expanded to Athens. We have since supported civil society actors, national health services, and local and displaced communities in coping with the consequences of Covid-19. 

Designing Positive Environments for Displaced People

Accepting the rather uncontroversial premise that environments influence people, what is the impact of a refugee camp?  Camps are environments of dependence in which people are fundamentally reliant on the efforts of others to meet their needs. Camps are environments of deprivation, as the resources provided are those strictly necessary for existing but not sufficient for building a good life. These are the conditions of a bad place, but refugee camps are not truly places at all because they lack essential anchor points like cultures, traditions, families, friends, and homes. Camps are stagnant in-betweens, where people are stuck in time, waiting and hoping for the next steps that may never come. Before they even arrive at a camp, displaced people have had a lot taken from them. But the conditions of a camp threaten peoples’ dignity, agency, and ability to believe in themselves. 

Better Days’ philosophy starts with the creation of positive environments and safe spaces. Our approach begins with redefining the spaces available to displaced people. We focus on creating innovative physical, mental, and emotional spaces for unaccompanied children and displaced young people living in Greece. Whether through emergency response or education, our work is built on the understanding that quality services can only be provided through dignified and positive spaces.

Redefining Education for Displaced Children and Young People

Life can take away our sense of control in an instant and force us into conditions of mortal danger. This is one of the central paradoxes of emergency response: emergencies are situations of extreme deprivation and dependency, but those affected must find a way to move forward and build their lives after the worst has happened. The first step to responding to an emergency, invariably, is to save lives. But we sometimes forget that this is not the only step. Our conception of helping people in emergency situations often stops with stabilising the situation; but in reality, the situation continues on. Saving lives is not the same as preserving the will to live. Just as food, blankets, and shelter are key for survival, education is an urgent need. It is not enough to meet the basic needs of existence. We must create opportunities for people to grow and flourish. 

For people surviving in an environment that strips away agency, the most powerful antidote is to feel like their decisions matter, that their lives are building towards something important; education is this antidote. It can provide the space for people to make choices and re-assert control over something internal. Education, when it works, is a means of rediscovering ownership over the lifelong project of constructing the self. It is an opportunity for daily victories when circumstances have forced someone into unbearable loss.

This mindset drives our efforts to challenge and redefine how we provide education to displaced communities in Greece. Our pedagogical philosophy inspires the creation of positive educational spaces outside the toxic environment of Greek camps through personalised education and mental health support. 

Our philosophy has humble and realistic objectives. We do not aspire to solve all of the challenges our participants face, but to mitigate these challenges by supporting students suffering from anxiety, stress, and depression that so often result from the trauma of fleeing. In helping our students identify their emotions, we can teach them to process their emotions. Young people enter our services in a vulnerable state of mind and our foremost responsibility is to facilitate their healing process.  We offer trauma-aware education by blending learning experiences with psychosocial support and therapy. 

Since launching our first educational project on Lesvos, Gekko Kids in 2017,  Better Days has played a  leading role in the provision of quality education for displaced young people in Greece. The transitory and multiethnic nature of the population arriving in Greece remains a challenge for the public school system to this day. Having experienced the challenges that cross-cultural education posed for local teachers and schools, we feel compelled to confront certain educational orthodoxies and mobilise international expertise to address critical gaps and elevate the level of education available to young people on the move. Hence, our projects function as collaborative educational laboratories and serve as spaces for careful and intentional experimentation. Our centres welcome highly trained teachers with field experience and promote contemporary and non-traditional educational approaches and practices. 

To date, we have supported over 2,000 people with their education and have been shortlisted by the 5th Global Entreps Awards Committee – amongst 5000 candidates in 126 territories – for offering one of the 100 Best Practices in the world on Sustainability (UN SDGs), Innovation and/or Good Governance. 

Commitment to Quality and Professionalism

Today, Better Days operates in accordance with the international quality standard of ISO 9001:2015Q.  We remain committed to creating blueprints that can be replicated globally and honour our commitment towards a sustainable future that guarantees access to quality education and prosperity for displaced people. To this day, Better Days is run by a diverse team of humanitarian professionals from around the world who are united by a fierce determination to engineer ethical and sustainable solutions to humanitarian problems.

Watch our Tedx talk, the Capital-T Truth of Education by Board Member Andrew Foley, to learn more about Better Days’ approach to education for displaced young people.