Berlin - University students Hannah Schmidt and Stephan Glasmacher were looking for a way to help the victims of the devastating 4 August explosion in the Beirut harbour when they heard that a new charity was looking for volunteers in Berlin. The founders of Aid Pioneers needed people in the capital city to create connections with politicians and bureaucrats that could help speed shipments of material donations to the children of Beirut.
And it worked. Just 10 days after initially organising in August, Aid Pioneers was able to send its first shipment with the help of Sundair, a Stralsund-based vacation airline, which is the only one that flies non-stop from Berlin to Beirut.
The flights are now weekly – an aid air bridge – and Aid Pioneers has expanded from a handful of students to an expansive network of 30 volunteers throughout Germany. It’s even registered as an association.
“It’s really great how we’ve grown,” Schmidt says in a zoom interview. “In the beginning we were just three students who wanted to collect donations and now we’re an NGO [non-government organisation].”
Aid Pioneers has already shipped 2 tonnes of goods to Beirut, predominantly for children, including clothing for more than 1,000 kids, stuffed animals, toys and school gear as well as corona masks. The charity is already expanding to include donations for refugees in Greece and hopes to develop an automated operating model that can be used to help crisis regions around the world.
It’s also launched a crowdfunding campaign, which runs through the end of 2020, with a goal of €20,000 to buy much-needed school supplies.
“We’ve already raised €5,000,” Glasmacher says. “Thanks to our logistics partner, we can buy school packs very cheaply.”
The partner, Iden, is a Berlin logistics company that also wholesales office supplies. The packs cost just €5 per student and include typical school supplies such as notebooks, a compass, pens and folders.
Nimble and transparent
In addition to help from Sundair and Iden, Aid Pioneers has also received help from the protestant church, which provided a warehouse to store donated goods before transport. They’ve also forged valuable contacts in various federal ministries in Berlin.
The charity emphasises communication and regularly updates its Instagram with pictures of recent shipments and other activities.
“Transparency is very important to us,” says Schmidt.
The group has accomplished an impressive amount in its short lifespan, in part because of the contacts the volunteers have been able to make but also because of the efforts of the volunteers.
I know it's not going to get better economically or politically
“There are other NGOs but what we have is that we can react so quickly,” Glasmacher says. “We’re careful to ensure that we’re a different kind of NGO.”
Beirut native Carmen Chraim agrees. Chraim is a business consultant who relocated to Berlin in 2010 and has since become a German citizen. She’s also a part-time comedian who performs in English, French and Arabic and discovered the charity after producing a fundraising show for the blast victims at The Wall comedy club in Friedrichshain in September.
“The volunteers sometimes work much more efficiently than the private sector,” she says. “It’s amazing how much they get done so quickly.”
Chraim had already donated most of the money from the show to a different charity when a friend told her about Aid Pioneers but she was so impressed that she became a volunteer. She helps market Aid Pioneers and connects it with contacts from her business network – she has worked for a handful of major German industrial and technology companies.
Pre-corona, she visited her family in Beirut but says watching the hardship from afar is difficult.
“It’s tough,” Chraim says, “because I know it’s not going to get better economically or politically.”
More on Aid Pioneers at www.aidpioneers.com.
The crowdfunding campaign can be found here.