John's Migration Story: A Journey To Find Purpose & Meaning

I wrote the following text in preparing to share my story at SYS Brighton's Migration event on March 9 2016.

Introduction & Overview

I’ve been a big fan of stories since I was little and it’s an honor to be able to speak on the topic of migration at such an important time in history.

For the past four and a half months, I’ve poured my heart mind and soul into exploring how I can help refugees prosper in Europe, but before I go into detail about my work amidst the refugee crisis I’d first like to share a little bit about my story. I am afterall a migrant to the UK, albeit I didn’t come across the mediterranean and travel thousands of miles by foot—I flew direct from Denver to Heathrow with British Airways.

In sharing my story, I hope to explain some of the reasons why I care so much about the refugee crisis and why this issue affects me so deeply. I’d also like to share some of my insights that I’ve gained along my journey and offer help for anyone who’d like to get involved but doesn’t quite know how…

Journey To Find Myself

I was born into a loving Christian household in the suburbs of Colorado. During my adolescence I veered away from the faith of my family and the comfort of their support and did everything I could to fill the void that I felt so strongly within me. From alcohol to drugs and from sex to adrenaline I did my best to patch the emptiness that I felt inside, but somehow nothing seemed to work.

A few months before the deadline to apply to university, I panicked. I realized that I had no idea who I was, what I wanted to do in life and I only had a short amount of time to figure it out…

I started spending a lot of time in silence by myself. I began reading sacred texts from across the world—viewing them all as if they were a story. My love of story allowed me to view the texts with a more objective eye, learning in the same way that I’d learn from characters in a novel.

I read the Tao Te Ching, Torah, Bible and Qur’an. I read sacred texts of the Hopi and the Maori’s. I read the Baghavadgita and different Buddhist texts. I read everything I could get my hands on. The whole time I was trying to answer the big question of “Why?”. Why am I here? Why does life exist? Why is the world so broken and what can I do to help fix it?

Move To Israel

Along my journey to find purpose and meaning in my life, I decided to move to Israel. I wanted to be there in the fertile crescent—home of the three major religions. I wanted to witness the conflict between the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael. I wanted to see what bridged that tension and brought the two together.

I wanted to place my feet in the so-called ‘Holy Land’ and feel the waters and sand beneath my toes. I wanted to learn Hebrew and Arabic to understand the language from which these cultures and stories arose…

During my language studies I ended up living with a young Arab man named Bader who forever changed my perception of the conflict in the Middle East. We would sit together and drink coffee for hours talking about the biggest questions in life. I discovered that he was struggling with the same questions as me and we built a friendship between our vastly different upbringings and experiences.

My friendship with Bader challenged everything I’d learned about Arabs and the perceptions that had been ingrained in me since 9/11. I didn’t walk into the Middle East thinking every Arab was a terrorist, but I also didn’t realize how deeply I’d been affected by the media’s response to the attacks on the twin towers and the war in the Middle East.

Arab Spring Begins

In my third week of language studies in Israel, the revolution in Egypt began. Amidst the rising of the Arab Spring, I remember the sharp contrast between the public opinion in the West who believed that it would bring about Democracy and Capitalism and the stark scepticism in the Middle East about the destabilization that it could bring.

I remember talking to Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists about the Arab Spring and what they believed about life. I recalled things that I had read in my exploration of sacred texts. There were some beliefs that resonated more than others.

Love As The Guide

Of all the perspectives and commandments and beliefs that I heard, there was one that stood out from the rest: It was the commandment of a man named Jesus of Nazareth to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and to “love your enemy.”

I realized that this commandment, if lived out by both Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Christians and Jews, if this were actually obeyed by all people—it would radically change everything.

It could heal the wounds of thousands of years of war. It could repair broken relationships between families, neighborhoods and entire societies. It could repair the brokenness of the world.

Here I was in Israel looking for answers to the most difficult questions of life, and I felt like I found the most simple and clear one of all: Love your neighbor as yourself, and to love your enemy—but how on earth could this actually work?

Meeting Sophie, Going To Egypt

When I met the woman who later became my wife, I was struggling with how to live out this duty of love. We decided to travel to Egypt together for a holiday from our work in the deserts of Israel, and when we arrived we quickly got involved in a local community recycling project. I won’t go into much detail about the work that we did, but the relationships we made and the stories we heard really challenged this perception of truth that I’d come to understand in my time in Israel.

Loving your neighbor seemed so simple, but when I heard stories from both Muslims and Jews about the war and violence that had plagued their lives, I wondered how it could be possible for two brothers separated by so much pain to love one another as themselves.

Continuing The Journey

In the years that ensued after meeting in Israel, my wife and I travelled and lived in many countries across the world. We and a team of architects raised money in London in order to design and build classrooms for children with special needs in the poorest regions of India. We experienced hardship unlike ever before, met amazing people from all walks of life and from all religions, and were able to keep our love for one another intact amidst all the conflicts and triumphs of our journey.

Moving to The UK

After living in America for almost three years we decided to move to the UK where my wife was from. Before we settled down and had kids, we wanted to experience what life in Europe could be like.

I got an amazing opportunity to work at a top design agency in Brighton called Clearleft. While working at Clearleft, my wife and I began to witness the suffering of refugees across Europe. The crisis seemed so big and monolithic, it felt like we were absolutely powerless as individuals, it felt like there was nothing that we could do.


One of our friends from Austria shared with us a link to Refugees Welcome, which is an organization that matches refugees with shared flats across Europe. We decided to reach out to this organization to offer up the spare bedroom in our home—it seemed like that was the least that we could do.

In the weeks that ensued, we witnessed the obstacles that this organization faced in trying to provide matching service at scale. What started as a small concept to provide an ‘Airbnb’ for refugees scaled from one city to countries all across Europe. They were receiving tens of thousands of submissions from people who wanted to offer up their home and there were many more refugees who actually needed them.

The Trigger

As I saw the struggles that this organization faced when trying to provide this service at scale, I looked back at Clearleft and realized that this local agency in Brighton was solving these kind of problems for even bigger organizations at even bigger scales. As a result I saw a huge potential for design and technology to play a significant role amidst this crisis. I decided to step back from my work at Clearleft and explore how a community of digital workers could help refugees prosper in Europe.

Testing The Concept

I created a simple website that expressed this idea and invited people to join. I shared a few links and received a few responses. The messages I received were humbling. There were incredibly skilled designers and developers from all over the world who jumped on the opportunity to help. They’d witnessed the crisis also and wanted to apply their skills in any way that they could.

The several months that ensued after launching this website called Prosper were some of the most challenging yet fruitful months of my life. As our team grew quickly, so did our ability to use design and technology to help, but so did our struggle to focus amidst the massive complexity that this crisis represented.

We spent several weeks researching the wide range of problems that we could solve. We were viewing this crisis as a problem to be solved and we wanted to find the first problem that would be a good fit for our community.

Observing Problems

Everywhere we looked there were problems upon problems. The complexity of this crisis was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. With a long list of potential problems, we discussed them as a community and decided that we wanted to solve the issue of decentralization.

Choosing A Problem & Designing A Solution

There were thousands of initiatives across Europe who were providing refuge in one form of another. We discovered that in every city, there were sometimes as many as six initiatives who were working to solve the exact same problem, vying for the same resources and they often didn’t know each other.

Building A Central Database

As a response to this decentralization, we decided to build a central database of refugee crisis initiatives with the aim of providing essential infrastructure that would allow refugees, volunteers and donors to find the projects that met their needs.

We spent several months building this database and as a result built relationships with communities all over the world: from Jordan to Lebanon and from France to Germany. We discovered that there were several other initiatives who were collecting data about refugee projects in order to make sense of the crisis and to put everything in one place.

We now have over 2,000 projects listed in our database and it has been used by over 3,000 people, including researchers from the BBC, academia and NGO’s. Our project has been picked up by an international movement called Techfugees and are going to partner with them moving forward. Along the journey we’ve come in contact with thousands of people and have observed just about every angle of this crisis.

Finding Local

Whilst working to build this database, I was put in touch with a local organization in Brighton who needed housing for a young Syrian couple. Upon meeting this young man to discuss the prospect of him and his wife living in our home, I realized that he had been living a three minute walk from my work.

Here I was working on my computer screen to discover problems all across Europe and had neglected to look down my very own street. This man had been in the Brighton for several months, struggling all the while to find accommodation, learn English and manage all of the bureaucracy that comes with receiving asylum in Europe.

This couple didn’t end up staying with us in our spare bedroom. When we had him over to see the space, he thanked us sincerely and said that they’ve been on a long journey and need to find their own home. If they settled for staying with us they knew it would be temporary—whether it be three months, six or 12. They didn’t want a hand-out or to be a burden. They wanted to find jobs and pay for the roof over their head. They’d worked so hard to be here they just wanted to start a new life.

This conversation was the first of many. We’ve been blessed to grow a deep friendship with this couple. They’ve completely changed the way we look at this crisis. We’ve learned from them and their journey, and they’ve learned from us and ours. We’re a mutual asset unto each other’s lives, and it has nothing to do with money or economy.

Visiting Berlin

My wife and I spent most of last week in Berlin. We met dozens of refugees and citizens, heard stories that completely reshaped our perception. We built friendships with Syrians, Afghanis, Eritreans and Egyptians. We heard a diverse range of struggles and triumphs, learned what it is actually like to be an asylum seeker in Berlin in 2016. I won’t into any great detail, but it was tragic for us to see thousands of people leave one form of hell to find themselves living in another.

The situation is grave in Berlin and as the numbers arriving in Greece increase, so does the pressure for us to respond.


Amidst all of these experiences and relationships, my wife and I had a revelation about our own response to this crisis: The most powerful response is not one that requires vast amounts of money, skill or experience—it is not one that requires leaving your job—it is one that starts from the heart and emanates from the home—it is one of compassion that sees the situation as it is: This is not a crisis to be solved but these are human lives to be cherished. Each and every person has story. Each and every story deserves to be valued and heard.


Looking back at where my journey began, I feel like I’ve come a long way. I started out as a lost 18-year old boy searching for truth amidst a feeling of hopelessness and despair. I was depressed, addicted to drugs and alcohol and had no idea who I was or why I was here...

Driven by my passion to discover myself and answer life’s biggest questions, I’ve lived and worked around the world and have met people who have changed my lives. I may have even helped a few people along the way—made a small difference even. I’ve learned how to speak Hebrew, Arabic and Hindi and I feel like this is just the beginning.

Seven years after my departure from home, I am happily married with a new life in the UK, a few more answers to life and of course many many more questions than when I began. I’ve realized that the more I know, the more I know nothing, but still my desire to learn and to grow seems to carry me forward...

Call to Action

As you continue to hear the rest of the stories this evening, I encourage you to explore how you can respond within the day-to-day experience of your own life. What can you do that fits with your lifestyle, with your coming and going, with your every breath?

What can you do to make the journey from fear to love, and to embrace the beautiful complexity of the human race? How can you love those around you—even your enemies, your neighbors and your friends? If you’re pro-migration, how can you love those who are against it? If you are against it, how can you love the people who are for it?

The wonderful thing about these questions is that you’re not alone. There are dozens of people around you wondering the same thing. There are thousands of people all over the world asking the same questions. But rather than turning to your devices and to your networks of friends, why not turn to the person next to you, why not look to your neighbor and see what it is like to love them as yourself?

This is my next journey amidst this crisis: To look local and to build deep relationships with my neighbors: Both refuge seekers and citizens.

If you’re curious about what is going on in Brighton and in Sussex, and what opportunities there are to get involved, please feel free to talk to me after the talks or get in touch. I’d be happy to learn about you and your story and see if there’s anything I can do to help.

Thank you so much for listening.

John Ellison

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