Egyptian Billionaire Searches For An Island That Migrants Can Call Their Own
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And as refugees trek and train across Europe searching for a place to settle, one billionaire in Egypt says he's had enough. He's searching for an island to buy and turn into a home for refugees. NPR's Leila Fadel spoke with him and sent this report.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: People wondered if Naguib Sawiris meant it when he tweeted this. (Reading) Greece or Italy, sell me an island. I'll host the migrants and provide jobs for them, building their new country. So I asked him.
NAGUIB SAWIRIS: I am not a guy who has ever joked in my life. I'm an accomplisher. All my things are known. This you can ask someone who is not serious or is not successful.
FADEL: He speaks to me outside a pizzeria in an upscale neighborhood of Cairo, dressed in jeans for a casual dinner and fresh off a plane from Gouna, a tourist resort in Egypt that his family owns and developed.
SAWIRIS: My money is in my pocket, and I'm not like a - I don't have 10 dollars in my pocket. You know, I think I have a little bit more.
FADEL: When he says a little bit more, he means a lot more. He's an Egyptian telecom tycoon to the tune of about 3 billion dollars. When Sawiris saw the heartbreaking picture of the little Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore in Turkey after drowning at sea, it was a wake-up call, he says.
SAWIRIS: I'm not the kind of person who likes to sit down and watch and do nothing. It's just as simple as that. I don't need anything. I don't need fame. I'm famous. I don't need money. I have money. There's nothing in it for me. I just want to have a good conscious for myself - that I did something, I didn't watch it. That's all.
FADEL: So now he's in the market for an island or two, to host at least 100,000 people.
SAWIRIS: The challenge is first to find the island and the bigger challenge is to have the government of Italy or the government of Greece allow me to direct the refugees to this island because the islands will be under the jurisdiction of either Italy or Greece.
FADEL: On Sunday, he met with a delegation from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Senate that was visiting Cairo. And he said he'd be sending a letter to both the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.
SAWIRIS: The fact is nobody is doing anything about this. You have a small boy thrown to the shore like that in front of our eyes. What, I should wait until it's my son? What if it was my son?
FADEL: On the island he says he'll provide temporary housing and then build infrastructure - homes, hospitals, schools. People who come will get a job in their fields.
SAWIRIS: If he was an engineer, he will work in construction. If he was a doctor, he'll work in the hospital.
FADEL: The reason he's trying to do this, Sawiris says, is because the world has failed refugees escaping conflict, especially Syrian refugees caught between the brutality of ISIS and the barrel bombs and violence of Bashar al Assad's regime. PrivateIslandsOnline.com certainly has a bunch of uninhabited islands for sale - a few acres for under a million dollars or hundreds of acres for more than 15 million dollars. But did asylum-seekers leave their war-torn countries to live on Refugee Island? And the bigger question is, will Italy or Greece get on board? Sawiris hopes so.
SAWIRIS: I expect them to call me and tell me listen we have an island for you, we will provide all the assistance you want.
FADEL: He plans to call the island Aylan, after the boy who washed ashore in Turkey.
Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.