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Global Citizen: Harald Höppner

25 October 2016

“If you see something going wrong, act. If you think you need to change something, do it immediately. Likewise, if you have more money than you and your family need to live, use this money to help the underprivileged rather than keep it sleeping in a bank,” says Harald Höppner.

In November 2014, Höppner, together with his colleague Matthias Kuhnt, purchased a century-old fishing boat and began to patrol the Mediterranean Sea in attempt to rescue refugees from the increasing number of refugee boats capsizing in the waters. In June 2015, after nearly six months of planning, preparation and renovations, the boat, now named Sea Watch, began to provide rescue efforts and first aid to refugees off the Libyan coast, rescuing 600 people in their first mission alone. By the end of the vessel’s first launch season, more than 2,000 people were rescued. But what prompted Höppner, who at the time ran a successful business, to take action?

Höppner was born in the early 1970s to a family of doctors in East Berlin, and spent the first 17 years of his life behind the Wall, a territory under the influence and control of the Soviet Union. When the Wall was demolished in November 1989, Höppner dropped out of university to travel the world extensively, eventually starting Guru Shop in 1994, a successful business selling exotic furniture, jewelry, clothing, and artistic craftwork from India, Thailand, Nepal and Indonesia. Today, Höppner employs 20 people in two stores in Berlin, in addition to managing an online store.

In 2014, Höppner returned to Berlin to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, he saw a comparison between the current crisis in the Mediterranean and the former refugees of Eastern Germany. But something clicked for him when he saw an image of a woman drowning in the Mediterranean Sea broadcast on television. After researching drowning and how brutal it is, he decided to act.

“If nobody cares about it, then I’ll do it,” is Höppner’s motto. With EUR 60,000 in savings, he purchased a 1917 Go-46, a seaworthy cutter from the Netherlands, with the aim of conducting missions to rescue stranded refugees. He received a further EUR 110,000 donation to renovate the vessel and convert it into a rescue ship, and thus the non-government organization Sea Watch was born.

“I am sick of reading about this disaster in the media. Having spent 17 years behind the Wall in East Germany, I see not enough is being done to solve the current crisis,” he says. “The money we spent in the beginning from private funds was the best investment of my life”

The project’s concept is simple: to notify the Coast Guard when they spot a migrant boat in distress, but if the authorities do not arrive in time, Sea Watch will take action. The vessel is equipped with first aid kits, drinking water and life boats, as well as satellite phones.

Refugees who are rescued by European coast guards are usually transported to camps on European Union soil and are then able to apply for asylum. Höppner says he was shocked by the number of ships in distress they encountered on a daily basis, often seconds before they would capsize.

Today Sea Watch has raised more than EUR 1 million in donations, has purchased a new rescue ship dubbed Sea Watch 2 (twice as large as the original vessel), has bought a plane that facilitates the search for castaways, and has launched a second rescue base on the Greek island of Lesbos. The organization has also opened a headquarters in Berlin and employs a handful of full-time employees.

Höppner says, “In the first year of operation we gained valuable insight and experience, which serve as a base for our renewed operational strategy in 2016. We saw that we needed a more modern and efficient vessel to allow for larger crews. With Sea Watch 2 we can now operate around the clock and during adverse weather conditions, and can now offer critical medical care on board.”

But besides the success, Höppner stays humble, accrediting his wife, Tanja, as his main pillar of strength. He says, “The work on Sea Watch I could never do without the support of my wife. She kept the family and business going while I was focused on starting the organization.” He cautions others to “never forget your family when you build up your vision”.

Höppner talks about his experience in his latest audio book, Menschenleben retten! Mit der Sea-Watch im Mittelmeer (Saving lives! With Sea Watch in the Mediterranean), where he describes how he overcame many obstacles, tackling the challenges to create a more humane society. “I don’t want to watch people die just because they were born in the wrong place,” he says.