Billionaire Egyptian Christian Seeking to Buy Island to House Syrian Refugees: 'I Cannot Just Sit Here and Pretend It's Not My Problem'

( [email protected] ) Sep 14, 2015 12:51 PM EDT
An Egyptian Christian and billionaire philanthropist has announced he is hoping to buy an island, from either Greece or Turkey, to help resolve the massive refugee crisis hitting Europe.
A Turkish paramilitary police officer carries the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi. AP photo

An Egyptian Christian and billionaire philanthropist has announced he is hoping to buy an island, from either Greece or Turkey, to help resolve the massive refugee crisis hitting Europe.

During an interview Sunday morning with CNN's Fareed Zakaria on GPS, Telecom CEO Naguib Sawiris said the tragic death of Aylan Kurdi, a two-year-old Syrian boy who died while trying to reach freedom with his family, prompted him to lend a hand.

"I actually must admit, it's the picture of Aylan that woke me up," Sawiris said. "It was a very touching picture. In addition to that, the way these pictures were coming out of Hungary, the way these refugees were being treated by the authorities there, and being, you know, beaten and put into the trains and buses, I mean it was just too much."

According to Reuters, the overcrowded boat that Aylan traveled in with his older brother Galip, 5, and his mother earlier in September capsized in trying to reach Greece, killing them. The news outlet notes that a photo of the child's body in the surf off a Turkish resort went viral and sparked international outrage at the "perceived inaction of developed nations in helping thousands of refugees using dangerous sea-routes to reach Europe."

Sawiris, who reportedly has a net worth of around $3 billion, told CNN he has sent letters to the prime ministers of Greece and Italy asking them to sell him an island so he can house and employ 100,000 to 200,000 refugees, many of whom have fled Syria's four-year civil war.

"This war is not going to end in weeks or in months. It may be years even," Sawiris explained. "So what do we do with these people meanwhile?...I met the minister of interior today and he was telling me that his biggest fear is that the winter is coming, it's going to be snowing and how will they sustain this weather and everything? I mean, we need to move fast."

However, the philanthropist acknowledged that the solution to the refugee crisis is not as simple as buying an island: "You can't just take people and put them on an island that you bought that falls under jurisdiction," he said.

"They don't have visas. We need - a passport control agency. We need people to check them out. You need their data. You need customs. So the real challenge of the idea is that to have the authorities accept the fact that you will host immigrants there, and specifically Greece has a lot of islands that are for sale and they should offer me an island for sale, but mainly accept that we host these immigrants there.."

If his plan materializes, Sawiris said he will name the island it after the Syrian boy: "I cannot just sit like that and just do nothing, you know, and pretend it's not my problem," he told Zakaria.

According to an official UN report, more than 220,000 lives have been lost and over 12.2 million people "continue to require life-saving aid" since March 2011 when the Syrian conflict began.

In light of the growing problem, White House press secretary Josh Earnest announced on Thursday that the Obama administration has decided to raise the number of Syrian refugees admitted to at least 10,000 in the fiscal year beginning in October from fewer than 2,000 this year.

Some U.S. lawmakers have expressed doubts over the decision, arguing that militants with the Islamic State group could hide among refugees fleeing the conflict, creating a "jihadi pipeline".

"This idea that we have an obligation to receive vast numbers of people... we have a real obligation to make sure that we protect the sovereignty of the United States," Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee said during a question and answer session at the conservative Eagle Forum conference in St. Louis on Monday.

"That's not a lack of Christian charity. It's the essence of charity, to provide for needs, but not to put your own children at risk, if what you're importing could be people who have a nefarious purpose for wanting to be here."

However, retired general John Allen told ABC television's "This Week" program he is confident in the refugee-vetting procedures in place.

"But I also have to tell you, I have tremendous confidence in the work that has been, and is being done" by US security agencies," he said. "We should be conscious of the potential that (ISIS) may attempt to embed agents within that population."

Nevertheless, Allen said, "I think it's a threat... It's clearly something we should be thinking about."