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When Refugees Lead, Tech Solutions Can Go Beyond the Hype

The explosion of tech solutions for refugees in Europe has earned justified skepticism, but there are smarter ways to harness technology to improve refugee support, say Jessica Marks and Lana Radosavljevic of the Refugee Center Online, offering lessons from the U.S.

Written by Lana Radosavljevic, Jessica Marks Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Re:source, a hackathon for refugees organized by the the Refugee Center Online and University of California, Berkeley. Khalid Eid

There has been a rapid learning curve about refugees and technology in Europe. As refugees navigated their way across the continent using their cellphones in 2015, some initially wondered how a person could be rich enough to have a phone yet be a refugee.

People quickly came to understand that many refugees rely on cellphones as an absolute necessity not a luxury, sometimes prioritizing phones over food or shelter.

Newly aware of the importance of technology to refugees, the tech community in Europe – and some companies based in the U.S. – jumped at the chance to help. Tech has made a huge impact, enabling aid agencies to reach those in need, helping refugees stay connected or reconnect with lost relatives and find information and connections in their new communities.

Yet the explosion of tech-based “solutions” has earned some justified skepticism. An Education International report highlighted how tech companies have been quick to provide tablets and aid to Syrian refugee students who do not have access to Wi-Fi or even stable electricity. Further, tech solutions can “do more harm than good if they disseminate misinformation,” as noted in a Migration Policy Institute report.

In the U.S., we have not seen a comparable tech boom for refugees, although there are innovative emerging initiatives like blockchain platform WeTrust. Our organization, the Refugee Center Online (RCO), is the only national website aimed at supporting refugees, founded as a nonprofit since 2013.

Perhaps the difference with Europe is that refugee resettlement is much more established in the U.S., which has historically resettled more refugees than any other country. America’s nine resettlement agencies offer a wealth of expertise as well as on-the-ground assistance and in-person resources.

At RCO, this meant we were aware from the beginning that tech was not and never would be the solution to the refugee crisis. Rather, we have always believed that by complementing and activating on-the-ground support, tech solutions can have a major impact on the longer-term integration of refugees and immigrants.

We have learned two lessons along the way that may be useful for our counterparts in Europe.

First, effective tech solutions require leadership from refugees themselves. Refugees can best identify needs, what types of tools are most valuable, and contribute to building those tools in ways that are maximally effective for the users. Refugee leadership needs to happen in partnership with members of the community, with both types of expertise equally valued. Working in isolation makes it much more difficult for either group to succeed.

Refugees are an extremely heterogeneous population with notably different immigration experiences. Some may have received aid while others traveled under harrowing circumstances. The RCO has found that including a spectrum of backgrounds can bolster the benefit of tech tools. Over half of the RCO board is made up of newcomers; the founding board chair was a refugee from Bhutan; and every major decision is further vetted through our Refugee Technology Advisory Council.

Second, tech solutions require ongoing commitment, time and resources. Tech often feels like a quick and easy solution, but the reality is that most tech solutions require intensive ongoing input and maintenance.

One critique in Europe has been the prevalence of hackathons and/or challenge prizes that contribute to a “pilot and crash” phenomenon because they don’t have ongoing funding to sustain them. Without long-term support, hackathons can be fruitless. But done well, they can also provide an important space to tackle a common challenge.

We need to flip the hackathon model on its head. Instead of providing a broad topic to attract a lot of participants, aid organizations, nonprofits and refugee community groups can present needs they have already identified and bring these to a targeted group of developers to ask them to help solve a particular challenge.

For example, the Refugee Center Online has received an enormous volume of requests from refugees in the U.S. about safe ways to connect with one another and with members of the local community. Refugees spoke of their longing to connect with others like themselves and learn from refugees who knew what they were going through.

However we were having a difficult time overcoming several barriers, including the safety of refugees using the tool, language barriers and the trustworthiness of information provided. So we worked with the University of California, Berkeley to organize a hackathon to tackle this issue last September. We invited a wide variety of participants, half of whom were immigrants.

Ronaldo Alvarez, a developer and immigrant from El Salvador, joined the hackathon because he personally identified with the problem. “I know how it feels to get to a new place and to get to know anything at all. You have to re-learn everything,” he said.

Alvarez came to the U.S. on his own and struggled to find employment until he discovered Upwardly Global online, a nonprofit that provided online job search training, a career coach and a network of fellow immigrants who had found work. “For me, the best system is a place to get advice from someone who has been in my shoes,” he said.

With his team, Alvarez, now a cyber security officer at microcredit nonprofit Kiva, developed a prototype for a platform called “Ask a Refugee” at the hackathon. The eventual winning team created a texting and voice-messaging system that would allow refugees to gain access to real-time support in a safe, anonymous community environment.

Many refugees arrive in the U.S. without skills like Alvarez’s and often with severely interrupted or truncated educations. The RCO has responded by building free online courses to earn a GED or prepare for a citizenship exam, two of the most critical needs. These mobile-friendly courses can be taken on bus rides to and from work or while children are sleeping. They have been hand-translated into the top languages spoken by refugees and can be used in a unique side-by-side format with English to facilitate language learning.

Resettlement agencies, their private partners and nonprofits in the U.S. are already doing impressive work to welcome newcomers, and in turn, those newcomers are contributing to our country and communities. Let’s use tech to amplify their efforts, letting refugees lead the way and thoughtfully sharing any lessons with Europe.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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