The phrase “there’s an app for that” is often thrown around to capture the creative spirit and potential of mobile technologies. The vast array of apps push the limits of what we think is possible; from the useful to the unique to the useless, it seems that anything can be packaged in a neat little widget on a touchscreen.
One unexpected but thought provoking use of mobile tech is its ability to help Syrian refugees find safety, learn about the process of applying for asylum, and integrate into the society of the country they end up in. As of February 2016, there is an estimated four million registered Syrian refugees, not including those who have not reached official channels of help. Essential considerations like language barriers, job security, stable housing, access to healthcare, and other essential services are a challenge to those who migrate to new homes under the best of circumstances. For refugees fleeing from violence and instability, they are infinitely harder. Now, the power of technology and collaboration is transforming that journey.
Having knowledge is paramount in navigating one’s way into a foreign new world. In this age of hyper access to information, the challenge is filtering and presenting the most relevant and useful resources for refugees. By applying technological solutions to this age old set of problems, many innovative solutions have burst forth.
The media visibility of the hardships Syrian refugees face reached a fever pitch when the heart wrenching tragedy of the young boy became one of the most powerful faces of the refugee crisis. He drowned in his attempt to cross part of the Mediterranean Sea in his escape, garnering sympathy and outrage across the world. The tech community responded to Obama’s call for Silicon Valley to step up to the challenge, and since then, the response to the challenge of helping thousands of displaced people has been growing steadily. Both specific companies and the tech community at large have responded to these calls, like Techfugees. The non-profit is “a tech community response to the European refugee crisis” with representatives from NGOs, tech companies, entrepreneurs and startups gathering for conferences, and hackathons to find solutions for these pressing issues.
As representatives of a larger sentiment and drive to apply these hard skills and technological advances to real-world issues, specific companies have stepped up as well. These include Kickstarter, who made the refugee crisis a special case for having non-profit fundraising campaigns, and Airbnb, who is assisting in arranging free housing for aid workers.
The apps that have come out of this movement are primarily focused on delivering clear and concise information about how to navigate the new places a refugee might find themselves. A concept called information precarity, “a term referring to the condition of instability that refugees experience in accessing news and personal information,” highlights the importance of being able to access the correct information at the most relevant time.
Germany has shown itself to be an innovative hub for tech-driven solutions to pressing societal changes. In light of Angela Merkel’s declaration of Germany’s policy to be open refugee applicants, several applications aimed at helping newly arrived migrants in the country have been created. One of them is Flutchtlinge Willkommen (“Refugees Welcome”), a product of a collaboration between two German non-profits, that aims to make housing more accessible for newly accepted refugees. The application works by engaging the local community, working to connect refugees with everyday people who have open hearts and open homes. It matches flatmates together based on specific measures of compatibility. The app has extended beyond its country of origin; now places like Greece, Portugal, and even Canada have actively started using the app. As of February 2016, the total number of refugees who have been matched to temporary homes is 527. It speaks to the power of crowdsourcing as a solution for a problem that is widespread and difficult to generalize, as in this case of finding roommates.
Once housing is established, access to services becomes the next challenge. Welcome to Dresden focuses on providing refugees and asylum seekers with up-to-date information about getting registered for healthcare, legal advice, and public authorities to contact. The importance of multiple languages being supported, local contacts, and the ability to use the app without a constant internet connection speak to how the creators of the app really focused and catered to the needs of their user base.
These tech-driven solutions have not been limited to the side of the refugee-accepting countries; many refugees themselves have been active in the cause. The app Gherbtna was created by Mojahed Akil, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, to specifically disseminate information about “jobs offers, registration requirements for Syrian students to attend universities, regulation regarding residence permits and information about settlements like which areas are safe and which are being shelled… Anything that is useful for Syrian refugees.” This is an example of how a very powerful user need drove one individual to learn the skills to create a tool to fulfill it. All of these applications embody a perspective expressed eloquently by Akil himself: “from my own experience I learned that knowledge is power and the best way to help these victims, the best thing to support these refugees is to educate yourself, get facts and work hard.”
Empathy is how knowledge can be harnessed and directed to create collaborative, innovation solutions to large scale social challenges such as the Syrian refugee crisis. Apps that aim to help refugees settle into their new homes and integrate into society – socially and economically – are especially important for mediating the long term implications of the violence in Syria and those displaced by it. The potential of mobile technologies is staggering, but it always remains based in human intentions. So long as there is a will, there is a way, and for Syrian refugees looking to find theirs, there very well may be an app for that.
Image by Nicolas Vigier