THERE’S AN APP FOR T.H.A.T – TRANSFORMING HOW ASYLUM-SEEKERS TRAVEL


Becca Chong
Staff Writer

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

FORECASTED CHANGES IN FRANCE’S EDUCATION SYSTEM

Featured image

by Becky Emrick
Staff Writer

Within the past week, France has seen some major proposed changes and reactions to Minister of Education, Higher Education, and Research, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem’s proposed education reforms in France. For example, “the [French] government wants to reduce teaching of Latin and ancient Greek, scrap an intensive language scheme and change the history curriculum [in middle schools]” in order to improve the quality of the French education system and try to create a more even level playing field for students (A). Instead, the intensive language program is going to be replaced by “a general class on classical culture” (C). France is willing to take extreme actions in order to try and reinvent their education system. This comes somewhat as a surprise because the French are extremely passionate about their education system since “two of the 10 biggest post-war strikes in the country have been over education, in 1984 and 1986” (C).

These changes come from the concerns that the “French education system has slipped down the rankings drawn up by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which says it is one of the least egalitarian in the world” (C). By scraping the old education system, Vallaud-Belkacem and President Hollande hope that the proposed education reforms will close the gap between students going to school “in poorer areas and those in more prosperous parts of the country” (C). Due to the direct correlations with the “pupils’ performance … [and] their parents’ socio-economic background and that children of immigrant parents are more likely to drop out of school” there is a need for France to create an educational system that serves students that come from a migrant background (E). This approach, although innovative, doesn’t speak to a majority of French citizens because teachers and citizens believe that the changes “will simply make things worse for pupils and worse for teachers” by scraping the traditional structure that France has used (J).

There are three main changes that are being proposed to change in the French education system. By imposing these changes France would have, “[phased] out Latin and Greek, to be replaced by an option in ‘languages and cultures of antiquity’, axing a reinforced modern-language programme for gifted 12-year-olds, to be replaced by a generalised second foreign language later on, [and for] 20% of the curriculum to be ‘cross-disciplinary’ modules organised by teachers of more than one subject” (A). Firstly, phasing out Latin and Greek languages completely from French Education could prove to be problematic because “[ancient languages are] threaded almost invisibly through contemporary culture, kept in shape by a combination of tradition and devotion, like good hand-stitching” and furthermore “there are practical reasons for learning an extinct language. It can make acquiring second, third, even fourth languages easier” (G). The second proposed change is meant to give students a more even level playing field by making the education less elitist and teaching students at all levels together. Finally, the last change wherein the curriculum will be organized by teachers of one or more subjects could potentially manifest itself in French teachers working longer hours, as well as the quality being degraded due to multiple subjects being morphed into one which leads many to believe that these proposed reforms will do “students more harm than good” (H).

Although this initiative is headed by the French Minister on Education, a majority of French citizens and teachers are unsupportive of the initiative. As a result “An Odoxa opinion poll last week showed that over 60 percent of French people oppose the reform (E). Because of their disagreements with Vallaud-Belkacem and Hollande over the proposed education reforms, citizens all over France went on strike May 19th to protest these changes. Teachers believe that “the reforms would only serve to increase inequalities and class separation” that France is currently challenged with overcoming (A). French teachers are also intimidated that these new reforms “will increase competition between schools and lead to inequalities” even though the aim of the reforms is to “give schools more choices over what they can teach, promote interdisciplinary learning and combat elitism” (D).

By bringing up this reform and bringing it to a vote, the Socialist Party is putting itself at odds ends by budding themselves against the Labor Unions so close to the 2017 Presidential Election. The Labor Unions, specifically teachers within these Labor Unions, are traditionally a large portion of the vote for the Socialist Party, however they “are largely opposed to the reform, their unions say. In a rare show of unity, seven unions, representing 80 percent of staff, are joining Tuesday’s strike” (E). This comes at a bad time for the Socialists to not have a strong backing so close before the Presidential election, especially since in opinion polls the Front National candidate Marine Le Pen has been coming up on top by about 30% in front of both Hollande and UMP candidate Sarkozy (F). This coupled with Hollande continuously degrading approval ratings, makes for a bad outcome for the Socialist Party in the 2017 Presidential Election.

Although the timing of these reforms aren’t ideal for the Socialist Party so close to the 2017 Presidential Election, making within the current Hollande administration including Hollande himself and Vallaud-Belkacem believe that “the reform is essential” because of the pressing need to “change an education system that reinforces inequalities. We want to improve everyone’s level across the board” (H). Despite many French citizens disbelief and discontent the reforms are pushed go to vote in September 2016 (I).

References

(A) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32792564

(B) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/france-less-work-more-time-off/

(C) http://www.businessinsider.com/afp-teachers-strike-in-france-to-protest-school-reforms-2015-5

(D) http://www.euronews.com/2015/05/19/french-teachers-strike-over-reforms/

(E) http://in.reuters.com/article/2015/05/19/france-politics-education-idINKBN0O400A20150519

(F) http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/sep/08/le-pen-tops-presidential-poll-for-first-time-ever

(G) http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/sep/16/why-learn-a-dead-language

(H) http://www.dw.de/french-teachers-on-strike-to-protest-education-reforms/a-18459914

(I) http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Half-of-Frances-Teachers-Strike-Against-Education-Reforms-20150519-0024.html

(J) http://www.thelocal.fr/20150519/french-teachers-reforms-will-make-it-worse

Photo By: Parti Socialiste

BUILDING BRIDGES: EUROVISION AND THE LGBT COMMUNITY

By Carla Diot
Staff Writer

On May 23rd, 2015, millions of people tuned in to watch the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest. The song competition, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, brings countries from both inside and outside of Europe to present performances hand-selected by each competing country. The final brought 27 countries together to compete for a trophy and the opportunity to host the competition the next year. Receiving 365 points total, Sweden emerged victorious, with its energetic and uplifting performance of “Heroes,” by Måns Zelmerlöw.

The song contest was initially conceived as a light-hearted means of bringing countries together after the divisive and destructive World War II. Countries who joined the European Broadcasting Union were eligible to participate, including countries outside of Europe’s geographic borders, leading to entries from Morocco, Turkey, and newcomer Australia. However, with its 60th anniversary, it seems appropriate for the European based song contest to return to its roots by honoring the theme “Building Bridges.” The theme is timely, given the state of Europe in 2015. The theme comes at a time where Greece and Great Britain’s possible exits from the European Union have become common points of speculation among the European press, and the European Union is fighting to keep those bridges from burning. Furthermore, instability in Ukraine has inflamed tensions between Russia and the European Union, causing Ukraine to withdraw from the 2015 edition.

While Eurovision is seen as a campy celebration that has brought viewers dancing babushkas, monsters singing metal, and an Ukrainian disco ball, it has also been considered a significant indicator of the political conflicts rocking Europe. Songs with political messages are explicitly banned from Eurovision, but countries often use song titles or other symbols to evoke political messages. The most recent example of this comes from Armenia, which has launched a campaign for political recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The discourse on the recognition of the genocide seeped into the Eurovision contest after the Armenian entry for this year was forced to change the name of its song from “Don’t Deny” to “Face the Shadow.” This was due to accusations from Turkey and Azerbaijan that the song title was a direct reference to their denial of the Armenian genocide. The official music video also garnered controversy for featuring images of individuals in World War I attire disappearing. The group performing the song, Genealogy, includes artists who are reportedly descendants of survivors of the genocide. The group, as well as the head of the Armenian Eurovision delegation, have denied the song’s political involvement, stating instead that its themes of genealogy and family instead focus on love and unity. Regardless, the performance was controversial, and Armenia was awarded only 22 points (compared to Sweden’s victory, consisting of 365 points total).

One of the characteristics of Eurovision has been its inclusion of LGBT audiences and performers. A first milestone for Eurovision was transgender singer Dana International’s performance in 1998. Her performance of the song “Diva” dominated the contest, as she secured a victory of 172 points. Last year’s contest saw the victory of drag queen Conchita Wurst. Overnight, Conchita Wurst, Thomas Neuwirth, became a sensation, being invited to return to Eurovision to perform. Wurst was also able to use her fame to launch a political platform, addressing the European Parliament on the subject of discrimination across Europe. She was also invited to perform at the United Nations Office in Vienna. The timing of Wurst’s victory was poignant, considering that it came in the midst of debate over Russia’s law banning the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships, a law that was interpreted as clearly targeting the LGBT population. Even after Wurst’s rise to stardom, she faced opposition from the Russian government. A parade honoring Wurst organized by Russian fans was banned by the Russian government, who argued that the parade would result in clashes between activists and their opponents. Subsequently, speaking in Saint Petersburg, President Putin claimed that while Wurst had the right to live as she pleased, her manner of portraying herself was aggressive and against traditional values.

The controversy over Russia’s anti-LGBT law and further debate over inclusive rights for LGBT populations across Europe continued to make its presence known in Eurovision’s 2015 contest. In Vienna, the city celebrated its tolerance by installing traffic lights that displayed images of gay and lesbian couples ahead of the contest. Wurst returned to Eurovision as a co-host, inciting another round of criticism from Russian politicians. When Polina Gagarina, the Russian entry, posted an Instagram photo posing with Wurst during the semifinals, she faced backlash from Vitaly Milonov, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg and anti-gay activist who argued that Gagarina had no right to speak for Russia.

The contest itself attempted to discard the anti-gay controversy, installing sound reduction technology in order to prevent booing of Gagarina’s performance. This came after Russia’s entry, the Tolmachevy Sisters, were booed during their performance in 2014. This year, Gagarina’s performance was immensely popular, securing 303 points. Despite the stunning results, hosts reminded the audience not to boo Russia, by stating that the results were about the music, as opposed to the politics. The contest continued to include symbols of acceptance, with Lithuania’s act including same-sex kisses during their performance. Although same-sex acts have been legal since 1993, the move was seen as progress towards acceptance of LGBT populations in Lithuania.

This year’s Eurovision was incredibly competitive, with Sweden, Russia, and Italy going head to head against one another. In the end, Sweden secured a victory with Måns Zelmerlöw’s performance of “Heroes.” The victory was seen as controversial among LGBT circles, however, as they had noted that Zelmerlöw was responsible for homophobic comments in the past, including an infamous appearance on a cooking show, where he deemed homosexuality abnormal. Zelmerlöw has since apologized for the comments, and demonstrated his support for the gay community through acts such as hosting events specifically for the LGBT community. In his acceptance of the Eurovision trophy, Zelmerlöw thanked his fans in an inclusive speech, stating in reference to his song that “we are all heroes, no matter who we love, who we are, or what we believe in”. Regardless, his victory stirred debate among LGBT circles.

Since its inception, Eurovision has developed into a safe-space for the European LGBT community. Europe has since seen a positive movement towards the protection of rights for sexual and gender minorities. In April, a groundbreaking law came into effect in Malta that recognized gender identity as an inherent part of a person. This provided transgender and genderqueer people with procedures that would allow them to change their gender identity on government documents. In the same month, the Council of Europe passed a resolution on transgender rights, encouraging members of the council to pass laws that would protect transgender individuals from hate crimes, provide them with adequate health care services, and allow them the opportunity to have their gender recognized by the state. Most recently, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via a public referendum, with sixty-two per cent of voters supporting the initiative. Although these can all be seen as victories for the provision of rights for sexual minorities, there are steps remaining. However, it is clear that despite Eurovision’s attempts to remain apolitical, its tolerance has allowed it to become a safe and accepting space for the LGBT community.

Photo by European Parliament