London’s Techfugees Helps Support Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees arrive on the shores of Lesvos island

No one could doubt Mike Butcher’s passion. The larger-than-life editor-at-large for TechCrunch is not a man to hide his feelings.

Some of that same passion for Europe’s start-up community is now being channeled in an altogether different, and arguably more life-changing, direction.

Refugees arriving in Europe. Technology can help them find assistance and support

Picture: Syrian Refugees by Freedom House released under Creative Commons 2.0

Butcher is the founder of, and key driver behind, Techfugees, the response by the world’s tech community to one of the worst human-created tragedies in modern times — the migration of millions of Syrians.

London-based Techfugees burst onto the scene in September 2015 with a modest Facebook page, and Butcher sending out some 20 emails to people from his capacious contacts book late on a Sunday evening.

“In the morning I had about 50 replies; the next day I had about 150 replies. The next after that was about 400,” he said. “By the end of the week, we had 1,000 members.”

The Facebook group now has over 4,000 members. Trawling through the group is to make a virtual global journey of concerned, active, volunteers. But this isn’t yet another first-world “slactivism” campaign, when you care enough to like a Facebook page, but do little more than that.

WhatsApp Crucial To Refugees

Nor is it, he is quick to assure, simply “a lot of geeks who are going to solve the refugee crisis with an app.” Which isn’t to say that that wasn’t Butcher’s first thought.

“I thought we must be able to put an app in the hands of refugees that could help them,” he said. “It turns out I was wrong.” Sitting in London, the problems look deceptively simple. Viewed from the Syrian-Lebanese border, life is several orders of magnitude more complex.

So while many refugees do have smartphones, according to Butcher, who recently returned from a UNICEF trip to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley to see for himself first hand the conditions in the “unofficial” refugee camps that have erupted across the beleaguered Middle Eastern country, refugees “use smart phones for text messaging, making calls and very importantly WhatsApp. There are thousands of WhatsApp groups which refugees were using — and still using to this day — to find out information on smugglers, people traffickers and the like. Anything to escape the disaster that is Syria. WhatsApp turns out to be the potential app store for refugees.”

It is this kind of insider knowledge that Techfugees wants to promulgate to the engaged, but undirected, global tech community.

Rather than thinking it can solve the world’s problems with code, Techfugees sees its role as a clearinghouse where global innovation meets NGOs. “NGOs are always underfunded. Their innovation department very often comprises no more than one person stuck in the basement office.

Tech Support, Not Unicorns

“Techfugees can be the bridge between the NGOs — who have the expertise and information — and the technology community who do not understand the problems intimately enough and will often go off half-cocked and think we can solve it with an app.

“As one UNICEF official said to me, ‘We don’t need unicorns, we need tech-support.’”

Butcher is seeking technologies that scale in the way that today’s companies do, and aid agencies don’t.

Five Start-Ups Helping To Solve The Refugee Crisis

MeshPoint

Open source Wi-Fi router for crisis situations. This project emerged from a need to set up reliable internet hotspots in transit camps for Syrian refugees in eastern Croatia. We enable refugees to get information and aid workers to coordinate actions. We have connected over half a million people with their friends and families in Croatia.
http://www.meshpoint.me/

HelloHub

Hello Hubs give some of the world’s poorest children a chance to learn digitally, irrespective of the availability or quality of formal schooling. Hello Hubs are solar-powered, rugged, outdoor internet kiosks, equipped with two large touch screens, cameras and audio equipment. Most importantly though, Hello Hubs are loaded with educational software.
http://projecthelloworld.org/hubs/

Action Emploi Réfugiés

We want to have established ourselves as the platform of reference for refugees seeking employment in France. We will be developing our work in other parts of the world and are currently developing partnerships in the UK, Brazil, Jordan and Italy to deliver a similar service in these countries.
https://www.facebook.com/ActionEmploiRefugies/?fref=ts

MedShr

MedShr is a professional, closed network that allows healthcare professionals to upload and share clinical case-based information. Deals with doctors.net, Health Education England and Haymarket will accelerate engagement across the 117 countries in which MedShr already has an active presence.
www.medshr.com

GetAcross

GetAcross helps refugees freely communicate across language barriers, thanks to over-the-phone volunteer interpreters. The GetAcross app quickly connects users with a remote bilingual speaker or experienced interpreter who is available to help, at no cost.
http://app.getacross.org/

“We need to come up with ideas that have that ability that technology has to scale solutions. You cannot scale chucking food and tents out of the back of a Hercules transport.”

There have been some early successes. The first Hackathon produced G-Cycle, a company that recycles smartphones to be distributed to refugees. Another company is working on health problems for female refugees. Another is plotting data about people smugglers into a geolocation service. It’s not hard-core tech, but no one had done it before.

“Perhaps you can get to the point where you have enough data to get pattern recognition about smugglers’ operations, etc. Then it might be a way of tackling the problem.”

18 Chapters Around The Globe

Techfugees is going through exactly the same pain as the start-ups that Butcher reports on in his day job. Overwhelmed by the global response to his cri de coeur, it was clear that Techfugees was going to need someone to manage it. Butcher found the ideal person.

Named as one of Forbes “30 under 30,” the French-born Joséphine Goube has taken on a lot of the day-to-day management of Techfugees as the not-for-profit’s COO.

“She really understands the space, she’s incredibly dynamic and driven and she’s got fantastic contacts,” enthused Butcher. “And since we are seeing ourselves as this bridge between the NGO world and the tech world she’s absolutely 100% ideally placed. She really understands both.”

Part of her work is co-ordinating the events and learnings from 18 “chapters” — the latest to open is in New York City — that literally span the globe. Butcher is keen that the lessons learned in one part of world could be applied to another.

“We started with something of a Hackpad, which is like an emergency Wikipedia which has lots of data. We encourage all our chapters whenever they do hackathons or are engaged with NGOs to look at that before they do the hackathon and they realize that we’ve already done this before.

But if you want to taste the almost missionary zeal with which Butcher has embraced this 21st century scourge, ask him about his trip to the refugee camps of the Beqaa Valley. His demeanor changes. No longer the world-weary journalist, he becomes a passionate spokesperson for the deprived.

“These camps are smelly, and dirty. People do their best to try and keep things clean, but if it rains it gets completely muddy underfoot, there is no proper sanitation, they are desperate places,” he said.

‘They Have The Same Dreams’

“But you have to remember that these people are humans exactly like you and me. They may speak a different language, they may have a different culture, they may dress differently, but they are exactly the same as us. They have the same dreams. Their kids have the same dreams. They want to go to school. Parents want their kids to go to school. The parents want to support their families.

“There was this one charity working with children in the camp. The children were given a digital camera and once a week these kids get together and print out their pictures and they stick it up on the board. That is their newspaper. They are getting to tell the story of their lives, and they are using technology to do that. It is transformational to these children.
“Let’s get their work online. Let’s get their story out there.

“The thing about being a refugee is that you really are at the absolute end of the human experience. You have lost literally everything — you’ve even lost your own country. It is the absolute extremity of human experience.

“This is the 21st century. We, the tech community, have to bring our skills to this. We cannot allow this to go on.”

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