Techfugees, a global initiative seeking tech solutions to the pressing refugee crisis, is rapidly making waves worldwide. But what's happening in the Middle Eastern entrepreneurial scene? Valentina Primo meets the Egyptian startups innovating their way to help the cause.
Despite humanitarian calls, border control measures are being tightened across European states and legal protection paths for refugees are becoming narrower. Mobilised by their plight, a group of tech industry pioneers have teamed up to create Techfugees, a call to arms to the technology sector to join efforts in addressing a crisis that is seeing millions of people abandon their homes in search of a future far from war.
In just the first six weeks of the year, 80,000 refugees arrived in Europe through perilous journeys crossing the Mediterranean, in spite of the harsh winter and rough seas. Half of Syria’s population, around 4.6 million people, have left the country since civil war broke out in 2011, according to UN OCHA; nearly one million of them headed towards European states.
“This is the greatest refugee crisis since World War II,” said Mike Butcher, Editor-at-Large at TechCrunch, and one of the tech leaders spearheading the initiative. “When NGOs are stymied because innovation can be relatively slow and governments are slow to react, technology is the only thing that can scale.”
Since its launch in October 2015, over 2,000 industry trailblazers have joined Techfugees, from entrepreneurs to social advocates, mobilised by humanitarian concerns and a vigorous drive to innovate. Milestones include a crowdfunding campaign, a survey for project submissions, and a series of conferences and hackathons to explore solutions – from a coding school for refugees in Amsterdam, to incubators for immigrants, to a German-based “hoax map,” and Berlin’s first free online university exclusively for refugees.
Sitting at the #TechfugeesLIVE online event that streamed on February 3rd from London, UK, was Mostafa Amin, Co-Founder of the Egyptian platform Refugee Streets, a news site that aims to share the stories of refugees as told by them. “Many people are creating tech initiatives, but it is very hard for an entrepreneur from San Francisco to work on issues that affect refugees located in Munich, for example. In the Middle East, we have limited coverage of refugee issues as well. Before addressing it, people need to understand their needs,” he tells me.
The initiative is an offshoot of its sister platform Egyptian Streets, founded in 2013 by Mohamed Khairat, a young Egyptian entrepreneur who saw that mainstream media was failing to portray the social reality underlying Egypt’s stark political transformation. What initially started as a blog, fuelled by a passionate sense of responsibility to share information in Egypt’s post-revolutionary landscape, rapidly became one of the leading volunteer-based media outlets in Egypt, currently racking up 600,000 to one million readers per month.
“There were times, especially during the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, where I would only sleep from two to three hours a day; I felt it was my responsibility to the people. However, it is not my website; I see it as a people’s platform,” says the 23-year-old journalist, who manages content and an editorial team of 50 from his office in Melbourne, Australia.
Together with co-founders Mostafa Amin and Asem Iman, Khairat launched Refugee Streets as an attempt to give a voice to those who have none. Aside from on-the-ground reporting, the platform sets out to publish a 'refugees guide' created through partnerships with governments and locally-based NGOs for people seeking asylum to access information on the countries they are located in. "Whether people actually change the way they think about refugees or not is difficult to assess, but even if one single refugee is impacted, it can really result in priceless outcomes," he says.
Like Khairat, several Egyptian entrepreneurs are shifting their focus towards the refugee crisis, capitalising on the cultural vicinity and language proximity of Arab refugees fleeing countries like Syria, Iraq, or Yemen. “Refugees are separated from education for at least one year, since they move from their home country until they settle down, adapt to a new system, and enroll in school. So we thought that, since we have the know-how and the tools, online education would help refugees spread all over the world,” says Mostafa Farahat, Co-Founder of Nafham.
Born to address an increasing gap between Egyptian schoolers and the capacity of national facilities, the social startup produces crowdsourced educational videos that fully cover the national curriculum, from first to twelfth grade. With 500,000 visitors accessing the site every month, the platform has gathered a total of 23,000 YouTube videos, where subjects are broken down into 15-minute lessons. “Most refugees have smartphones, which they could perfectly use to watch Nafham videos,” says his partner, Mohamed Habib.
Together with co-founder Ahmed Alfi, Farahat and Habib incorporated the Syrian curriculum, followed by content for students in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Algeria. “The first one we included was the Syrian curriculum. We asked a friend living there and got the books shipped to Egypt,” Habib explains. “We created the structure and included some stuff that overlapped with the Egyptian national curriculum, then filled the gaps with new videos.”
Having managed to cover 30 per cent of the Syrian curriculum, the team partnered with Cairo-based Syrian network Khatwa last year in order to train their members on how to create educational videos for Syrian students and add content to their platform. “Feedback has been incredible,” says Farahat. “We got a message from a Syrian mother living in Egypt who is using it to learn, herself, and we’ve heard that even students based in Syria are using the videos,” Habib says.
Having kick-started with an incubation programme and a $10,000 seed fund by Egypt-based accelerator Flat6Labs, the startup is exploring revenue streams, engaging publishers and students to create premium content and personalise student consultations. This year, Farahat was also selected for an Ashoka fellowship and engaged in talks with German universities that are contemplating replication of the Nafham model to help refugees better integrate into their host communities. In a context where media bias, misrepresentation, and xenophobia often undermine the potential of refugees to be active members of their host societies, bridging the gap becomes a challenge.
“Media portray refugees and migrants as a burden for the economy and security instead of seeing them as an opportunity. But the talent of migrants can be an incredible asset for the development of a country,” says social entrepreneur Salem Massalha. His startup, Bassita, has created the “clickfunding” model, a strategy that partners with corporations to render fundraising initiatives a sustainable activity.
Bassita’s campaigns often partner with private sponsors, who commit to donate to a cause once a number of views on a certain video – created for the cause – is reached, thus guaranteeing corporate publicity and social impact with every video view. Last January, the social startup partnered with the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to create the campaign 'Ta'arafo - It's a Match!, in an effort to shift perceptions on migrants and increase social cohesion with host communities.
The initiative is deeply embedded in the Egyptian social fabric, where many refugees are not legally recognised as such due to public bureaucracy and complex registration procedures, but assume the status of migrants instead. UNHCR estimates that there are 117,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, but due to the difficulty of registration, unofficial numbers indicate the community surpasses half a million.
The campaign provided 1,000 shopping coupons, worth 40 LE each, to 1,000 people, half of them migrants and the other half Egyptians. However, before they can cash in their coupons, each participant would need to meet its counterpart - the holder of the other half of the coupon – get to know them and take a selfie together. “This was a prototype on a small scale to test how it will work, but we are in the process of replicating it at an international level through OIM Europe in the jungle of Calais,” Massalha says.
The impact of the campaign was not measured in terms of the 40,000 LE injected into the local economy through the vouchers, but instead in the 100,000 interactions the campaign triggered, geared towards raising awareness and defying prejudices against migrants. "We want to shift social perceptions. If you Google images of migrants today, you will only find photos of sinking boats. Migrants carry a lot of prejudice, but they are people like us. So we decided to put an Egyptian and a Syrian girl together to prove that you cannot see the difference,” Massalha says.
Ahmed Najeeb, @MO4network #MO4productions
Techfugees photo by Toby Stone