Written by Antoine Delaunay

A blockchain for clothes distribution, Truckshop; crowdsourcing higher education access policy, Hear Alliance; measuring community happiness in refugee resettlement program, Refugees Say. We hear from three grassroots refugee projects who are pushing to use more connected-tech which they all agree accelerates impact towards normalizing the lives of displaced peoples plus can also inject community cohesion the wider communities.

Truckshop, Hear Alliance and Refugees Say were in attendance to pitch and make call-outs for tech development support at the annual Techfugee Summit in Paris. Happening in the tech-centered converted railway station, Station F, also home to the French government’s start-up incubator FrenchTech, it’s a place where ideas get germinated.

Two other projects we’ve been following the progress of at MakeSense are Habibi.Works, a 3D maker come social space, and NaTakallam which matches skilled conversation partners with learners globally who want to improve their Arabic. Each give us their take on how their grassroots initiative implements tech as a source of refugee empowerment.

It’s important to add that these mainly volunteer-run refugee aid projects have matured through being committed to their fields, and that turning to connected-tech solutions to accelerate impact for refugee empowerment isn’t a candy-coated trend-setting next step or wow solution, but as Niki Manoledaki from Truckshop puts it ‘there’s a real need adapt existing tech solutions to the situation on the ground’.


MakeSense asked Niki, Yahya and Angus about how this so-called ‘tech imperative’ can effectively playout:

Niki (co-COO) / Truckshop

“for a dignified and fair distribution, and to offer those in need the ‘right’ freedom of choice”

“There’s different layers relates to the tech imperative. Starting from the warehouse with management of stock; with processing donations, so how we input the stock; and then moving the stock to the backroom of the shop we have to be able to count the stock quantities.

Then there’s more imperatives in terms of item choices, it would be really important to monitor the quantity of stock that comes out. And at this point in time we don’t really keep count as well as we should. So, there’s also things to say for the the client end, the client experience, where there should be an App with an interface allowing people to see how many point – the credit – they have to exchange for choosing the items from the shop.”

How is tech helping the solution for engaging refugees right now?
Tech is doing a… there are starts… for example the Drop App is a great start in warehouse management, which has only gotten so far, like it’s being deployed really late in the game. You know, like it’s Winter 2017 soon, and two winters have already passed. It’s nothing new that winter comes around. And it’s also nothing new again that we’re not prepared for possible this winter.

So tech, with regards to distribution, is getting somewhere and with Truck Shop were trying to raise awareness about the effort but also lack of effort towards adapting solutions to grassroots that are managing a lot of the distribution and a lot of the weight has come down on us, that were just not able, because of the lack of financial resources, to manage coming up with tech solutions that will work for us.

When you have to operate day-to-day stuff, like we have excel sheets to keep us going, but not the time to come out of that and mobilise a team of developers and consult with them to pilot something new. So we’re at the transition point where we’ve come out of the day-to-day operations and we’re beginning to ask for what’s for the people who will go through the distribution in the months to come.

Yahya (researcher) / Hear Alliance

“to push for a different application process or a different administrative entity to deal with”

“I am trying to focus on how technology can facilitate the process of higher education or accessing higher education; or how can technology provides refugees with enough skills to prepare them for the job market. And there are some interesting creative ideas, very inspiring ideas like, a boot camp training programs which are online and blended learning. This is a route of research and investigate more.

One of the problems I focus on in my research is the case where students started their studying in Syria for example and you finish to three years at the University then they had to flee because of the conflict and the direct danger to their lives.

Many leaving without papers or they left without being able to prove that they have these three years so they are going back to ground zero, and considered to be like high school students; and that’s completely unfair. Even the students in some cases who managed to bring their documents with them proving that did three years in say, IT, they are being asked to restart their education as first year.

Imagine someone who is already 23 or 24 years old and has to go back to study with 18 or 19 year old. That’s not a big deal, but this person has already five years of their lives; they are way behind.

But the main thing I’m doing is to push for a different application process or a different administrative entity to deal with, not only refugees heading back into the education system, but also with disadvantaged students.”

Angus (volunteer) / Refugees Say

“effectively matching skills and shortage so that refugees thrive but also the communities themselves are enhanced”

“Well we know that where the refugee lives after they’ve been resettled has a huge impact on their happiness, their health and impacts then on the contribution they make to the local economy. So we believe it’s really important to get that initial part right first off.

Using the tech, we build a database for each country in which we’re working in, then simply ask refugees what’s important to them. Including what religion they are, and which places of worship they need, and kids need good schools, and maybe they prefer to live in a bustling city or a more discreet countryside. Do they hope to continue their education or start a degree, and maybe learn a language. All these aspects.

Then we apply a matching algorithm to that, matching them to a local community that suits their particular preferences and needs. It does work both ways and we’ve built in the capability to say for example this is the manual health provision we can provide, this is our skills gap we need filling.

And through that we’re hopeful we can start engaging with more discourse about refugee issues. That in communities we’ve got a shortage of teachers, so refugee teachers could be resettled there. Also doctors. Effectively matching skills and shortage so that refugees thrive but also the communities themselves are enhanced.”

And now shifting attention away from connected-tech for accelerated impact, towards tech for immediate empowerment. Here’s a word from Habibi.Works, a 3D maker space for refugees; and NaTallakum, an Arabic language learning conversation platform.

Reza (co-founder) / NaTallakam

“there’s a human connection based on skills and needs”

What’s the best approach to welcoming refugees?
Start a conversation. It doesn’t need that much effort. And it goes a long way, a conversation, without really knowing it. A lot of refugees have lost access to friends and family, and a basic conversation can help. It’s not going to change the world but it is engaging and a creates a connection and it’s a start.

What do companies addressing the refugee issue have to keep in mind?
Not to consider them as refugees. I mean, they’re in a situation, which anyone could be in. It doesn’t define your life, it doesn’t define the rest of your existence. Working gives some semblance of normality. But at the end of the day, they’re with us because they have a skill, and human capital that others don’t have. They’re the agency and educator. For us in terms of the refugee and the learner there’s a human connection based on skills and needs and that’s it.

Saad (volunteer) / Habibi.Works

“to see what their ideas are and they just bring them to life”

Which ways would you say is best to connect with refugees in their daily life?
It’s as if you’re asking me how do you engage anyone; I mean it’s just you you take the courage to ask someone out for a drink or just to talk. I mean, that’s one of the amazing things in Habibi.Works in that you see people every day who come there just to interact, and they they’re coming out their isolation. And if you manage to do that for one person or two people, then it’s just amazing in itself. Just reach out.

If you’d tell a colleague or family member connecting with refugees. What would you tell them?
I think the most important value, at least personally working on an eye-to-eye level with people. We are not trying to impose anything on that people who are coming to us. We’re trying to work with them to see what their ideas are and they just bring them to life. So of course technology is a huge help in that because it can open up so much opportunity for them.


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Paul Wright


About the interviewer – Paul’s an English guy working as a journalist in Paris and runs the award winning radio show called bienurban and is part of the global network SpottedbyLocals.