Meet the women using tech to transform the lives of refugees
When the number of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe reached staggering new levels two years ago, Berlin-based Anne Kjær Riechert felt an overwhelming urge to help.
“My great grandfather and grandfather escaped from Germany in 1933 and were political refugees in Denmark, because of their pacifist views,” says the Dane, who in 2012 founded the Berlin Peace Innovation Lab, which works towards using technology to create global peace.
This sense of personal responsibility led her to co-found coding training programme Refugees on Rails before setting up the ReDI School of Digital Integration in 2015, a non-profit digital school for those applying for asylum in Germany.
“The purpose is to accelerate the refugees’ integration into German society and industry,” she says. “We are trying to create a win-win-win situation. Good for refugees, good for business, good for society.” She says the school focuses on solving Germany’s well-documented tech talent shortage.
“There are currently 51,000 available jobs in the IT industry in Germany and at the same time refugees need to get jobs.” More than 300 students have taken courses at the school. “We have achieved a tremendous impact so far,” says Kjær Riechert. “The last survey we conducted showed that almost 40% of our students were placed in paid internships or jobs.”
Since the school was set up, 20% of students have gone to university and 10% have founded one of five ReDI-incubated companies. As for the future, Kjær Riechert has lofty ambitions.
“We will continue to scale our courses in Berlin this year and in the next two years we aim to build new branches in three other German cities – Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart. By 2020, we aspire to impart IT skills to over 3,000 refugees.” It doesn’t stop there – she plans to look further afield and build a pan-European network of tech schools for refugees.
An app for aid
It was a personal tragedy that compelled Shelley Taylor to launch Refugee Aid App (RefAid). The location-based platform provides migrants, refugees and aid workers with information on nearby food, shelter, education and work, through her company Trellyz – a resource management and collaboration tool for NGOs, non-profits and local governments.
“I had no background in working with refugees at all,” says Taylor. “I just felt the pain of losing a child, my only child, a few years ago, so when I saw little Aylan [the three-year-old Syrian boy who made headlines worldwide after he was pictured washed ashore in Turkey] photographed on the beach I just knew I had to do something to help these desperate people.”
Taylor and her team created the app after speaking with many of the major refugee aid organisations, including the British Red Cross and the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. Built over a weekend, it launched in the UK and Greece in February in 2016. Since then it has been rolled out to an additional 12 countries, including the US.
“There are thousands of refugees using the app and there are probably equal numbers of aid workers and volunteers using it to help signpost people to services,” she says. Taylor has invested her own money into the venture, but she says in the future the app will require external funding as she looks to expand and help more refugees across the world.
A global movement
When TechCrunch editor-at-large Mike Butcher kickstarted Techfugees, a social enterprise designed to gather the global tech community together to help empower refugees, Joséphine Goube jumped on board.
Six months later, in April 2016, Butcher appointed the former head of strategic partnerships at Migreat, an online platform guiding people through the immigration process, into a paid chief operating officer role.
“I completely love what I do,” says 28-year-old Goube, who has since become chief executive. “I have a real vision for what I’m doing. Some of my team are refugees and they show me every day that everything is possible.”
Techfugees is only 18 months old but it has hosted more than 50 global events from conferences to hackathons, leading to active projects such as GeeCycle.org, where people can donate their mobile phones to a refugee.
One of the most critical parts of Techfugees is its hackathons. “This is where we bring engineers together for two days and give them challenges faced by refugees and ask them to fix them,” explains Goube. “They’re given APIs and mentors from the tech sector and asked to solve the problem. Half of participants are refugees themselves as we want to involve them in the building of technology. We educate them about privacy and data, and legal frameworks too. For 50 hours they work together on building a prototype before pitching it to judges.”
Goube says 70% of the winners of these events are still running their projects. “There’s been a web-based platform for refugees that helps them find essential information such as where to sleep and where to find legal help. It’s about creating something for the needs of refugees,” she says.
“With what’s happening in the world, it’s good to be on the right side of history.”