By Demetrios Pogkas
In the wake of refugee crisis, a movement of building tech solutions for refugees emerged in Europe. While many refugees still need the basics, such as shelter and food, should we focus on technology to provide the needed solutions?
“There is a difference in saying what needs we should focus on,” says Joanna Theodorou, founder and partnerships coordinator at Campfire Innovation, a startup that consults grassroots teams to transition into smart aid organisations. “Education, health, housing, transportation: all of these are needs, and technology can respond to each one of them. It is a huge power that cannot be understated,” she adds.
As Theodorou explains, smart aid is a humanitarian aid approach that uses innovative tools – design thinking and lean startup methodologies, – to make volunteer teams or NGOs more sustainable, scalable and effective in improving refugees’ lives. With her team she now works with 10 grassroots teams and small NGOs with the potential to innovate humanitarian aid.
According to Theodorou, technology is an optional part of the solutions organizations are building for helping refugees and migrants. She uses the term ‘low-tech’ to distinguish the types of technologies used in the fields of humanitarian aid and integration.
In contrast with ‘higher’-tech (algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, or heavy R&D), low-tech refers to simpler web or mobile products that don’t ask for much expertise to build or to use; web pages, apps, social media, basic digital platforms.
Compared with the actual work on the field, “tech solutions work a bit more easily in settings that have to do with integration,” argues Theodorou, since “the models used for integration are much closer to social entrepreneurship and they can be replicated.” Solutions that have been put to the test before for integrating other under-represented groups (for example an app that matches employees with people with disabilities) can be repeated to include refugees and migrants.
One case of a social startup using low-tech for integration is Solomon, a non-profit based in Athens that publishes a bilingual online magazine. Solomon’s team is a mixture of locals, migrants and refugees.
“We work on social integration using media as a tool,” says Fanis Kollias, founding editor at Solomon, who has worked in media before.
“Media have the ‘magic power’ to shape society and mindsets,” he argues. Solomon attempts to expose readers to migrants and refugees writing about familiar topics, gradually making locals to relate more to foreigners and to change their views of them. “Everything is a matter of habit, and media can establish this long-lasting habit.”
Solomon was established in January 2016 by a diverse team of people from Greece, Afghanistan, Russia, and Belarus. Solomon’s team of writers includes people from Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. They all have been residing in Greece for several years. “Our writing team deliberately consists of migrants and refugees because, driving from their experiences in Greece, they know better than anyone what other refugees and migrants need for being integrated,” explains Kollias.
Solomon covers a variety of topics from migrant issues and economy to food and culture. “If we had set up an outlet of migrants writing about migrant issues only, we would have labeled those people and marginalised them,” Kollias says. “Now, we showcase that they are people with interests like ours, able to write about different topics.”
Nadir Noori, one of Solomon’s founders, comes from Afghanistan; he fled his country at the age of 8 as an unaccompanied child and has been living in Greece since 17. Attending high-school to improve his already advanced Greek, Noori works as a translator with local migrant and refugee agencies. “Integration is to give migrants and refugees a role in society, and we can give that role through journalism,” Noori says.
Anna Moronova arrived in Greece 10 years ago to study journalism in a Greek university. She was planning to return to Russia after graduating, but stayed after getting jobs in Russian-speaking newspapers. Being familiar with social economy through jobs with NGOs, she was invited to join Solomon as a founder and writer.
“Foreign-language media organize their audience around their mother languages,” Moronova says, pointing out the barrier language can create for integration. “With Solomon, publishing in Greek and English, it’s the opposite; for example, Afghans can read articles written by Russians,” she explains.
Solomon uses a content management system (CMS) and social media to publish and distribute its content instead of a more expensive and less reachable print version. “You cannot stay clear of technology either way. If you want to build a long-lasting solution, you will need to incorporate technology,” Kollias says.
“There are different levels of needs,” adds Moronova, “Without basics covered, people won’t start looking for a website for migrants.” However, as she points out, communication is just as important on a secondary level. “Satisfying basic needs doesn’t contribute to integration, but enabling people to communicate and share information does,” she concludes.
After all, people’s needs are not binary, as Noori emphasizes; a migrant or a refugee needs more than just basics. In the digital era, tech aspires to arise as one of the most efficient means for serving those needs.