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The Tech Evangelists Trying to Solve the Refugee Crisis

An international movement called Techfugees aims to get the tech industry involved in aiding the nearly 60 million displaced individuals around the globe.
One of the groups at the Techfugees New York meetup, brainstorming. Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

On Tuesday, inside an imposing heritage building on Fifth Avenue, with brass elevators that shone like gold and a tin ceiling embellished with giant rosebuds, a group of 200 tech insiders gathered to solve the refugee crisis.

Well, maybe not solve it, exactly, but they definitely want to help. The meetup was a local iteration of an international movement called Techfugees: a kind of call to arms to get the tech industry involved in aiding the nearly 60 million displaced individuals around the globe. At first blush, the pairing seems unusual. The tech world—so often associated with the bro culture bubble of Silicon Valley, venture capitalism, and nap pods—seems foreign from the work of humanitarian groups on the ground in places like Turkey, where 2.5 million Syrian refugees have fled in recent months. And it may make some people skeptical: refugees probably don't need another app, so are these meetups helpful or just a slightly more organized form of slacktivism, with a buffet? The organizers were far more optimistic:


"I really believe in the capacity for technology to bring people together and as a viable solution for people to get employment in the future," said Ali Clare, a former humanitarian lawyer turned startup founder.

Clare should know. She's already helping refugees through a tech startup she founded called Iraq Re:Coded, which connects young Iraqis and Syrian refugees living in Iraq with technical training and helps them land freelance tech gigs. Clare told me she has been overwhelmed by how willing the tech community is to support work like Re:Coded.

"Private sector tech companies and startups in New York have contributed so much already," Clare said. "Companies like Microsoft and freelancing platforms like Guru are involved. Coding bootcamps here are giving opportunities to refugees pro bono. There are so many opportunities for tech companies to get involved."

On Tuesday, the participants—everyone from coders to marketing experts—split into groups, brainstorming concepts to solve minute problems that face refugees, such as connecting to people who speak your language when landing in a foreign country. They scribbled on brightly colored Post-It notes, created "user profiles" of the individual they envisioned using their product, and munched on a catered spread of Nutella crepes and ham sandwiches.

In the afternoon, they presented some of the ideas, from a series of short videos for teachers on how to be inclusive of refugee students to an international identification card that would include medical and education histories. The ideas were somewhat loose and underwhelming, but organizer Brian Reich told me the individual ideas weren't actually the point.


"By design, we wanted to avoid trying to solve problems facing refugees on the ground from a gathering in New York," Reich, who is the director of the Hive, a US-based project under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees designed to encourage Americans to get involved in the refugee crisis.

"Scale is something that technology can support very, very well."

Instead, Reich said the purpose of the event was to connect people who could start to find ways to bring the strengths of America's tech community to the humanitarian stage. Those individual ideas the groups cooked up were exercises to test out ways that the tech community can do what it does best: propagate products.

"This is a massive, massive challenge. There are 60 million people who have been displaced, 42,500 every day," Reich said. "Scale is something that technology can support very, very well. When proven solutions are identified, the question is how do we go from helping a few, or a few hundred, or a few thousand, to the millions who are displaced. Technology is really the only answer to achieving that kind of scale."

During an open floor discussion, many attendees were quick to point out that, though forced into extreme circumstances, refugees are still just people. They're potential employees, potential consumers, and in that regard even the most cynical among us can see why tech companies might want to get involved in helping this group.

Towards the end of the day, the organizers pointed participants to a website they had set up called Connectfugees where all the ideas would be compiled and those interested in taking next steps could connect. One or two of the projects might come to fruition, or they might just be a jumping off point for connecting people who want to help in other ways, Reich said.

In the end, the concept still felt a little amorphous. It was tough to get anyone to string together two sentences that didn't include vague buzz phrases like "making connections," or "ideating," but their hearts seem to be in the right place. And in this sense, you can start to sympathize a bit. It's easy to scoff and say that refugees don't need yet another app, and of course the refugee crisis is a humanitarian problem and a political problem and an immigration problem. But that doesn't mean that it can't benefit from contributions from other sectors. We're quick to praise an artist like Banksy for his contribution to the effort, why are we so quick to write off the contributions of the tech sector?

"It is not necessarily a technology challenge to solve the problem in terms of designing a solution," Reich said. "But it is a technology challenge to scale it."