For a while, it seemed that the Syrians were running out of options. For the fourth year in a row since 2012, the UN reported a steep shortage of funding, with only 23 percent of their funding appeals for 2016 being met.
In response to this escalating crisis, an emerging set of global initiatives are keen to use technology to come up with more effective solutions to improve the living conditions of refugees, such as Refugees Welcome which matches refugees living in makeshift camps in Germany and Austria with housemates willing to accommodate them.
Another initiative includes an app launched in Germany that helps refugees find their way in the city of Dresden. A similar app, 8rbetna, was launched by a Syrian refugee in Turkey to help exiled Syrians adjust to life there. It has been downloaded more than 10,000 times so far and offers a wide range of services including how to find housing, medical services, food, and schooling.
The UN is eager to use tech too
“Forget the stereotype of the aid worker with the clipboard,” Computer Weekly wrote. “The Syrian aid effort is digital – registration with biometric verification, smartcard-based aid, smart device data collection.”
Technology is replacing traditional communications and feedback mechanisms such as posters and leaflets, Matthew Saltmarsh, senior communication officer at UNHCR, told Wamda.
“In today’s world of massive forcible displacements, to receive timely and accurate information about services available while in exile is a question of survival,” he said, adding that the UNHCR has invested in several communication programs for refugees, including “an information exchange programme via phone hot lines, although SMS remains the most widely used tool, with 270,000 families recorded by the Agency currently receiving notifications.”
Other programs include the use of Whatsapp and Google Drive, such as Marhacar, a volunteer-based initiative started in Greece to coordinate the pick up and delivery of supplies in camps. "[Marhacar] is basically using the model of Deliveroo to help the delivery of supply through a network of volunteers [called] 'dispatchers'," Josephine Goube, former director of partnerships at Migreat and COO of Techfugees, one of the largest tech social enterprises in Europe that aims to figure out solutions for refugees, told Wamda. The dispatchers, who are in touch with camp staff managers, would collect info of what supplies are needed and relay it to warehouses and truck drivers as fast and hassle-free as possible.
Recently, all three of UNICEF, UNHCR and UNOCHA were part of the Innovating Response hackathon which was held in Beirut last May. Participants of the event were asked to come up with different solutions for the challenges faced by the UN when delivering aid to the refugee, such as real-time monitoring of living conditions, developing platforms to document their civil records, or tracking their mobile numbers.
The first prize went to Kwik response, a startup that wants to see every settlement of each camp fitted with a board of sensors linked to a mobile app that detect fires, floods and freezing temperatures, and reports back to the NGO responsible.
In a similar vein Community Jameel and Wamda are hosting an MIT Media Lab Dubai workshop at the end of August. More than 30 designers will be looking at urban planning, design, architecture, mobility, and agriculture as they pertain to the Middle East’s cities of the future.
Arab hardware innovators step in
A number of Arab innovators have also started venturing into hardware to improve the living conditions of vulnerable communities, such as Jordanian-Canadian architect Abeer Seikaly who invented a tent that harnesses solar energy in its fabric to provide ventilation and a hot shower. Solar energy striking the tent can also be collected and stored in a battery.
None of these initiatives seem more bent on using hardware - particularly 3D printing - for humanitarian causes than Jordan's Refugee Open Ware (ROW) and 3D MENA, who are designing 3D printed prosthetics and other medical tools that cost much less than the regularly designed ones. They are also bent on teaching this technology to refugees and other beneficiaries, enabling them to help themselves.
“3D printing should be used to solve all kinds of basic needs in the refugees’ daily lives, while at the same time promoting innovation,” Loay Malahmeh, a cofounder of 3D MENA and a partner at ROW, told Wamda last year.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that Syrian students in Damascus have realized the accessibility of this technology and designed a functional prosthetic arm for a student exhibition at Tishreen University.
Syrian youth take matters into their own hands
There are many examples emerging of Syrian youth turning to entrepreneurship to make ends meet and to help fellow students and youths gain employable skills that make them relevant to the market again.
“Our vision in Remmaz is to make cutting-edge technologies available to Syria through our courses,” Leen Darwish told Wamda. Launched in November 2015 to quick success, having amassed 500 learners in the first month, Remmaz has 5,000 students registered in HTML and CSS development courses.
Other startups focus on building physical coworking spaces that foster education of all kinds, such as Share For Development which relies on ‘timebanking’ (the exchange of tutoring hours between its members) to foster exchange skills among youth using hour-credits instead of cash.
The platform has a monthly $2 subscription fee, equivalent now to 1,000 Syrian pounds, in exchange granting them the use of space and equipment (computers, drawing boards and books). It was launched in April 2015, and according to cofounder Bushra Mrawed has more than 300 members subscribed.
One important aspect of rebuilding their Syria is to rebuild connecting platforms that act as catalysts for the tech ecosystem, such as Syrian incubators AfkarPlus in the town of Hama, and ICT incubator in Damascus. Together they helped incubate more than 10 startups, including Remmaz at ICT.
“It’s crucial to have connecting platforms that connect aspiring entrepreneurs to mentors and give them services,” AfkarPlus founder Samer Al Aswad told Wamda. “We are rebuilding a new generation.”