2017: Year in Review, and Looking Ahead

Behind every step we take as an organisation lies a lot of strategy, networking, and old-fashioned hard work. We caught up with our CEO, Joséphine Goube, to hear in her own words what she’s been up to over the last fortnight.

Even as we begin to wrap up 2017, maintaining momentum on the issue of refugee inclusion has never been more important. No resting on laurels here, instead my late December as Techfugees CEO has been spent in between Paris and London meeting  with innovators, building new bridges and making the voice of the Techfugees community heard by policy-makers.

Design for Peace Summit in London

My visit to the World Humanitarian Design Summit at Central St Martins in London produced some eye-opening insights.

Standout moments came from the first speaker, Andy Kyriakides of International Alert, who organized Hack the Camp, a hackathon in Athens with refugees, and with whom Techfugees Greece partnered last year.

Andy spoke about the real value of hackathons in educating a generation of techies on social issues. Hackathons are not about churning out hype-based solutions to force some media buzz onto the problem. The tangible value of the social impact hackathons comes from building relationships and sharing knowledge. It is far from uncommon, to see people return and win using coding expertise they began to nurture at their first events.

For example, the second Techfugees Paris Hackathon saw a team of 7 people with refugee statuses win. The talented bunch had already come to our first hackathon before, and since then, had taken enough hours of coding to be able to code their own web-platform over the hack weekend.

Similarly, the second speaker of the summit, Charlie Frazer from TERN, a social enterprise who incubates refugee entrepreneurs in the UK, told us on the night that it was at the first techfugees London hackathon that they met and decided to build TERN. They have now incubated 24 refugee entrepreneurs in the UK and are looking to recruit for a new batch for the first semester of 2017.

This is what we see happening over and over again at our hack events and I am thankful for Andy to have spoken about stressing the point. At hackathons, attendees meet, form partnerships, and come back to subsequent events with skills they’ve spent time developing in tandem. It’s incredibly rewarding, and this is why Techfugees is committed to continue organise hackathons in 2018.

My own input at the summit focused on the importance of involving refugees themselves in every stage of the development cycle. End users play big roles in commercial tech development, shaping UX, design, functionality, and ultimately becoming powerful advocates for a product. This common sense needs to be applied systematically and as widely as possible to tech-based solutions that aim to cater for refugees.

Yet, perhaps one needs to warn to the stigma that comes from the ‘refugee’ label itself. In reality, the “refugee” does not exist. It is not an identity one wants to hold for life. Instead, let’s more careful approach the topic by the “refugee journey” that the  refugees” undergo, a process with common patterns, a life-changing experience certainly, but not a cornerstone of identity. It’s reductive to slap that label on a human being, and it invites a mindset which too readily ignores the enormous potential these people have to pitch in and improve their situation. Let’s be careful not to use the words that put people in boxes, and yet again, let’s not ignore that some people are perceived and end identifying themselves as refugees. Isn’t what’s written on their papers? Isn’t what people call them? We know how, too often, perceptions create realities, let’s fight this even more in 2018 by using the concept of refugee journey, people with refugee statuses and perhaps stressing the idea of people being “former” refugees, instead of refugees as an identity for life. Just speaking out loud here.

On the shoulders of social media giants

Another exciting development which cropped up late this year is our budding collaboration with Facebook. For such a huge corporate entity, Facebook are interesting in that they revisit and alter their mission statement in reaction to external pressures this year.

Recently, they’ve come under fire for, apparently, contributing to a host of societal ills. From mental health issues to loneliness and the rise of political echo chambers, it’s understandable that they’re keen to refocus the narrative to recover lost traffic and engagement.

Their attention is now turning to the community side of the platform. Facebook groups are now far more active than pages and even personal profiles, so their strategy has shifted towards pouring resources into a community administration. That’s where we come in.

Techfugees started out as a Facebook group aimed at building bridges between refugees and those trying to help them. Within 24 hours we’d reached over 1,000 members. The next day that number had more than doubled, so you could say we know a thing or two about the topic.

It’s great to see Facebook taking positive steps like this, and I was happy to share our history of going from group to community to fully-fledged social enterprise at their first community admin meeting in London last week, and for my fellow techfugees ambassador to do the same in paris this week. The meeting enabled us, other techfugees group administrators, to discuss what we’d like to see introduced to help care after our group members. More powerful functionality like a facebook dashboard for administrators, including detailed analytics, would help organisers understand and engage with the community more efficiently for example.

A big bridge needs to be built between online and offline community activity, and that means investing in online engagement is critical, even for a strictly digital platform. Facebook has understood that, and I look forward to 2018 to see how this unfolds and how we can collaborate further.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Finally, I was honored to mark International Migrant’s Day at the Assemblée Nationale, France’s Parliament. With an upcoming report due in February from Aurélien Taché on a reformed integration process for newcomers, it was a solid opportunity to draw attention to the administrative hassle refugees have to go through, and to the work organisations like Singa, Emmaus Solidarité, MoreInCommon and Wintegreat are doing, as well as the potential for technology to help forge communities based on more than soil, nationality and upbringing.

Right now, the refugee crisis in particular, and immigration in general, is couched in terms of national security and anti-terrorism. This is in stark contrast to the wealth of economic and social opportunities which come from such an influx of new talent and manpower.

Leadership on that front needs to come from the highest levels. That might be Parliament voting to set an example, or the President acting in a symbolic capacity to speak for his people. Either way, more needs to be done to reframe the discussion.

With refugees under constant pressure to prove they’re not a threat, and a populace being given no political vision for the next ten years at a time when precarious employment is a huge social issue, we risk creating a perfect storm of fear and exploitation.

We’ll have to see what the government report on integration contains, but I’m optimistic as the conversation is moving from short term thinking to the need to deal with the refugee situation and the migration flow in a sustainable way as well as move from a “first needs” approach to an integration approach.

That being said, we need those discussions to come out of the Parliament and be discussed and happening in every city and small town. No progress can come from creating our own bubbles of progressives and hacktivists pro-refugee integration, we need a national dialogue confronting views, and most probably fears.  

Bracing for the year ahead

2018 promises to be an exciting year. We’ve moved from viewing refugees as a topic of emergency and alarm, to one of inclusion and a wider society issue. Now, more than ever, we need to take the time to regroup and nurture the seeds which will become the next 12 months.

Techfugees Global Summit, our 15 local events and hackathons worldwide have planted new seeds, that we look to nurture in 2018 by more support to enable partnerships for deployment of technologies, more tech support to innovators from tech giants and a Second global summit to show how we have grown from 2,000 people on a techfugees group to a global physical and diverse community.

Technology needs to remain centred around people, community, and communication. Focus needs to move from unsustainable growth to a better share of the value created. From one-dimensional token diversity to a new societal vision for human beings of all creeds to be able to live harmoniously together on a territory under shared values.

This is technically possible. Are you with me to do this together?


Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

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