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Leon Kaye headshot

Smartphones Are a Lifeline for Refugees, and NGOs Are Responding

By Leon Kaye

An estimated 85,000 refugees will resettle in the U.S. this year. Many of them will have to balance the painful separation from loved ones with tasks such as searching for a job, finding housing and setting up a bank account.

One item that has become a necessity, even a lifeline, is a smartphone. Images of Syrian refugees taking selfies after making that treacherous trip from Turkey to Greece sparked plenty of angst among Europeans and Americans, with many trying to reconcile those images with assumptions that all refugees are poor with the clothing on their backs in tatters. Faux outrage over Syrian 20-somethings appearing "happy" upon landing on Greece’s shores led the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper to publish an article last year explaining that it is not just affluent Westerners who tote around a cell phone.

As the World Bank explains, the cheapest smartphones can prove to be valuable for those escaping countries including war-torn Syria and Iraq. Messaging services like WhatsApp can make it easy for families to communicate. GPS and map apps can give refugees an idea of where they are, whether they are making that treacherous trip across the Mediterranean by boat or they need to find a safe place to stay in Europe.

Furthermore, this technology can make settling in a new country easier and even cheaper for nonprofits and government agencies. To that end, more NGOs found that programs which help new refugees from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa secure a cell phone can help make building a new life far more seamless.

The Oregon chapter of Catholic Charities, for example, has long helped resettle refugees in the greater Portland area. As explained in a recent CNET report, a retired Intel executive involved with the NGO worked with local retailers to procure cheap and discounted Android phones while convincing wireless and broadband providers to offer access for refugees for at least a few months. Another nonprofit in North Carolina seeks volunteers who can advise resettled refugees on how to purchase a smartphone, with suggestions on how to find the cheapest services while avoiding expensive two-year plans to eliminate any financial risks.

According to many nonprofits, the reality is that a smartphone is not an indulgence, but a key to communicating with loved ones abroad while integrating into new homes in the U.S. The feedback community volunteers often hear is that refugees prefer to secure a smartphone long before thinking about purchasing a car. And of course, we all know that that there are plenty of apps out there than can help consumers vet and purchase a used car when that time comes.

Friends and family still abroad also have options. GeeCycle, for example, seeks unwanted smartphones after consumers upgrade to a new device. The social enterprise provides those interested in donating old phones with a free shipping label. The devices are then shipped to Greece, and distributed to refugees so they have a way to keep in contact with the outside world and maybe even learn about the events going on around them while they seek a path to freedom.

Some needs that smartphones can provide, such as banking apps, money transfer services such as Wave and even job search sites like Indeed, are obvious. But the fact is: These small devices could offer even more potential for people who escaped the ravages of war and are now living between two very unsettled worlds. Last fall, a London hack-a-thon organized by the social enterprise Techfugees brought together programmers and engineers to discuss potential apps refugees could use, such as programs that could document war crimes or apps that assist in reuniting families. The result is that a device often seen as a luxury is now a tool that can provide much-needed emotional and logistical support.

Image credit: World Bank

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye