An App to Save Syria's Lost Generation? | Foreign Affairs
thomwithoutanh's bookmarks 2016-05-23
January this year, when the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe had hit its peak—more than a million had crossed into Europe over the course of 2015—the U.S. State Department and Google hosted a forum of over 100 technology experts. The goal was to “bridge the education gap for Syrian refugee children.” Speaking to the group assembled at Stanford University, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a $1.7 million prize “to develop a smartphone app that can help Syrian children learn how to read and improve their wellbeing.” The competition, known as EduApp4Syria, is being run by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and is supported by the Australian government and the French mobile company Orange.
Less than a month later, a group called Techfugees brought together over 100 technologists for a daylong brainstorm in New York City focused exclusively on education solutions. “We are facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to open the conference. “It is a twenty-first-century crisis and we need a twenty-first-century solution.” Among the more promising, according to Power, were apps that enable “refugees to access critical services,” new “web platforms connecting refugees with one another,” and “education programs that teach refugees how to code.”
For example, the nonprofit PeaceGeeks created the Services Advisor app for the UN Refugee Agency, which maps the location of shelters, food distribution centers, and financial services in Jordan. For the EduApp4Syria competition, Norad will fund five winners from the 78 entries to develop games that aim to teach children literacy skills in Arabic and improve their psychological and social well-being.
In the scramble to address the deepening refugee crisis, it seems that policymakers, big tech companies, and advocates are turning to the smartphone to find a solution.
Techfugee events have gone global, with hackathons in London, Melbourne, and Paris. These gatherings are filled with hundreds of young techies who come armed with Post-it notes to ponder how digital tools like education technology might improve refugees’ lives.
But as so often plagues the “ed tech” field, developers of new apps risk failing to understand the unique challenges facing refugee children living without running water, let alone a good mobile network.
An Afghan immigrant, who arrived on a dingy from Turkey, tries to communicate with relatives as he waits for temporary documents outside a police station in Kos island, Greece, May 28, 2015.
Nearly ten million refugee children worldwide today have little or no access to adequate teachers, classrooms, or materials. Currently, 2.8 million children both in and outside Syria are currently not in school. Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, one of the largest, has seen the arrival of 80,000 refugees over the last three years, and just over half are children. Since the average length of time a refugee is displaced is roughly 17 years, according to the United Nations, this means an entire generation of Syrians risks growing up without even a primary school education.
The impact could be disastrous. In a recent interview on CNN, journalist Fareed Zakaria asked Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon’s education minister, what happens when refugee children are not in school. “Anytime you have children out of school,” Bou Saab replied, “they are . . . abused, for either child labor, easy recruit[s] for the terrorist organizations like ISIS [the Islamic State] and Nusra and others. You have child prostitution, you have earlier marriages . . . even [the] crime rate goes up in the country.” Numerous studies have found that each year a girl is deprived of education, she will likely make less money, marry earlier, and live a shorter life than one who continues through primary and secondary school. UNICEF reports that 3.7 million Syrian children have been born since the conflict started in 2011, including 306,000 born as refugees. While the long-term effects for the stability of the region are unknown, they are cause for serious concern.
It seems that most Syrian refugees have access to smartphones, and dozens of news articles have documented how mobile phones are an essential survival tool used to find shelter, connect with lost family members, and coordinate perilous journeys. And it is tempting to im
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