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Global refugee crisis: Refugee turned humanitarian shares reasons for optimism

"The experience and devastating impact of displacement has not changed much since I was at a refugee camp in Southern Hungary in the mid-90s..."

September 24, 2018

Conflict-affected youth in Lebanon interacting with and testing Hakeem chatbot in September 2018 (Photo credit: NRC)

About the author: Leila Toplic, a former refugee and refugee school teacher herself, leads the No Lost Generation (NLG) Tech Task Force at NetHope. It was in a refugee camp in Southern Hungary in the mid-90s that Leila had her first introduction to computers, inspiring her to study technology and work in the tech sector. After 13 years at Adobe Systems and Microsoft, Leila decided to combine her personal experience as a refugee with her passion for technology and background in the private sector to drive collaboration between the humanitarian and private sectors, with a focus on tech-enabled programs for conflict-affected children and youth.

This month, governments, humanitarian organizations, the private sector, and civil society are convening in New York City for the 73rd United Nations General Assembly. One of the pressing topics on the agenda is how to accelerate and expand efforts to deliver education and opportunities for a better life to millions of conflict-affected children and youth.

The experience and devastating impact of displacement has not changed much since I was at a refugee camp in Southern Hungary in the mid-90s: conflict-affected children and youth today have the same needs – education, livelihoods, participation, and protection – and they are facing some of the same challenges my students were facing in the mid-90s. Conflict has disrupted the time in their lives that should be dedicated to learning and development. Millions of children and youth have been forced to drop out of school and to work in difficult conditions to provide for their families.

Yet, I know from personal experience and my work at NetHope that education is the key to changing all of this – to reversing the negative impact of displacement and empowering young people to create a better, more self-sufficient and sustainable future for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Deepening private sector investments

The scale of the problem is much larger today than it was in the mid-90s and the statistics speak for themselves: 68 million+ displaced globally, over half of whom are children; the average amount of time that people spend as refugees has increased to 26 years; and 92 percent of them are hosted in developing countries with limited infrastructure to support their growing needs (classroom space, trained teachers, jobs for all). The magnitude of the crisis requires a collective impact approach – the humanitarian sector working together with the private sector to create scalable and sustainable solutions.

An encouraging trend is that companies – large and small, established and startups – are coming together to support refugees with both traditional CSR contributions (grants and product donations) and comprehensive investments that include their resources, expertise, business practices, and innovations. This is one of the reasons for my optimism.

Technology-enabled education
While the complexity of meeting the needs of each refugee is high, advances in digital technology have given us some effective new tools in our toolbox.

As a refugee back in the mid-90s, the technology that was available then helped me see a life beyond the walls of the camp and prepare for university. Since then technology has evolved rapidly, and has played an important role in making education, employment, and other critical services available to millions of people around the world.

Technology, when designed by a diverse set of stakeholders and integrated in the right way, can help scale programs like skills training and give more young people access to educational opportunities, in-demand skills training, employment opportunities, and meaningful ways to be heard and be relevant.

NetHope, Microsoft, Pluralsight, and Hult Prize visiting the Norwegian Refugee Council's program in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, February, 2018. Conversations with refugee youth and teachers helped inform the work we're doing on Hakeem chatbot. (Photo credit: NRC)

Introducing: Hakeem, the learning companion chatbot

One example of such collective impact, tech-enabled collaboration, is the work NetHope, lead for the NLG Tech Task Force, is doing with Microsoft, Norwegian Refugee Council, and University College Dublin, with support from Lero Research Institute and in close collaboration with conflict-affected youth in Lebanon.

We’re developing a chatbot called Hakeem that these youth have given the persona of an older, wiser brother or sister. This chatbot is designed to enable youth to discover and access relevant learning content like language, entrepreneurship, coding, marketing, and design courses – anywhere and anytime.

For refugee youth, access to skills training and academic content that is contextual – in their native language, available for free, and downloadable offline – will empower them to access dignified work and contribute to their communities in a positive way as teachers, doctors, or entrepreneurs solving problems their communities face.

While the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the humanitarian context is nascent, with many projects still in the exploratory phase, we decided to leverage AI and other capabilities available in Skype to address the issue of discoverability and access to educational content while leveraging what youth are already used to and enjoy doing – chatting in Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, or Viber. Conversational UI can guide young people from a broad learning category like Business to a specific focus area like Entrepreneurship to an exact course – just like a virtual learning companion. Additionally, it provides an experience that is more interactive and tailored than a website – through relevant content and notifications – which we’ve seen from our testing so far. This compels youth to come back again and again, increasing the likelihood of creating lifelong learners.

Leila Toplic with Microsoft volunteers during a July 2018 Hackathon.

Recognizing that no single solution can meet all needs, we’re also incubating several other related programs such as remote mentoring, and career pathways that connect learning to earning opportunities, that together with the existing humanitarian programming will help us address the diversity of young people’s needs in a relevant and sustainable way.

What makes this a collective impact effort is the fact that we’re incubating a program for 30+ No Lost Generation agencies and 50+ NetHope members, with the goal of lifting up the whole sector through innovative, scalable response to urgent and ongoing needs of conflict-affected youth. While we’re still in the midst of developing the bot, our ambition is to make it available to millions of young people in MENA region (MENA region has the largest population of young people that the world has ever seen – 162 milllion+ between the ages of 10-24) and also provide a reference design and a template for humanitarian agencies wishing to re-purpose the bot for their audiences (e.g., youth in Africa) and with their educational content.

Despite the magnitude of the refugee crisis, collaborations like the Hakeem chatbot and private sector commitments like Microsoft’s AI for Humanitarian Action are my reason for optimism. These exemplify how we can go beyond conventional individual programs and pilots and inspire an all-in private sector commitment to activating all available resources.

I am hopeful that the collective impact approach – all of us working together, in collaboration with impacted youth – and new tools like AI can help us meet the urgent and ongoing needs of refugees. And, that we can empower conflict-affected children and youth with the same opportunities I had, to be able to make a positive impact.

Here’s how you can join us and support Hakeem: We’re looking for skills training and academic content that is free, and ideally available in Arabic and offers a proof of learning (e.g. certification). If you have such content for Business, Technology, Design, or Language – please share here.

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