Tech tackles the refugee crisis

syrian refugees tech
There are nearly 1 million displaced Syrian children. Techfugees wants to use tech to improve things like education.

Solving the refugee crisis should be a collaborative effort.

That's the message of a global grassroots nonprofit called Techfugees.

Techfugees held its first U.S.-based event on Tuesday. Roughly 180 tech professionals gathered in New York City at Civic Hall.

Attendees -- who hailed from places like Warby Parker, Mastercard and General Assembly -- had eight hours to work on tackling four aspects of refugee education, like enrollment barriers and language hurdles.

"People don't know how to take their compassion and turn it into action," said Brian Reich, director at The Hive, an innovation lab that's a part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Our job is to move the refugee crisis into a frame people understand -- into a product challenge."

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Techfugees was founded in September, shortly after images surfaced of a dead young Syrian child who washed ashore in Turkey. A small group of European techies wanted to help people leverage their technical skills and innovative thinking in a way that could tangibly help agencies and refugees.

"Most of the people in the room wouldn't have responded to 'cry and buy' messaging," said Reich, referencing the traditional methods of appealing to emotion for donations. "This is not about philanthropy on the margins."

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The goal of this particular Techfugees event was to create a list of the major questions that tech needs to answer -- and then start thinking about how the solutions might look.

Questions like: What keeps girls from attending school? Who are the teachers and what are their backgrounds? What kind of devices do students have and how reliable is their Internet access?

There were hundreds of questions, and the discussions at the New York event just scratched the surface. The idea is that other groups will use it as a jumping off point and start actually coding solutions. (A group called Hacktivation plans to host a 48-hour coding retreat for Bay Area engineers to build some of this out.)

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Traditionally, "no one talks to each other," Reich said. "Groups are all trying to solve [the crisis], but events happen disparately."

The beauty of Techfugees -- which Reich said has 25,000 in its global community -- is that it brings together people from all different disciplines: nonprofits, startups, corporations and government.

"I hope that today will just be the beginning," said Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who opened the event Tuesday morning. "We are facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. It is a 21st century crisis and we need a 21st century solution."

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