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The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated communities around the world, but refugees are among the hardest hit. Refugees around the world are quarantined inside refugee camps, with no social distance and a diverted humanitarian focus on the pandemic. With countries scrambling for medical supplies, few resources like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are available to refugee camps. Borders are shut down everywhere. A bad situation has quickly become worse, and in some cases, camps are either being closed down (Ethiopia) or burnt down (Moria).
A situation like this sits like a dark stain on our collective conscience. We currently face the largest displacement crisis on record: 70 million people have been displaced by conflict, disaster and environmental change. Not only are resources in short supply, but protracted displacement situations end up also wasting the most precious resource: human capital. Globally, 34% of university-age youth are enrolled in formal education, but that figure for refugees is just 1%. Only 61 percent of refugee children have access to primary education, compared to an international average of 91 percent. At secondary level, 23 percent of refugee teenagers go to school, compared to 84 percent globally.
Keeping refugees dependent on undependable, often erratic, handouts and ‘care and maintenance’ approaches is neither dignified nor does it make economic sense. Refugees bring with them an incredible amount of human talent, qualifications and drive to start fresh:
73 percent of US businesses employing refugees reported a higher retention In 2015, refugees resettled in the US earned a collective $77 billion in income, contributing $21 billion in taxes
13 percent of refugees were entrepreneurs in 2015, compared to just 11.5 %of non-refugee immigrants and 9.0 percent of the U.S.-born population. In 2015, over 181,000 refugee entrepreneurs generated $4.6 billion in business income, providing jobs, goods, and services for thousands of Americans.
Dedicated to ensuring refugees can become self-reliant, the Andan foundation, an MIT Solve Member, established The Andan Prize for Innovation in Refugee Inclusion, aimed at supporting innovation in refugee inclusion. The prize was included in the more than $2 million in prize funding offered to Solver teams this year at the 2020 Solve Challenge Finals and was awarded to three outstanding Solver teams.
Solver Humans in the Loop was founded in Bulgaria in 2017 to provide conflict-affected people with training and employment opportunities in perhaps the most talked-about industry of the future, artificial intelligence. They teach digital skills, languages and train people on specific image and data annotation techniques necessary for machine learning and Artificial Intelligence across a wide range of sectors such as self driving cars, drones, satellites, medical imagery and agritech.
Solver Thaki bridges the digital divide by providing user friendly content that can be 100% accessed offline, addressing internet connectivity constraints and ensuring that students have access to education. Thaki’s tools include a Digital Toolkit of training materials and resources in the form of mini courses, videos, lesson plans, and teaching tips and tricks to guide target populations with ICT skills and pedagogy, utilizing the rich array of educational content available on Thaki laptops, while imparting these skills onto their students. Thaki also provides additional online learning tools for teachers. This project aims to provide 2,400 children and their teachers with access to e-learning and digital literacy tools.
Solver SOLshare created a revolutionary new approach to bring affordable solar electricity to the energy poor in remote, rural off-grid communities, including refugees, of Bangladesh. Building upon the success of an installation base of five million solar home systems, that generate an excess amount of energy worth$ 1 billion per year that cannot be stored, SolShare are pioneering a micro-energy transition model 3.0, by interconnecting solar home systems into smart peer-to-peer micro-grids, monetizing (excess) solar energy with mobile money in real time and empowering rural communities to earn a direct income from the sun.
“These social entrepreneurs disrupt the status quo around refugees, transform the narrative that refugees are a burden, and in turn provide tangible benefits to refugees and their host communities through the technologies of the future,” says Philip Reuchlin, Program and Strategy Director of Solve Member, the Andan Foundation and one of the judges of the Solve Good Jobs & Inclusive Entrepreneurship Challenge. “During the Covid-19 crisis,when states are scrambling for money and recessions are looming, everyone who is willing to work, help or volunteer should be allowed to do so. The economic consequences of Covid-19 will resonate for years, while the economic potential dormant in refugees, given the right conditions, skills and legal frameworks for them to work with is huge.”
Another MIT initiative that is working to support refugees is the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT). MIT ReACT launched in May 2017 as a response to the MIT Solve call to find creative solutions to the problem of refugee education. Professor Admir Masic and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz championed the creation of a center at MIT to design and deploy new learning opportunities for displaced populations around the world. Driven by his own experience as a refugee, Professor Masic has since led a collaborative effort with internal partners including MIT Bootcamps and the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan-Arab Region and external partners around the world to address the complex problems of this growing crisis and offer programs with the potential to change the narrative of the refugee experience.
“Through programs like the MIT ReACT Certificate in Computer and Data Science, we offer alternative education to employment pathways for talented refugees globally,” says Dr. Admir Masic, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and faculty director of MIT ReACT. “MIT ReACT’s model works with partners to establish networked hubs of activity, providing holistic support for learners’ educational and entrepreneurial ambitions where they are. MIT Solve has been an excellent connector in this growing ecosystem.”
The Solver teams mentioned in this article are looking for partners and funding to support and scale their work. If your organization is interested in partnering with refugee inclusion solutions, please get in touch with Carlos Centeno, Lead, Economic Prosperity at MIT Solve, if you can contribute.