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Solve at MIT Insights: Unlocking New Opportunities for Refugees

On May 9, Solve at MIT welcomed three leaders to the stage to share insights gleaned from their work spearheading refugee education initiatives.

The panel, part of the “Investing in Refugees and Immigrant Entrepreneurs” plenary, was moderated by Guadalupe Gonzalez, a staff writer at Inc., and featured MIT Professor Admir Masic, Elizabeth Roscoe of Western Union Foundation, and Robert Hakiza of Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID).

The discussion explored how the leaders’ personal experiences with refugee communities inform their current work in refugee education and development.

As former refugees themselves, Hakiza and Masic have confronted first-hand the challenges of the refugee experience, ranging from frequent displacement to the loss of educational opportunity. Hakiza, now based in Uganda, is a refugee originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Masic, born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a teenage refugee in Croatia during the Bosnian War.

Hakiza’s own experience drives YARID’s program, a model based on bringing refugees together to generate ideas that will address the needs of a multinational community.

Masic cited luck—holding onto a simple piece of paper—as the key to his eventual success. “My middle school certificate allowed me to convince the principal of the first high school I entered to give me an opportunity, the most important opportunity that I got in my life.” Breaking the Croatian law that forbade refugees from going to school, this principal told him, “‘Admir, you start on Monday.’”

However, many refugees lack the certification or mentorship that bolstered Masic’s upward trajectory, Roscoe pointed out, which is why the Western Union Foundation focuses on augmenting access to resources for refugees. Western Union quickly recognized that an effective support system required engaging with refugees from a holistic approach.

“Yes, it’s right that education and certification is key, but we need to take a step back. How do you get into the mindset as a youth in a refugee camp who suffered trauma? How do you create the awareness of the importance of education? How do you support the psychosocial part of people’s lives, which is actually dealing with trauma?” Roscoe stressed.

Hakiza agreed with Roscoe, stating that investing in refugees begins with fostering a positive environment in which refugees are perceived as an asset rather than a burden to society. “The most important thing that a country can give to the refugee is a more conducive environment,” he said. “It is our choice to make refugees dependent or independent. It always depends on what kind of environment we are creating for them.”

What is impeding the cultivation of a conducive environment in most host countries? Roscoe cited the ongoing prevalence of protectionism and nationalism. Hakiza attributed it to good policies that fail to be implemented.

The plenary concluded with all three panelists lamenting the hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric that refugees face, while acknowledging technology’s potential to propel refugees towards realizing their goals—goals that are much like those of non-refugees.

“These people are humans like we are, and they want to live, they want to love, they want to thrive, they want to make differences in the world,” Masic underscored. “Unfortunately, right now opportunities are missing. Once we are able to leverage tech to impact education, jobs, and everything else that is related to a normal life, then we will move forward.”

Solve intern Silvia Curry contributed to this article.


Gonzalez, Hakiza, Roscoe, and Masic discuss on stage during Solve at MIT. Photo: Adam Schultz/MIT Solve

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