Refugees and the Technology of Exile

David Lepeska in Wilson Quaterly: “While working for a Turkish tech firm, Akil learned how to program for mobile phones, and decided to make a smartphone app to help Syrians get all the information they need to build new lives in Turkey. In early 2014, he and a friend launched Gherbtna, named for an Arabic word referring to the loneliness of foreign exile….

About one-tenth of the 2.7 million Syrians in Turkey live in refugee camps. The rest fend for themselves, mostly in big cities. Now that they look set to stay in Turkey for some time, their need to settle and build stable, secure lives is much more acute. This may explain why downloads of Gherbtna more than doubled in the past six months. “We started this project to help people, and when we have reached all Syrian refugees, to help them find jobs, housing, whatever they need to build a new life in Turkey, then we have achieved our goal,” said Akil. “Our ultimate dream for Gherbtna is to reach all refugees around the world, and help them.”

Humanity is currently facing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 60 million people forced from their homes. Much has been written about their use of technology — how Google Maps, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other tools have proven invaluable to the displaced and desperate. But helping refugees find their way, connect with family, or read the latest updates about route closings is one thing. Enabling them to grasp minute legal details, find worthwhile jobs and housing, enroll their children in school, and register for visas and benefits when they don’t understand the local tongue is another.

Due to its interpretation of the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, Ankara does not categorize Syrians in Turkey as refugees, nor does it accord them the pursuant rights and advantages. Instead, it has given them the unusual legal status of temporary guests, which means that they cannot apply for asylum and that Turkey can send them back to their countries of origin whenever it likes. What’s more, the laws and processes that apply to Syrians have been less than transparent and have changed several times. Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — government outreach has been minimal. Turkey has spent some $10 billion on refugees, and it distributes Arabic-language brochures at refugee camps and in areas with many Syrian residents. Yet it has created no Arabic-language website, app, or other online tool to communicate the relevant laws, permits, and legal changes to Syrians and other refugees.

Independent apps targeting these hurdles have begun to proliferate. Gherbtna’s main competitor in Turkey is the recently launched Alfanus (“Lantern” in Arabic), which its Syrian creators call an “Arab’s Guide to Turkey.” Last year, Souktel, a Palestinian mobile solutions firm, partnered with the international arm of the American Bar Association to launch a text-message service that provides legal information to Arabic speakers in Turkey. Norway is running a competition to develop a game-based learning app to educate Syrian refugee children. German programmers created Germany Says Welcome and the similar Welcome App Dresden. And Akil’s tech firm, Namaa Solutions, recently launched Tarjemly Live, a live translation app for English, Arabic, and Turkish.

But the extent to which these technologies have succeeded — have actually helped Syrians adjust and build new lives in Turkey, in particular — is in doubt. Take Gherbtna. The app has nine tools, including Video, Laws, Alerts, Find a Job, and “Ask me.” It offers restaurant and job listings; advice on getting a residence permit, opening a bank account, or launching a business; and much more. Like Souktel, Gherbtna has partnered with the American Bar Association to provide translations of Turkish laws. The app has been downloaded about 50,000 times, or by about 5 percent of Syrians in Turkey. (It is safe to assume, however, that a sizable percentage of refugees do not have smartphones.) Yet among two dozen Gherbtna users recently interviewed in Gaziantep and Istanbul — two Turkish cities with the most dense concentration of Syrians — most found it lacking. Many appreciate Gherbtna’s one-stop-shop appeal, but find little cause to keep using it. ”…(More)”