3 Bostonians Innovating Solutions to the Refugee Crisis

The world’s refugee population is at a record high. At the end of 2017, the UN Refugee Agency reported that 68.5 million individuals worldwide had been displaced from their homes, and that number continues to grow. By the time you’ve finished reading this post, approximately 90 people will have become newly displaced — either within their own borders or as refugees fleeing from their country of origin.

Boston resident and CIC member Wafaa Arbash knows these statistics by heart, including the fact that half of Syria’s population is currently displaced. “Many of my friends have been stranded in limbo, not knowing if or when they may be able to return or where they would be sent next,” she says. “I felt compelled to do something about the growing crisis.”

That’s when WorkAround was born. The startup, founded by Arbash in 2017, connects companies with refugees who work remotely as contractors doing data entry, image tagging, research, translation, and more.

“These people are educated and smart,” says Arbash. But refugees often face significant barriers to economic independence after they’ve been displaced.

“None of your past experience is valued outside your country,” Arbash explains. Educational and professional certifications often do not carry over internationally. That means many skilled workers — doctors, for example — cannot continue working in their professions abroad without going through time and resource-intensive re-training and certification processes.

WorkAround Co-Founders Jennie Kelley (left) and Wafaa Arbash. (Photos courtesy of Arbash)

WorkAround Co-Founders Jennie Kelley (left) and Wafaa Arbash. (Photos courtesy of Arbash)

To be legally employed in their new countries of residence, refugees require work permits, which can be not only limited in number but also by industry. “Very few people win this lottery to access work,” says Arbash. “In Jordan, for example, the government might only give those permits for jobs in agriculture, construction, textiles, and food.”

Fees or medical examinations can also prevent people from applying for permits. With limited options, workers may depend on aid or look to make money outside of sanctioned channels.

WorkAround’s model leverages the flexibility of online work: you don’t need a permit to freelance online, and you can do it from wherever you have a computer and an internet connection. Over 22 companies have sought WorkAround’s services in the year since they launched.

“We free up companies’ internal resources to focus on growth and strategy while repetitive operational or administration jobs are done by skilled refugees,” says Arbash. “It saves companies time and money while giving displaced people economic empowerment.”

WorkAround is one example of a Boston-grown initiative that has identified a specific pain point that many refugees face and responded by tailoring an innovative solution.

Miles4Migrants formed in 2016 around a different pain point: families who had been separated and lacked the resources to reunite in a new place even after getting the legal go-ahead. The nonprofit gathers donations of frequent flyer miles and uses them to purchase flights for refugees to their new homes.

It’s quite simple, and yet when Miles4Migrants formed, its founders realized they were filling an obvious gap in the worldwide response to the refugee crisis. “We’ve decided to stay very focused,” says Andy Freedman, one of the organization’s co-founders. “We come in at that time when we know where a person is and how to help them.”

With such a specific mission and direct services, Freedman can tell a donor exactly who flew on their 50,000 airline miles. But this work isn’t without its challenges. Even with a plan and a plane ticket booked, logistical issues arise that the organization is continually working to anticipate, fix, and adapt to.

Robert Fadel is familiar with obstacles and adaptation. As the Executive Director of MIT’s Refugee Action (ReACT) Hub, he works to connect refugees with educational and professional development opportunities.

New frontiers in digital learning allow a major institution like MIT to leverage its resources to reach students on the other side of the globe. In early 2018, ReACT launched its first pilot program in Jordan.

As the fledgling program develops, Fadel is thinking about how to deal with barriers such as security issues or blocked data access in refugee camps. Beyond the material losses suffered by refugees, there’s also the loss of professional and community networks. Being part of a cohort of online learners, getting placed into paid internships, and gaining access to the MIT network helps students rebuild contacts and connection. “It’s amazing how quickly you can impact people’s lives by giving them a sense that they belong,” says Fadel.

Rethinking education to be robust, accessible, and quickly adaptable has implications for beyond refugee populations alone, according to Fadel.

“Increasingly I think what we can learn from this work is more than just how to help refugees,” he says. “What about displaced workers who are economic refugees? We need to prepare for a workforce that’s quickly evolving, and I think we’re going to learn how to do that from the refugee crisis.”