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Integrating Refugees in a New Culture

Startup Spotlight

How Open Platform is helping refugees assimilate by enabling them to ask any question. It was one of the seven winners at the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovate for Refugees Competition in partnership with Zain Group and MBC Hope.

By Maya Sioufi

Renee Frissen was working as a volunteer in a shelter in Amsterdam when she realized that there was a critical need to provide support for refugees once they receive a permit to stay in the Netherlands. With over 43,000 asylum seekers in the Netherlands last year, 32-year-old Renee noticed the energy invested in refugees who reach the Netherlands up until they receive their permit; but after that, they are left with no support, confused on how to integrate within this new foreign country and culture.

 

In November 2015, the idea to establish an online platform to provide support to refugees came about and Renee starting testing her idea on the ground from January onwards.

 

Once the idea was tested, Renee, who holds a degree in cultural analysis from the University of Amsterdam, was then ready to build the platform called Open Embassy. For this, she needed a competent web developer. So she partnered with 24-year-old Ahmad Kabakibi, a software engineer from Syria.

 

From Syria to the Netherlands

 

Ahmad has been in the Netherlands for just over one year. His journey to the Netherlands has been filled with obstacles and stumbling blocks. Leaving Damascus in early 2013, Ahmad spent some time in Istanbul and Beirut. In Istanbul, he worked as a software engineer developing an app similar to Spotify. When his passport expired, he couldn’t legally work in Turkey anymore and renewing his passport was not an option as it would force him to join the military service in Damascus. “A lot of the people I know who went, they are gone; some really close friends were sent to the north of Syria and I don’t know anything about them,” says Ahmad. “My only option was to go to Europe” he adds.

 

Ahmad sold everything he had and left Turkey on the 25th of September 2015. Travelling from Izmir to Lesbos by boat then crossing through the Balkans and Germany on foot, he finally made it to Amsterdam on the 4th of October 2015.

 

For the first couple of months, Ahmad was struggling, moving from one place to another to sort out his documents. Without the right to work, Ahmad was eager to find some web development opportunity that he could help with. Using his smartphone, he managed to find through Facebook some volunteer work at a coding school, Hack Your Future, that was seeking software engineers. His application was accepted and Ahmad has been working with them since then teaching refugees coding skills. It’s through this school that he met his parnter Renee.

 

“Ahmad invited other experts and senior developers to support him [ in building the platform ] then he became the senior developer building everything” says Renee.

 

How Open Embassy Works

 

The platform, available in English, Dutch and Arabic, enables refugees to ask any question at any time of the day from questions about gyms around the corner to how to meet people to how to put together a CV to the eating habits of the Dutch to any question that comes to their mind. The questions are answered by a pool of volunteers with over 1,000 volunteers registered on the platform to date. The partners saw a tripling of volunteers after winning the $30,000 refugee-led prize at the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovate for Refugees Competition that took place in Amman in October 2016.  Volunteers apply through the site and the founders run a background check to identify their intentions.

 

Open Embassy is currently answering questions put forth by around 100 refugees per month with 25 volunteers catering to them. “We have a waiting list for volunteers” says Renee. Partnering with a new development organization every month, Open Embassy is granted access to their database of status holders. The platform expects another 100 refugees to be able to ask questions on their platform in the coming month. “We can scale now to up to 3,000 refugees if we want but I don't think it would be good for our product. We prefer to grow slowly” says Renee.

 

Going forward, the company is focusing on growing their user base from 100 to 1,000  refugees and on investing in data analysis, the key essence of Open Embassy. The platform wants to eventually analyse all the information they are receiving through the interaction on the platform between the refugee and the volunteer to provide policy recommendations to key institutions.

 

“We want to be able to share data with the world” adds Rene. They plan on using the cash prize won at the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovate for Refugees Competition for this purpose and eventually Open Embassy wants to move towards a license based cooperation with stakeholders.

 

After the summer of 2017, Open Embassy intends on expanding their platform to Sweden, the UK and Germany.