Students at Oxford University are launching an app in Germany to connect refugees with locals

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Crossing borders and reaching a host country is no easy task for refugees attempting the Herculean trip. But once there, the difficulties don’t end. Refugees too often face significant challenges when arriving in a host country, from understanding the language to navigating administrations, and accessing basic services.

But a new start-up at the University of Oxford is working on changing that for refugees arriving to Germany. Five MBA students from Syria, Hong Kong, Germany and India are developing an app that will allow refugees to connect with local residents in order to facilitate their integration. From securing a doctor appointment to registering children in school to understanding transport networks and even finding a job – refugees will be able to seek advice from local mentors through the app.

Inspired by her cousin

27-year-old Noura Ismail, the Syrian-American project leader of Refugee Connect, explains how she was inspired by the experience of her relatives who fled to Europe from Syria. “I was on the phone with my cousin, a refugee in Germany. She had received a bill in German and couldn’t understand it so she had to take a bus for nearly an hour and wait in line at an agency that could explain it to her. I thought there must be a way to make this kind of thing easier.”

With Refugee Connect, refugees merely need to upload basic information about their situation to then be connected to a mentor willing to help them out. “The algorithm will be similar to that of dating apps, which use information about users to connect them to people with similar characteristics”, explains Ismael. Refugees looking for study opportunities would be connected with student mentors, and refugees with children will be put in touch with local parents.

“It’s a very good idea. We have so many questions when we first arrive, about all kinds of things,” says Nour Al Hayat, an artist and designer who fled to Germany from Syria. “We also need help in orientation. There are many Syrians here who have skills, energy and diplomas but just don’t know where to get started, where to find opportunities.”

Refugee Connect will aim to break the common barriers faced by refugees in accessing housing, scholarships, loans, jobs and insurance, but also for basic things like paying for electricity and riding the bus.

The start-up’s potential has already attracted attention. Last month it won the United Nations Young Innovators Competition of the International Telecommunications Union. “Refugee Connect clearly has an identified social value proposition” says Ahmed Riad, Account Manager at ITU Telecom. “They presented a very well inclusive business plan which addresses the concerns of starting a business.”

The start-up was then invited to attend CeBIT 2016 in Germany, a global conference for digital business where they met potential mentors as well as aid organisations and government agencies interested in the potential of their app; they have yet to sign formal agreements.

Jobs, internships, education and more

In addition to its refugee-mentor matching feature, the app will include five features. On the ‘Opportunity Board’, users can post about jobs, internships or support programs. The ‘Education Board’ will be focused on education opportunities, from school courses to adult language classes and university scholarships. The ‘Live Events’ board will advertise events relevant to the needs of refugees, including workshops and social events. The ‘Resources’ board will contain informative resources, such as short videos explaining how to construct a CV or how to recycle your trash. Lastly, the ‘Answers’ section will be a Q&A forum visible to all users.

The app will initially be launched in Germany only with a target launch set for August.  They are launching in Germany first due to their personal network and the grand scale of refugees entering the country. Eventually, they plan on launching  their platform in several countries in Europe and the United States.

With experts from the ‘Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship’ advising them as well as Oxford student tech experts lending their support, Refugee Connect plans to address certain challenges before their launch: figure out how to properly monitor content so as to avoid abuse and indecency and manage the anticipated imbalance between demand for information from refugees and supply of answers by mentors. The team is working on making the app as user-friendly as possible to smooth the process for mentors who will have the option to remain anonymous to avoid intrusion.

They are also seeking new sources of funds having relied until now on grants. The team has recently entered a few competitions and are considering approaching sponsors for the development of the prototype.

As the challenges are addressed, the chances of reducing the isolation of refugees increases andRefugee Connect comes closer to its mission of bridging the gap between migrants and their host societies, one question at a time.