First US-Based Techfugees Conference Focuses on Solving Education Challenges

When refugees are displaced from their homes, school is often one of the last support systems to be reinstated. The Syrian refugee crisis is no exception. The scale and complexity of the Syrian refugee flows has been compounded by the constantly shifting routes refugees must take, and many refugees must be constantly on the move, searching for more stable and welcoming arrangements that will allow them to put down roots.

Children and young people, who make up a disproportionate number of the refugee population, have been hit particularly hard by the displacement from their homes, and many have had no choice but to put their schooling on hold.

Of all the mid-to-long-term issues the international community must carefully consider when mapping out the various needs of the refugee population, education is at the top.

Education provides displaced and traumatized children with essential socio-emotional structure.

It helps them get used to their surroundings. And it ensures that they will learn critical language, social, technical and other skills that will help them assimilate and ultimately become productive members in their new communities.

Given the importance and scale of this challenge, how can the broader technology and creative community help develop solutions?

altSamantha Power, United States Ambassador to the UN

On February 9, a group of about 150 designers, entrepreneurs, technologists, humanitarians, students, and digital workers gathered at NYC’s Civic Hall for the United States’ inaugural Techfugees conference.

This conference, which was organized by Techfugees and the USA for UNHCR’s innovation division, the Hive, was billed as an opportunity to develop some specific tech-enabled ideas to solve the vast educational challenges facing Syrian refugees and their host communities in Europe and the Middle East.


The group was divided into 12 smaller groups, each of which was assigned one of the following design challenges.

How might we strengthen the capacity of national education systems in countries where refugees are living, to accommodate Syrian refugee students?

How might we provide certified alternative quality education for children who are unable to enter state schools?

How might we provide language support for Arabic-speaking Syrian children in schools where lessons are not taught in Arabic or not only taught in Arabic?

How might we remove the many and varied environmental obstacles to formal or non-formal education enrollment for refugee children?


Each group was given 6 hours to come up with an out-of-the-box idea that could help solve these challenges. Here are some of the ideas that emerged:

Learn to Earn

Platform connecting private companies with refugees for job training/skills building. Features micro-earning through rewards issued for learning advancements.


A SmartPen or 'WelcomePen' that can translate German and Arabic - read documents, scan, dictation, write upload info from the scan. Solar powered or rechargeable, customizable case, can connect to USB. Can also be used by family.


An electronic system to recover and advance education certifications. iRecord would be a unified, certified system for offline storage of educational achievement, official records and certifications, and translating and passing on knowledge for refugee students and their families.

Backed by the International Baccalaureate curricula, the platform will serve as a unified, global equivalency system for keeping track of educational achievement and “adding it up” in a manner that allows refugees to transport and translate that educational achievement from one host nation to another.

The repository of academic records would translate to Facebook or LinkedIn, or another permanent record of academic achievement and certification that would 'travel' with refugees.

Global ID

'A cloud-based open ID supported by cloud services, and backed by GSMA, that leverages blockchain technology to provide a transferable identification for refugees.'

Refugees can connect services (such as food aid) to their individual alphanumeric codes, and the global ID can serve as a digital wallet and voucher delivery mechanism, an education certification platform and an employment tool, all in one. The GlobalID would be interoperable between SMS/mobile web and a native mobile application.

Where My Peeps?

Online/offline social infrastructure to connect people to their diaspora and host communities to facilitate learning.

techfugees flipchart notes

Although coming up with these ideas was a lot of fun, the most rewarding part of the conference was connecting with other individuals who are doing some incredible work to support refugees.

I met people developing apps, people who had volunteered in camps in Greece, Jordan, France, and Macedonia; and people who have been working on refugee issues their entire lives

I met community activists working to encourage acceptance of Muslims and refugees in the U.S., designers from large corporations, and many others.

If anything should inspire hope amid the grim news coming from Syria, it’s that there's a large, diverse and committed group of people determined to make a difference in this crisis, despite the numerous political, logistical, financial, and technical obstacles that exist.

Techfugees events, and those like them, provide the space and the human capital that might one day turn some of these ideas into viable solutions.

Amanda Levinson

Amanda is Principal at ThirdSpace, a social innovation and creative marketing agency serving mission-driven organizations across the globe.

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