When the Syrian civil war began in 2011 it kick started the refugee crisis that spread across the Middle East, to Africa, and eventually Europe.

In 2017, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) revealed that around 65.6m people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016. This was either as refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced.

The same study, UNHCR’s annual Global Trends study, also found that more people have been uprooted around the world, as a result of war, violence, and persecution, that at any other time in the agency’s 70-year history.

With such huge figures of people being displaced across the globe, there has been an effort by technology companies across the world to establish initiatives to help refugees.

Some of the efforts are often criticised. For instance, Deezen recently held a panel at Dutch Design Week in which humanitarian expert Kilian Kleinschmidt said:

“They’re not a species. So, there is no need for tech for refugees. Or design for refugees. Or architecture for refugees.”

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However, projects to empower refugees using technology are gaining ground.

Unicef’s Innovation Labs project

Jordan, in particular, is home to the world’s second highest number of refugees per inhabitant. Over 730,000 refugees have settled in Jordan from countries including Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

This is one of the reasons Emma Sinclair, co-founder of software company EnterpriseJungle, has teamed up with Unicef UK to launch the charity’s first crowdfunding initiative: to fund innovation labs in refugee camps in the Jordanian desert.

Sinclair, who works as an advisor on innovation and entrepreneurship for Unicef alongside her full-time job, has been working with the charity for years.

She’s taught entrepreneurship workshops in Zambia and worked on a project called Building Young Futures, which received £10m in funding from Barclay’s to teach entrepreneur skills in hard-to-reach places.

After visiting the refugee camp in Azraq, Jordan, where the first pilot innovation lab was set up, Sinclair decided she wanted to help kickstart fundraising for the project through crowdfunding.

Sinclair tells Verdict:

“We have this enormous humanitarian crisis in terms of refugees and if we don’t think about how to help teenagers and young people fulfil their potential, we will have an even bigger economic crisis if we have to support them for the rest of their lives.

“Skilling up young people, is to my mind, helps them and helps us.”

Inspiring young refugees and empowering them with technology

The pilot innovation lab in Azraq offers a space for children and young people in the camp to work on their own projects.

Sinclair says:

“At the moment, the children and the young people are encouraged to find and solve the problems in the camp, by innovating and building things themselves.”

Projects range from making a movie projector, a virtual reality (VR) headset, and a water filter system.

“One of the boys made an air conditioning unit from bits of wire, a tiny bit of a broken solar panel, an old box that served as a refrigeration mechanism and an old broken fan. And it worked!” says Sinclair.

They’re building things that solve problems. Ultimately, if you need to solve a problem, you need to ask the community who are living in it.

Sinclair decided to use crowdfunding to raise money to fund the innovation labs in the refugee camps. So far, £58,756 has been raised. “We’ve been very fortunate that it has captivated the attention of people and organisations who support it in the long term,” she says.

“The plan is to nurture these kids’ skills, give them some seed funding and providing the tools to solve [problems] in the camp. But also, fit out the labs with computers so they can follow a syllabus in creative media, engineering, and coding.”

What will the innovation labs achieve?

For Sinclair, the innovation labs have two purposes: one to give children and young adults in the camps a way to learn transferrable skills for the future, and also encourage them realise their potential.

“You don’t know where the next innovation is going to come from. A number of people have changed the world, who were all refugees. If you think about Sergey Brin co-founder of Google, Dame Shirley Stephanie in the UK, she fled the Holocaust on the Kinder Transport, Einstein – all of these people were refugees.

“The other thing is we live in an age where digital skills are absolutely key for almost any job role. Wherever they move on to, they will be able to use their skills, as something who understands technology.”

As well, it was an interesting moment to see how crowdfunding would work with such a large charity as Unicef. In order to help fund the labs, Sinclair raffled lunches with herself, as well as holding an online auction with 35 of her friends and business heroes who offered their time and an experience away that people could bid on.

“This project was exactly like starting a business. I had no marketing budget, so it was: let’s get cracking, prove the crowdfunding makes sense and prove we can engage a different audience, as there were a lot of people that contributed who may not have been typical Unicef donors.

“What I can’t wait to see, which I’m sure will happen in due course, is that other people will do this around the world, and hopefully it will provide a different sort of income to solve different kinds of problems, beyond what Unicef are known for and continue to do.”

So far, the funds raised will build another innovation lab and as the crowdfunding campaign is still open, Sinclair hopes other labs will be built too.

I felt a real pleasure doing this. Having met the children who are going to benefit from this, talking to them, hearing their stories about how they had to walk from where they lived in relative freedom, where they went to school and their parents had jobs, to the middle of the Jordanian desert, was really harrowing.

You feel a real sense of responsibility that you must do as much as you can because life has dealt them a really unfair hand.

You can donate to the Innovation Lab project by Unicef here