Creation of Urban Refuge App at Boston University
Professor Noora Lori is a graduate professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. Vicky Kelberer is a master’s candidate at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and a BNID Board member.
Could you tell us about both of your backgrounds and how you became interested in forced migration and human trafficking?
Vicky Kelberer: I am currently in my last year of graduate studies at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. I am also the graduate co-chair of the Initiative on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking and the chief empowerment officer for the phone application we created for urban refugees. My role is to oversee the task list and to touch base with everybody working in different project areas. What interested me in forced migration and human trafficking was an internship I had at an NGO in Geneva during my undergrad years that dealt with human rights during the Arab Spring. I had a sideline view of what was going on during the protests by people whose human rights had been violated. That was what kept my focus on Syria and the refugee crisis.
Professor Lori: I went to Northwestern for undergrad and fell in love with being a nerd. Later I went to Johns Hopkins for my Ph.D. in Political Science. My training is in political theory and comparative politics. I spent a couple of years at Harvard, first at the Kennedy School as a pre-doc in the International Security Program, and then as a post-doc at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies.
During my undergrad, I took a class on international human rights law. Originally, I thought the class was going to be on genocide, but it was actually on refugee and asylum law. By taking this class I realized that refugee and asylum issues are the key human rights issues. We make arbitrary decisions about what category someone belongs in and then based on that categorization, their entire life chances are determined. For me, migration and immigration are the key issues. We have to think more deeply about what we call people who move and how we accommodate them after they move. It’s really central to the modern state. I’ve been working in the realm of migration for about twelve years. When I started at BU, I decided to get an interdisciplinary group of people together from the medicine school, the law school, the dental school, etc. to create a broad approach to this problem. The class I teach came out of this initiative. Vicky and I realized that everything we need to be doing revolves around research, teaching and advocacy and how all three of these are connected.
Could you tell us about the Urban Refuge App? How did the project begin? What ignited this campaign?
Professor Lori: Our project began with a class I was teaching on forced migration. The class was a total experiment with one goal: instead of the output being a written recommendation targeted at a policy maker, we wanted to design a tool for the refugee crisis that was unlike any other. Migration is not always in the interest of national policy makers-- that’s why it’s a global issue. The students in my forced migration class were put into teams and asked to conduct research. I told them I wanted them to create something, but they drove the project. We dealt with questions of inefficiency, transparency, aid allocation, and using tools like GPS and phone apps.
Vicky Kelberer: At the beginning of the class, the students were grouped into teams focusing on topics such as health, education, shelter, aid coordination, legal rights, and human trafficking. We studied each of these issue areas in order to identify a key problem we could respond to. The theme of access to aid for non-camp refugees was really the most salient, common problem that came up across all of the groups. It is difficult to actually know how and where to access different aid outside of refugee camps. In Jordan, 80% of the refugees live outside of refugee camps. There is a stereotype that refugees all live in camps, which are bounded territory where everyone is a refugee and therefore everyone gets access to the same services. But if you are outside of a camp, you are totally dispersed among the population. You are not distinct from other people in the community such as low-income Jordanians or other migrant workers. Information about aid outside of these camps is totally inefficient, transmitted by word of mouth or Facebook.
The students decided to create an app that essentially uses existing mapping technologies to create access to aid and services. The class reorganized and went into more functional groups like an admin team, a technology team, a design team, a refugee-peer consultant team, and an organizational outreach team. We also had to geo-code everything by latitude and longitude because traditional mapping technology with addresses does not work in the Middle East. This past August, we applied to grants and launched a crowdfunding project through BU to help get the project off the ground.
What is the number one question you get asked about the project?
Vicky Kelberer: The number one question we get from people when we talk about the project is how many Syrian refugees actually have phones? What is fascinating that has come out of our research is that 86% of refugee households in Jordan have access to at least one smartphone, the majority being Androids. With the non-camp refugees, data indicates that all of them have some kind of access to some kind of cell phone and/or the Internet.
In what ways do you see this app making a difference in the lives of urban refugees in Jordan?
Vicky Kelberer: In terms of what Urban Refuge aims to do, the central goal is improving the lived experiences of urban refugees while taking an approach that respects and enhances their agency in making choices concerning aid. So much about aid is imposed from the outside. Their choice about where they access aid is constrained by the information that they have. We want to expand the information that urban refugees have access to and give them one more level of choice.
What advice do you have for young leaders who want to turn something they are passionate about into action and who want to make a difference in the international community?
Vicky Kelberer: The number one take away I have from this project is to eliminate the words “I cannot” from my vocabulary. Whenever you’re asked if you can do something you say yes because you can always learn. After some time working on our project in the classroom we never heard, “I can’t do that”-- instead we heard, “I am going to learn.” That attitude is how things get done in this world. At first, as a student you may be thinking ‘what can I actually do?’ In reality, there is a universe of possibility. Be willing to fail. That is how you learn.
Professor Lori: This class on forced migration I taught more than any other made me very introspective and helped me realize that my issues with failure have to do with my own ego. If there’s one piece of advice I would give to students, it would be try to suppress your ego and be okay with failure. There’s a quote I always think of about how the meek overpowering the strong is not about having more power than them, it is about separating them from their own power. I think that’s so true about the power of self-consciousness and failure. With all the criticism around you and your own self-depreciation, you stop trying. The strength comes in not caring, trying even if you fail and being creative, even if it seems crazy.
Do you have any book recommendations?
Vicky Kelberer: I have two recommendations. One is Imposing Aid by an anthropologist named Barbara Harrell-Bond. It is really fascinating because it looks at aid structures and how aid is imposed on people who are vulnerable. It highlights what we have known for the past thirty years, what the problems are and how we still have not been able to make a dent in them. The author does a really good job of unpacking aid structure and the classical refugee encampment issue. The other book that I would recommend is City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence. It is about the largest refugee camp in the world, which is in Dadaab, Kenya. His book looks at the everyday experiences of different refugees living in the camp and why the aid system is broken.
Professor Lori: A classic is The Invention of the Passport by a sociologist named John Torpey. He clearly sets up how the refugee crisis, in all senses of the word, is a manmade crisis. For Torpey, what makes displacement problematic is not the movement itself. Migration can be dangerous, but what makes it a real crisis is that after people move, they are not allowed legally to build lives. It’s an incredible manmade contradiction where we have this system that we totally take for granted and where it is totally natural that states monopolize authority over legitimate movements. It seems like such a simple idea, monopolization, but really it is the difference between life and death, having a job and not, etc. The book reminds you that this crisis is very new.
[Also check out Professor Lori’s forthcoming book: Offshore Citizens: Permanent ‘Temporary’ Status]
What ways can students interested in migration/refugee issues get more involved in the project?
Vicky Kelberer: We have a sign-up page for volunteers on our website: urbanrefuge.org. Feel free to check it out!
Interview Conducted by Mary Cunningham
College of the Holy Cross, Class of 2017
Please feel free to contact Mary at [email protected] if your organization is interested in being featured in a blog post.