United States of America
This Palestinian Startup Is Connecting Refugees With Free Legal Aid Via SMS
September 5, 2017
In Turkey, a major jumping-off point for many of those fleeing the war in the Middle East, there are over two million Syrian refugees. Apart from physical ailments and emotional turmoil, they have an even more immediate problem on their hands — the language barrier. “Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey – the only non-Arabic speaking country in the region – do not speak Turkish; they have no knowledge of the Turkish legal system and so don’t have a grasp of their legal entitlements. As a result, they are vulnerable to human rights violations,” says Jacob Korenblum, founder of Souktel. Based in Ramallah, Palestine, this startup, in small but significant ways, is helping Syrian refugees to forge new lives for themselves.
While Google Maps, WhatsApp and Facebook help refugees find their way and connect with family, Souktel, in partnership with the American Bar Association, provides legal guidance to them via their mobile phones on everything -- from finding worthwhile jobs and housing to enrolling their children in school and registering for visas and benefits.
The 40-person start-up employs both former humanitarian workers and software engineers to tackle the challenge of sorting, tagging and translating enquiries. “The queries are translated into Turkish, and sent to the lawyers, who respond to the requests by providing information, which then gets translated back into Arabic and is uploaded onto the mobile of the refugee,” says Korenblum.
“Building the technology was complex and time-consuming, but bringing together refugees and lawyers and ensuring the service could educate refugees on what their rights are was more difficult,” adds Korenblum.
Over 10,000 Syrian refugees have used the service since it was launched over a year ago, and usage is increasing. "There is huge demand for the service. Since the outgoing messages are subsidized, there is a cap on the number of users due to the amount that could be financed through the donor funding that is available," says Korenblum.
The service is designed for countries that have minimal or slow internet access, and also for those where higher-speed internet and mobile data are becoming widespread, he says. “Our core technology platform allows content to be delivered across multiple channels — SMS, mobile audio, mobile messenger — at the same time, so that smartphone users and basic mobile users have equitable access to life-changing information.”
Now, Korenblum hopes to expand the free legal advice service by text message to reach refugees in other parts of the world. “There is widespread replicability for this service, whether it be for Somalis in Kenya, or Burundians in Tanzania. There is always a need for accurate information, and the ability to provide personalized information from a lawyer is compelling,” he says.
In 2009, Souktel deployed an alert system in Gaza and the West Bank to get urgent blood supplies to places that need it most, and created a platform to enable the Red Crescent to send customized bulk messages to thousands of people in Gaza.
"We have been able to assist in a multitude of refugee crises in the Middle East. Since we are based in Ramallah, it gives us a unique perspective into the ongoing refugee situations and delivering technology services in that part of the world," adds Korenblum.
A former aid worker, Korenblum founded Souktel after he saw young people in Palestine relying on their mobile devices when working there in 2005. “Our first service was an SMS and mobile audio platform that linked employers and job-seekers. We started in Palestine first, and then expanded it to a dozen countries in Asia and Africa,” he says.
The company has built similar services on behalf of humanitarian organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, Red Cross and Mercy Corps working for international development in Gaza, Iraq, Somalia and Kenya, among other places.
Smartphones or “basic mobile phones” have fast become one of the easiest ways of reaching out to the dispossessed, Korenblum says. “In West Africa, we are currently delivering services in north-eastern Nigeria, where people have been forcibly displaced by Boko Haram. We give them information services via text and audio.”
The challenge, he says, is designing and deploying digital solutions. “Young refugees are extremely tech savvy, and the challenge is ensuring that their voices are heard. Tech providers can't build platforms in isolation, we need to take a human-centered approach to our work, and let the end users of these technologies lead the design.”
Overall, Souktel’s services reached over a million mobile device users, in more than 30 countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, claims Korenblum. “We are currently focusing on artificial intelligence and chatbots to develop applications to better serve refugees and communities in need across the globe,” says Korenblum.