An App to Save Syria's Lost Generation?

What Technology Can and Can't Do

Refugees show pictures of their families as they wait to cross the Slovenia-Austria border. Srdjan Zivulovic / Reuters

In January this year, when the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe had hit its peak—more than a million had crossed into Europe over the course of 2015—the U.S. State Department and Google hosted a forum of over 100 technology experts. The goal was to “bridge the education gap for Syrian refugee children.” Speaking to the group assembled at Stanford University, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a $1.7 million prize “to develop a smartphone app that can help Syrian children learn how to read and improve their wellbeing.” The competition, known as EduApp4Syria, is being run by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and is supported by the Australian government and the French mobile company Orange.

Less than a month later, a group called Techfugees brought together over 100 technologists for a daylong brainstorm in New York City focused exclusively on education solutions. “We are facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to open the conference. “It is a twenty-first-century crisis and we need a twenty-first-century solution.” Among the more promising, according to Power, were apps that enable “refugees to access critical services,” new “web platforms connecting refugees with one another,” and “education programs that teach refugees how to code.”

For example, the nonprofit PeaceGeeks created the Services Advisor app for the UN Refugee Agency, which maps the location of shelters, food distribution centers, and financial services in Jordan. For the EduApp4Syria competition, Norad will fund five winners from the 78 entries to develop games that aim to teach children literacy skills in Arabic and improve their psychological and social well-being.

In the scramble to address the deepening refugee crisis, it seems that policymakers, big tech companies, and advocates are turning to the smartphone to find a solution.

Techfugee events have gone global, with hackathons in London, Melbourne, and Paris. These gatherings are filled with hundreds of young techies who come armed with Post-it notes to

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