BERLIN Mojahed Akil is 26 years old and hes already running a successful tech startup: the first app he launched has been downloaded over 40,000 times on Android alone. Hes also a Syrian refugee.
Back in his native Aleppo, Akil ran a small company which developed mobile applications. But as the Arab Spring came to Syria, he became involved in anti-Assad protests, arranging meetings and organizing public protests. His activism made him a target for the Assad regime and, four years ago, he was arrested, thrown in jail and tortured.
He was eventually released, but when government agents started following him again, he knew it was time to go.
Akil escaped to Turkey, where he now lives, along with some 2.7 million other Syrian refugees. Like many of his countrymen, Akil was confronted with many obstacles in his new life: the asylum process, finding a job, an apartment, not to mention the Turkish language.
I noticed that the Turkish government was using Turkish with all the official documents, he says in a phone interview conducted over Skype. I thought why not translate them into Arabic so that Syrian people can understand?
After working at a tech firm for a year, Akil was able to save up enough money to start his own company and launch an application that he felt could help millions of his countrymen in exile. Gherbtna, which translates to “loneliness in exile,” is a smartphone app created to help Syrians navigate their new life in Turkey.
There are many success stories of Syrians finding jobs and accommodation through the app.
It contains four services: Information, relating to asylum procedures and broadcast via infographics and animation; News; Opportunities, which advertises apartments and jobs legally suitable for refugees; and Help Me, where refugees can ask questions about health, education and other legal services.
With over 40,000 downloads, 90,000 likes on Facebook, and an average of 3,000 daily page views of the website, Gherbtna has been quite a success. Akil was even invited to speak via teleconference at this years Google I/O App Developers meeting in Mountain View, California.
Akil says there are many success stories of Syrians finding jobs and accommodation through the app, and hes also launched a new app to help Syrians with Turkish translation. Still, he wants to expand Gherbtnas capability to include countries like Germany and Sweden, now also home to many Syrians.
Norway’s EduApp4Syria competition
Meanwhile, in Norway, the Norwegian for Development Cooperation (Norad) launched EduApp4Syria, a competition to develop an open source smartphone application that can help Syrian children learn how to read in Arabic and improve their psychosocial wellbeing. Seventy-eight bids from 31 countries were submitted, and in April, five bids from companies based in the U.S., Germany, Norway, Italy and Israel were selected to a shortlist. Three suppliers will be offered contracts for the next phase, and two final winners will be announced in December this year or early 2017.
An estimated 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school, and through this mobile phone project we want to help them continue their learning process wherever they are, said Brge Brende, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs in a statement.
Almost all Syrian households tend to own smartphones.”
Almost all Syrian households tend to own smartphones. We want to take advantage of this to make available engaging and motivational literacy learning games.
As part of their research, the competition jury went to Gaziantep, Turkey the city where Mojahed Akil lives and developed Gherbtna. In one home we visited, the entire family lived in one room and the youngest daughter, aged about 12, had never learned to read, said Dr. Alf Inge Wang, the head of the jury. But she often played games on her older brothers smartphone. Game-based learning can be a way to reach children like her.
Apps across Europe
There might be some competition across Europe, however. Programmers, developers and governments are working together to create a whole host of apps to help refugees in their journey across the continent, and to settle into their new lives.
In Germany, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, in cooperation with the Federal Employment Agency and the Goethe-Institut, developed Ankommen, or “arrive” in German.
The app, available on both iOS and Android, includes three interactive functionalities: first, a German language section developed by the Goethe-Institut which teaches refugees the basics of German to get by in their daily lives. Secondly, Asylum, Apprenticeship, Job provides information on the asylum procedure and also offers information about studying. Finally, Living in Germany provides practical information on cultural practices and values in Germany. The app can be used offline and is available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French and German.
Masod Haidar, 23, is one of over 160,000 people to download Ankommen. He fled Kobani in Syria and went to Turkey, but says, There was no future there. He came to Germany to the city of Kiel a year ago, where his parents had been living for two years.
Through Facebook Messenger, he told Mashable that he is happy in Germany. Its the land of civilization and culture, he says. Theres just one problem: I only speak Arabic.
Haidar downloaded Ankommen and used it as an introduction to the language, learning some basic phrases. Ankommen is very good, he says. With the basics down, Haidar has enrolled in a German language course at Kiel University. Hes hoping to one day study medicine and become a doctor, like his father.
New arrivals like Haidar might also find the Love-Europe app useful for navigating Germany. Currently still in development, Love-Europe is all about helpful locations like refugee camps, free wifi locations, public transport, hospitals, etc…well also show interesting events for newcomers and there will be helpful videos about language, culture and more.
Conceived in the Netherlands, Love Europe is being developed by teams in Germany, Greece and France, and, according to developers, will eventually operate in all those countries.
Lisa Kreuter and Frauke Scharrenberg make up the development team in Germany. Scharrenberg hopes the app will make the transition as soon as possible, so refugees can gain back their independence.
The application is available in two languages simultaneously, so users can see information in, for example, Arabic and German at the same time. The app contains a map with helpful locations and can be used offline, a simple phrasebook, emergency information, and useful country-specific information. Theyll also be adding a section of media with useful videos and animations, and an events page where volunteers organizing events for refugees can list them.
We want to make people feel at home, says Kreuter. Shes hoping Love-Europe will launch officially in August.
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