Text a Syrian: a New Service Will Help Refugees Navigate Life in Canada

Canada's 26,000 refugees can text this service to find out where to buy groceries, or get a doctor.

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Apr 18 2016, 9:00am

Photo: Michael-Owen Liston

Moving to a new country brings a slew of challenges, like figuring out what to eat, or searching for a doctor that can take you on. Now imagine you don't speak the country's native language, and you have no friends or family around to help.

These are everyday problems faced by many of the 26,000 Syrian refugees who've arrived in Canada since December 2015, and who might soon be able to turn to their smartphones for help. Two Toronto developers are designing a mobile personal assistant of sorts, that answers their questions via text and voice message in their native language—sending that message to a database and connecting to a real live person on the receiving end.

The alternative would be calling a government hotline, or lining up for hours at a Service Canada kiosk, only to find out they're not in the right place. This project aims to cut wasted time and crowdsource answers to basic, but necessary, questions.

In February, Michael-Owen Liston and his research partner Manu Kabahizi, who live in Toronto, were green-lit to test a pilot project after Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) asked for pitches on ways to improve the settlement process for Syrians. The government was looking for small-scale, rapid, low-cost activities.

The designers received $4,000 from the government to study what sorts of problems these people face when they arrive, and to come up with an SMS-based solution.

Photo: Michael-Owen Liston

Liston sees SMS as a tool to support newcomer settlement. It's been tried out in Germany, with the app Clarat, and in Turkey, where telecom giant SoukTel launched a cellphone-based legal information service for refugees. SoukTel worked with engineers to device a system where Syrian refugees could send requests to Turkish lawyers, who then offer real-time advice via a secure SMS channel.

Clarat's scope goes beyond helping refugees—any family living in Germany can use it to ask questions.

Liston and Kabahizi are working on a way for a newcomer to text or send a voice message in her native tongue (English or Arabic so far). Their question, which can be about things like finding a local doctor, learning where to get new clothes, or getting Halal food nearby, is routed to volunteers, community organizers, or government-sponsored caseworkers, who might be based anywhere in Canada. (Volunteers would need to be Arabic speakers, which limits the pool, as there is no translation function built in.)

Say a Syrian has a question about where to send her kids to school. That can be posed on this service, with the newcomer selecting a category (things like healthcare, education, food) and then texting or voice-mailing her query. How long it takes to receive a response depends on how many volunteers are available. Volunteers can turn on notifications for various categories, and get a text when a question comes in.

Liston decided to add voice-message as an option, alongside SMS, after learning that some refugees coming out of the conflict might struggle with a purely text-based service. As one government report notes, in pre-uprising Syria, 72 percent of Syrians were enrolled in secondary schools, but attendance rates plummeted to 6 percent in some areas "due to general insecurity, damaged buildings, and a lack of teachers."

Mobile phones are a technology that lots of people are able to access, even on a sometimes-harrowing journey to Canada, or once they've arrived. As one Syrian on the Greek island of Kos told Agence France-Presse, "Our phones and power banks are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food."

In Canada, Wind Mobile said they would provide Syrian refugee families with free cell phones and service, to help them get settled.

A major challenge will be finding enough volunteers who speak Arabic, and who can be available when questions get posed, which can be at any time of the day—or night. Of the thousands of Syrians who've landed here, 9,000 were sponsored by community and faith groups, so lots of people who seem willing to help.

The service is not yet available to beta-test, as it's still in development, Liston said. IFCRO, for its part, is still evaluating and analyzing prototypes.

It's encouraging to see projects like this one gain favour with Ottawa, but imagine how useful such a service could be for all newcomers arriving here. With the right funding and momentum, it could add another layer of assistance for immigrants needing a quick answer to a vital question, as they begin their journey navigating a new country.