New initiatives emerge to help refugees

Prompted by the ongoing refugee crisis affecting much of the western world, new initiatives have emerged to provide solutions to the many challenges facing the beleaguered masses. As Rahm Emanuel once famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

In a sea of clueless government bureaucrats and fearful citizens, these new startups want to tap into the potential of the newcomers. Privately funded initiatives — relying on the spirit of innovation coupled with a sense of altruism — may one day become the norm in helping tackle challenges such as the current refugee crisis.

Refugees to entrepreneurs

Founded in the Autumn of 2015, Finland-based Startup Refugees identifies skilled workers and entrepreneurs from the thousands of refugees (who are mostly adult males). The founders, Riku Rantala and Tunna Milonoff, believe that the refugees have the potential to enrich and elevate the Finnish business scene.

“There are all kinds of refugees, but many have been entrepreneurs in their native countries. They might have thoughts, ideas, information and understanding of cultures that Finns might not have,” Milonoff said in an interview.

Startup Refugees functions as a combination between a startup incubator and a talent agency.

The purpose is to map out the refugees’ — currently living in refugee centers around the country — skills, professionalism and business experience. The top candidates will receive a funding allowance of 32.80 euros ($38) for the period of one month.

The idea is to have the refugees use the funds to elevate the accommodation and food conditions in the refugee centers.

To qualify as a recipient of the allowance, the candidate must have the right to work in Finland.

Rantala and Milonoff believe that Finland, one of the many European countries in the throes of economic malaise, can benefit from the refugees’ potential.

“Immigration is essentially the importing of brains. We want to harness the mental capital of refugees and combine it with the mad brilliance of Finnish entrepreneurship to lift Finland from economic misery,” Milonoff said.

Fintech for immigrants

Refugees who manage to obtain the right to work are faced with another problem: how to find a job and, more importantly, how to get paid. Because banks do not open accounts for refugees, finding an employer who’s willing to pay salaries in cash is nearly impossible.

MONI, a Helsinki-based company, launched a pilot partnership with the Finnish Immigration Service in December to provide refugees with prepaid MasterCards and customized mobile payment accounts so the refugees can receive salaries and government benefits.

“To remove obstacles we enabled a feature where the employer can pay the salary to a refugee’s MONI account. First salary payment tests were made in February this year and now there are several employers onboard,” said Antti Pennanen, founder of MONI.

According to Pennanen both the companies operating reception centers and the refugees are happy with the service.

“Today almost 4000 refugees, over 10% of all refugees in Finland, are receiving their benefits to MONI accounts.”

The next step for Pennanen is to turn refugees into entrepreneurs.

“Our big goal is to create a simple model for the refugees to employ themselves as micro-entrepreneurs, with their taxation automated using smart contracts. This would mean decreasing the administrative burden for the government — less cost in tax collection since it is automated, faster employment for the refugees and new taxpayers for Finland.”

Headhunting refugees

In the context of the refugee crisis, the term headhunter carries some unfortunate connotations.  Unlike the local vigilante in Bulgaria who is quite literally hunting migrants, new companies have emerged that focus on headhunting refugees in the more traditional sense.

Profit-seeking companies with tech-savvy entrepreneurs at their helm are the perfect executioners of solutions that enable the integration of refugees into their host societies.

A social enterprise that connects refugees with companies that look for specific skill sets, Zharity is another Helsinki-based company. Zharity’s stated goal is to help 1,000 immigrants, newcomers or asylum seekers find work within a year from its launch earlier in 2016.

Founded in November during the height of the crisis, Austria-based Refugees Work helps refugees find jobs by creating profiles on its platform. Founder Dominik Beron told TechCrunch the company has registered more than 130 employers so far, and has around 1,000 refugees signed up to create a jobs profile to seek work.

Navigating local complexities

In Canada, a new startup helps refugees navigate the country’s complicated healthcare system.

iamsick, a digital health platform, helps migrants with access to healthcare services; from information about walk-in-clinics that are open late to pharmacies and emergency rooms, the platform shows users their nearest healthcare option any time across the country.

Nouhaila Chelkhaoui joined the company after living in Turkey, where she witnessed the chaos first hand.

“We have identified many Arabic speaking healthcare professionals across Canada, plus Arabic is now one of five languages the platform itself has been translated into. We’ve also established a direct phone line for assistance in English, Arabic and French for two hours a week so refugees who don’t have access to the internet or aren’t tech savvy can still get the information they need,” Chelkhaoui told U of T News.

Foodie refugees

Deviating from the plethora of tech initiatives, some newcomers are harnessing their cooking skills to make a living.

Considering the demand for Middle Eastern cuisine, this might be a smart bet.

Manal Kahi, a Columbia University graduate, launched a food startup with her brother Wissam Kahi, a graduate of Columbia Business School, to provide locals with authentic hummus — made and delivered by local refugees. Eat Offbeat employs refugees from around the world to cook their own family recipes and deliver the meals to customers in New York City.

Seldom has the following been used as a marketing pitch, but authenticity sells.

“[We want you to] feel like you’re in downtown Baghdad, for instance, or that you’ve been invited to a chef’s own home,” said Manal Kahi.

Good government, great startups

New startups that have emerged as a result of the influx of refugees indicate a trend that is long overdue. Instead of reverting to the role of bystanders, the startup mentality, pervasive in cities across Europe and North America, is taking problem solving away from the public domain to the incentive-based domain of businesses.

Profit-seeking companies with tech-savvy entrepreneurs at their helm are the perfect executioners of solutions that enable the integration of refugees into their host societies.

Cities and governments would be wise to cooperate with entrepreneurs who are able and willing to help refugees without adding to the tax burden. However, because governments control the agenda on immigration, successful integration needs to be a tango for two.

“Without government participation and political will to solve problems in this scale, I think it is really difficult to achieve anything,” Pennanen said.