Dara and Naleen are reunited with Merkhaz who arrived the previous day, and the group walk towards the reception centre for asylum seekers, in Ter Apel, Holland. Ter Apel is the location of the only reception centre in Holland for asylum seekers. Dara decided to take his family here after speaking to other members of the Kobane group who had arrived in Germany. They told him that conditions in Germany were crowded, with new arrivals being put in tents. ; The group is made up of over 20 Kurdish refugees who left Kobane at various times since September 2014 and came together in Turkey in order to travel together to Europe. Almost all have had their homes destroyed in Kobane and many have lost relatives and friends in the violence that began when ISIS first besieged the town in September 2014. The group consists of 4 families and a few single men and teenagers, many of them are relatives.
Kurdish refugees travelling to Europe.
As Chief of Content Production at UNHCR, the Refugee Agency for the UN, Christopher Reardon has a very noble and difficult mission – to keep the public opinion aware and actively interested on the refugee crisis. In a world where refugee stories have to compete for public attention with cute pet videos, celebrity news and social media, the strategy of UNHCR is to innovate and tell compelling stories in many different ways. Christopher Reardon gave the following interview to Horyou blog:

1 – Horyou is a platform to support and promote people and projects that are making a positive impact on our world. Tell us about your work and how it is contributing to social good? 

We’re trying to build bridges of empathy that connect audiences around the world with people who are fleeing war and persecution. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people on earth, but the numbers — roughly 60 million people are displaced worldwide, the most since the Second World War — are sometimes hard to comprehend. So we tell stories about individuals, people like you and me but with the misfortune of being caught up in a conflict. We look for survivors whose stories are surprising, memorable and worthy of sharing with friends — like the one featuring a teenage swimmer from Syria who is trying to qualify for the Olympics, or the one about a boy who was buried alive by Boko Haram and survived.

2 – As a content professional working on the humanitarian field, what is your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is that we’re competing with so many other things for people’s attention: status updates from friends, news stories that hit closer to home, cat videos — the whole internet, really. As conflicts drag on, and political leaders fail to work out solutions, even people who care about refugees and who want to help can lose hope or become numb to what is happening. We publish stories of resilience and generosity, as well as newsier pieces, to help keep them engaged. (Here’s one about generosity.)

3 – The refugee crisis seemed to raise public commotion in 2015, with Alan Kurdi’s death. How is UNHCR strategy to keep the public aware and engaged by the time passes?

As the photo of Alan Kurdi went viral, there was a tremendous outpouring of support for refugees arriving in Europe. But public sentiment has shifted in recent months. Now we’ve entered a period of closed minds and closed borders. This makes the work of our content teams even more important. We’re looking for stories that will break through the fear and intolerance, stories that will inspire people and their governments to rise to the occasion with sensible policies that fulfill their legal obligations to provide protection.

4 – Can you mention some of the main innovative tools you are working with now?

Our multimedia content teams are constantly in learning mode, looking for new ways of gathering, telling and sharing refugee stories. We use tools like Slack and WhatsApp to stay in touch, we shoot video with GoPros and drones and VR, and we use social media to reach and engage vast audiences. But the best storytelling tools are still our eyes and ears — seeing what refugees are going through and listening to what they have to say.

Christopher Reardon is the Chief of Content for the UNHCR
Christopher Reardon is the Chief of Content for the UNHCR

5 – As an experienced professional within the humanitarian field, do you see changes in how new generations are embracing social topics as the refugees one?

Young people (and increasingly older people too) often learn about humanitarian issues the way they learn about everything else — through social media. They tend to trust content shared by friends more than content that comes to them directly, so the challenge for a team like mine is to create content that’s worth sharing. Millennials are often labeled as self-absorbed, but there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. They may be more open to communicating with people who hold different views, and come from different parts of the world, than my own generation is. I find that really heartening.

6 – What are your thoughts about the future of social innovation?

All innovation is social, isn’t it? Whether you’re talking about technology, human rights, music or anything, great ideas and great advancements don’t come out of a vacuum. They come from interactions between and among people (in addition to learning, lived experience and time for reflection). What’s great about online communities is that we can connect with more people, in more places, than ever before. We can use them to address social problems that have long eluded us – including, I hope, the global refugee crisis.

We are very thankful for having Christopher Reardon interview in our blog! We are also convinced that innovation is one of the best tools for doing good. Horyou hopes UNHCR keeps telling good stories and touching people’s hearts on the refugee crisis.

Written by Vivian Soares

A beautiful view of Geneva on the second day
A beautiful view of Geneva on the second day.

It was a cloudy morning in Geneva when I headed to my first Hackathon. I was excited and curious for the challenge of using technology and communication techniques to develop projects on the refugee crisis, along with other marketing professionals, journalists, programmers and developers. The event was organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), in a partnership with the Radio et Télevision Suisse (RTS) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Although I had read a lot about Hackathons all over the world, I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the beautiful and impressive building of RTS. I was welcomed by a friendly team and very quickly started to make contacts among the participants. They were producers, editors, designers, entrepreneurs and curious with different origins and interests, but with the same goal: to discover how technology can help with good and meaningful projects.

The refugee crisis is the theme of the moment. Europe has been flooded by millions of migrants and refugees for years now, in a situation that has been aggravated by misinformation, prejudice and radicalism from both sides. Communication is key here – and that is the reason why EBU, RTS and UNHCR decided to organize a Hackathon over the refugee crisis.

How non-specialists in refugee policies could possibly develop communication tools and projects for this seemingly endless challenge in 24 hours? Well, this is what Hackathon stands for: it is a “Hacker” marathon. And when I thought of hackers I had all the misinformation and prejudice I could get: people trying to steal passwords or to transfer money from bank accounts by breaking in computers. I was surprised when I discovered that, in modern computer science language, to hack is to find a solution for a problem or an inefficient process. And this is what we were willing to do, after all.

Coaching and lectures were given to the participants
Coaching and lectures were given to the participants.

We were coached for specialists in many areas: a content leader of the UNHCR, a media and data professional on Google, a young journalist who discovered appalling stories on Iran, Afghanistan and Syria using data and crossing information, as well as professionals from media outlets as Deutsche Welle and RTS itself. They were there to provide inspiration and to help us by sharing knowledge and advices.

My group of 6 people started working on a project to connect young refugees with local people, since our focus was integration. We identified problems as isolation, lack of communication between both groups and prejudice. The idea was to develop an educational app to “match” them according to their hobbies and common interests, like music, sports, career aspirations. We spent the night working on programming, design and content for our project, as well as the other teams. We needed and we had great help from the coaches and even from our “competitors”. We could exchange people from groups if we felt interested on a different project.

After many hours of work, we were ready for the pitch session. It was amazing to see how, in a short period of time, all groups had developed great ideas for the refugee crisis. Two of them were focused on the refugee travel. Using real time information, they could show the best route for refugees based on their profile: families, men, women, mixed groups. Other tried to raise awareness on the refugee crisis, showing a European or American person how hard it is to live in a refugee camp or to travel thousands and thousands of kilometers, using data and storytelling tools. The winner group developed an app with information about all European countries such as refugee policy and laws, health care system and shelters.

After 24 hours of working together, we didn’t feel we were competitors, as it is common in group contests. We were sharing skills and inspiration, feeding each other with purpose and will. We celebrated the best project because it was indeed a great idea and didn’t feel sorry for not being chosen as winners. Most important, we showed the UN Refugee Agency many possibilities and paths they can take from here.

Personally, I have got made new friends, new abilities and a full set of ideas I will use and share in my work at Horyou. As a social network for the social good, we have the same goals and aspirations I experienced on this Hackathon: to connect for good, to help solving social challenges by using technology and communication and to build a better world. I didn’t know it by then, but we are all together social good hackers.

Written by Vivian Soares

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