In this installment of Digital Diversity, brothers David and Christopher Mikkelsen tell the story of how their organisation, Refugees United, was born. It all began with one man’s search for his family after they were separated for five years because of the war in Afghanistan. The Mikkelsen’s were struck by the frequency of families separating because of wars and conflicts, and decided that something had to be done to help them reconnect.
Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from kiwanja.net featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Gabrielle LePore, our Media and Research Assistant. You can follow Gabrielle on Twitter at @GabrielleLePore and kiwanja.net at @kiwanja
By David and Christopher Mikkelsen
Every few seconds a family is separated because of conflicts or natural disasters. A mother might have been gathering firewood when a militia descended on her village, sending her family scattering for safety. A brother might have been sent hundreds of kilometers away to sell livestock at a market when a battle turns into an all-out war, forcing his family to flee.
Such separation might be momentary in the developed world because reconnection is possible through various means of communication. However, it is different for more than 45 million people in the developing world who are forcibly displaced. Separation only takes a moment, but leaves a lifetime of hurt.
Our organisation, Refugees United, uses mobile technology and the world’s largest database to help reconnect separated refugee families. It grew from a deeply personal experience with a young Afghan man named Mansour who we met in 2005. Not only did he lose his past to the Taliban, but also all contact with his parents and five siblings during their escape.
A human trafficker operating out of Peshawar, Pakistan, offered to help Mansour’s family to safety for a handsome sum, but ended up separating them all in the process. On the eve of their scheduled departure to Scandinavia, the trafficker arrived and told them that a bus was waiting outside with one vacant seat. Now the family had to make a choice no family should have to make – one person was to go first. One child was to travel through the war-torn devastation on his or her own, and the rest would follow in two weeks.
Mansour had been waiting for five years when we met him. Hope had been replaced with memories and a distant belief that he would be with his family again one day. We offered our help. Even though 2005 was not the year of social networks, how difficult could it be to find seven people separated across the globe? And so we trekked into unknown territory into the world of conflict, separation and refugee agencies.
My brother and I have traveled the globe and were intrepid travelers from an early age. We were no strangers to being in far away lands, experiencing rough beginnings and finding ourselves stranded in places so disconnected that we would sometimes doubt we would ever make it back. We used all of our experience in the proceeding months to help Mansour track down the trafficker in Peshawar. We followed his bribed information to find Parwan, Mansour’s one younger brother, who was living as an enslaved and stateless person in a town south of Russia.
In October 2005 we had Parwan brought to Moscow – to where we had flown with Mansour – and the two brothers were reunited after nearly six years of silence. It was life changing for us to witness Mansour and Parwan falling into each other’s arms.
We had enlisted the help of international aid organisations as part of our search for Parwan. It was clear to us early on that the system of pen and paper – without the power of technology – was not optimised to efficiently collect and distribute data on separated refugee families across conflicts, borders and organisations. Also, as unique as the brothers’ story was to us, it was striking that it was only one of millions. It seemed that few people understood or were aware of the magnitude of this invisible tragedy.
We believed we could help organisations and refugees by creating a platform for sharing separated persons’ data with organisations and refugees themselves. As a result, Refugees United was born. It was a rough start, but through tenacity and stubbornness, we built the organisation into what it is today – a technology non-profit which helps thousands of refugees in their quest to find missing loved ones.
In partnership with Ericsson, a provider of telecommunications equipment and services, we built an innovative mobile platform that allows refugees to take the search for missing loved ones into their own hands. It makes it easier for them to search, connect and communicate while working with aid organisations such as UNHCR and Kenya Red Cross, and refugees themselves. Our platform is accessible via toll-free lines and a multilingual mobile application often used across Africa for something quite different – mobile banking.
Refugees United’s systems provide access to a simple SMS that can be a lifeline connecting a disconnected person with the rest of the world, and with their missing family. Millions of pieces of data – such as tribes and clans, places last seen and personal traits – are securely analysed and paired to create matches for more than 190,000 refugees who are already registered in our database.
In Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, Refugees United and Kenya Red Cross trained 50 refugee leaders to become family tracing volunteers who capture data about missing persons through a simple mobile phone. As a result, Kenya Red Cross went from helping to register 750 refugees a year to more than 750 people a week in Dadaab alone.
The mobile operators are key allies in our quest to help families reconnect. We rely on the support of Vodafone, Vodacom, Telesom, MTN and Safaricom in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, the DRC and Egypt. They make access to our platform free of charge, essential support when you consider sending just two or three text messages can be prohibitively expensive for a refugee. Beyond free access, operators will be sending text messages to raise awareness of Refugees United to tens of millions of subscribers across sub-Saharan Africa.
With Ericsson, Refugees United has pledged to help one million refugees in search of missing families through our platform by 2015. It will be a daunting mission and one that will lead us further into some of the most disconnected places on this planet – all to help bring families out of their painful search.
Brothers and social entrepreneurs David and Christopher Mikkelsen founded Refugees United in 2008 based on a personal experience trying to reconnect a young Afghan refugee with his family. They realised the lack of any global, IT-based infrastructure to help refugees locate missing families and set out to change this.
They built Refugees United, the first global, web-based search tool for refugees. It’s based on an open-source, collaborative approach to building an organisation through partnerships with large corporate players as well as other non-profit organisations such as Kenya Red Cross, UNHCR, Ericsson, Google, and others.
Christopher and David Mikkelsen are members of the Clinton Global Initiative (2010 and 2011). They have been named the “New World Heroes – People who deserve a bigger stage in 2009” by Monocle Magazine, nominated as “People of the Year 2009” by DAS Magazine, and nominated as PopTech Fellows in 2011.
Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja