Suparna Dutt D’Cunha
Forbes - Sep. 5, 2017
In Turkey, a major jumping-off point for many of those fleeing war in the Middle East, there are over two million Syrian refugees. Apart from physical ailments and emotional turmoil, they have an even more immediate problem on their hands — the language barrier.
“Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey – the only non-Arabic speaking country in the region – do not speak Turkish; they have no knowledge of the Turkish legal system and so don’t have a grasp of their legal entitlements. As a result, they are vulnerable to human rights violations,” says Jacob Korenblum, co-founder of Souktel. Based in Ramallah, Palestine, this company, in small but significant ways, is helping Syrian refugees to forge new lives for themselves.
While Google Maps, WhatsApp and Facebook help refugees find their way and connect with family, Souktel, in support of the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative, provides legal advice to them via their mobile phones.
The 40-person venture employs both former humanitarian workers and software engineers to tackle the challenge of sorting, tagging and translating enquiries. “The queries are translated into Turkish, and sent to lawyers, who respond to the requests by providing information, which then gets translated back into Arabic and is sent to the mobile of the refugee,” says Korenblum.
“Building the technology was complex and time-consuming, but bringing together refugees and lawyers and ensuring the service could educate refugees on what their rights are was more difficult,” adds Korenblum.
Over 10,000 Syrian refugees have used the service since it was launched over a year ago, and usage is increasing. The service is designed for countries that have minimal or slow internet access, and also for those where higher-speed internet and mobile data are becoming widespread, he says.
“Our core technology platform allows content to be delivered across multiple channels — SMS, mobile audio, mobile messenger (like WhatsApp) — at the same time, so that smartphone users and basic mobile users have equal access to life-changing information.”
Now, Korenblum hopes to expand the free legal advice service by text message to reach refugees in other parts of the world. “There is widespread replicability for this service, whether it be for Somalis in Kenya, or Burundians in Tanzania. There is always a need for accurate information on basic rights,” he says.
A former aid worker, Korenblum co-founded Souktel after he saw young people in Palestine relying on their mobile devices when first working there in 2005. “Our first service was an SMS and mobile audio platform that linked employers and job-seekers. We started in Palestine, and then expanded it to a dozen countries in Asia and Africa,” he says.
The company has built similar services on behalf of humanitarian organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps in Gaza, Iraq, Somalia and Kenya, among other places.
“Young refugees are extremely tech savvy, and the challenge is ensuring that their voices are heard,” Korenblum says. “Tech providers can't build platforms in isolation. We need to take a human-centered approach to our work, and let the end users of these technologies lead the design.”
Overall, Souktel’s services have reached over a million mobile device users, in more than 30 countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, claims Korenblum. “We are currently focusing on artificial intelligence and chatbots to develop new applications to better serve refugees and communities in need across the globe,” he adds.