In 2015, a 3-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe with his family. The image of his body washed up on a beach in Lebanon devastated American startup veteran Shelley Taylor.
“These migrants are coming into Europe, they get here, and they don’t know how to find the basic things—the supermarket, shelter, the doctor,” says Taylor, CEO of Trellyz, which creates software for cities and nonprofits. “And I thought, they all have smartphones, maybe I can create something that will let them find what they need when they need it.”
Over a weekend she built RefAid—Refugee Aid App and launched it in the UK and Italy in February 2016. The app catalogs aid organizations’ services for migrants and refugees seeking to build a new life in Europe and, increasingly, the United States.
These days, the app is evolving from one designed to meet the basic daily survival needs of refugees to one able to tackle the many challenges of the mounting migrant crisis at the U.S. border and provide information during COVID-19.
Services have been added to address family separation, offering constantly updated intel about legal aid as well as geo-targeted push notifications with crucial on-the-ground information. For example, RefAid might send an alert with a phone number for free legal help in an area where migrants are being rounded up.
The app (which is now available in 25 countries, with some 5,000 aid organizations contributing) will soon include services in most U.S. states. Taylor and her team are constantly reaching out to more nonprofits and public service providers to include them in the app. Through a web-based content management system, they can manage and update their offerings and communicate directly with people.
These migrants are coming into Europe, they get here, and they don’t know how to find the basic things—the supermarket, shelter, the doctor.
Available in English, Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, and soon French, the app directs refugees (using geolocation) to aid within a 100-mile radius. The services are sorted by categories like legal, food, education, work, media, faith groups, psychological, and more.
Solving one problem at a time
Before launching RefAid, Taylor—who was raised in Palo Alto, California, but lives in Europe—needed to contact aid organizations and have them provide a list of services that could help migrants in need. She started with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the British Red Cross but quickly ran into a roadblock: Most of them didn’t readily know all of the services they provided.
Taylor waited weeks for aid groups to get back to her. “We called them and said, ‘Did you change your mind? Where are your services? We just need a little spreadsheet.’” And they said, uniformly, ‘Oh, we have to call each of the offices to ask them because nothing is written down.”
Eventually, Taylor created what may be the first global database of nonprofit services. She doesn’t charge the organizations to use the app, covering the development and operating costs herself. “We didn’t want anyone to have an excuse to say no to putting their services on the app, because it’s such a huge problem and people really need help.”
Help finding help
Although RefAid doesn’t have the capacity to respond to real-time updates from refugees and migrants, Taylor has anticipated the needs of people arriving by either land or sea.
“When you come into Greece, for example, the organizations don’t have the right to go to the beach directly. They have to stay in their offices — that’s the law. But, if somebody has told migrants to look at the app, those migrants can discover that around the corner there’s a Red Cross office and food vouchers, which they couldn’t have found otherwise.”
The app is used primarily in the U.S., the UK, Belgium, France, Italy, and Greece. After the first attempted U.S. travel ban in January 2017, RefAid quickly deployed in 19 American cities, cataloging legal services nearby for those trapped at U.S. airports. In May 2018, 40 other cities—including Oslo, Athens, and Amsterdam—began listing their services.
During the current U.S. migrant crisis, new services from different aid organizations are being added daily. Some large resettlement organizations in the U.S., such as the International Refugee Committee, have actually started preloading cell phones with the RefAid app and giving them to migrants.
“It’s exciting to see how it’s growing,” Taylor says, “but we still haven’t mapped the whole world. And that’s our goal: to map all of the services available to refugees and everyone else in the whole world. It’s just a step at a time.”
Originally published on the App Store.