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How housing (un)affordability in Vancouver is hitting one of the most vulnerable groups: refugees

It is very likely you’ve felt the crunch of Vancouver’s soaring rental prices. This year, the westcoast city was named the world’s second most expensive to live in, according to the 15th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, which rates urban middle-income housing affordability across the globe.

Imagine trying to find an affordable living situation in this market. Now, imagine navigating this situation with the added challenge of being a refugee. You’ve been displaced from your home, perhaps you’ve experienced trauma, and now you’re looking to build a new life in a climate where the odds seem stacked against just about everyone.

Like anyone in search of housing, the lack of knowing where you’ll be in two weeks’ time is unnerving to say the least. In 2016, Canada stepped up to support refugees following the crisis in Syria, and Syrians made up 71% of all new refugee arrivals in Canada that year. For these newcomers, their arrival in Canada came after an extended period of uncertainty, oftentimes after months or years spent in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and having had to flee their homes as a result of the civil war.

Part of their hopes for their new life in Canada, of course includes a safe and secure place to call home.

Government-Assisted Refugee families are provided temporary housing in hostels or hotels upon arrival until they find more permanent housing, but for newly arrived refugees, housing is just one of the several immediate that needs to be addressed.
While finding housing is undeniably important, refugees list finding employment and learning English as their top concerns – with social isolation and finding affordable housing tailing close behind. Housing, in accessible neighbourhoods, is an important foundation for a new life.

Family size and lack of credit and references make it difficult to enter the rental market. With occupancy rates as low at 0.8% in Vancouver, competition in the rental market is high.

In recent years, family units made up most of the refugee arrivals under the Government-Assisted Refugee Program, families that may be bigger than the average Canadian family, with a wider set of needs. On average, refugee families arrive with 6 members. 47% of Canada’s newest citizens arrive before they reach 12 years of age.

Landlords can set maximum occupants for a property but legally can’t deny housing because of children. But with a larger-than-average family, combined with no credit, and lack of references, settlement agencies are seeing instances where refugee families are being overlooked as viable tenants.

High cost of housing leaves little left for other needs. Government-Assisted Refugees receive crucial financial assistance in their first year in Canada. A refugee family comprising two adults and three children receives $785-885 a month for housing, and $649 a month for basic needs, for a total of $1399-$1499. There is also the Canada Child Benefit with payments available for lower-income families with children. But according to the Vancouver Sun, average rental prices in Vancouver have hit an all-time high of $2,100 for a one-bedroom apartment.

To secure housing, most will need to spend beyond the specified housing limit during the first year of benefits and then upwards of 51%, 75% and sometimes more of their total income afterwards. Families are needing to dip into incomes intended to support groceries, school supplies and more. Often they need to move to more affordable neighbourhoods further away from transit, work, and support services.
How can we improve refugees’ access to affordable housing?

As opposed to Government-sponsored refugees, those that are privately sponsored arrive with a support network. Canada’s private sponsorship program is gaining interest from other countries around the world. In this unique program, refugees are sponsored by a group of Canadians who are committed to providing financial and holistic support for new arrivals over a one-year period.

PeaceGeeks’ new app Arrival Advisor wants to bring refugee support services right to newcomers’ phones, in their language. PeaceGeeks’ technology and development geeks have been working to create a brand new platform for refugees and immigrants arriving in British Columbia with all the information for their settlement housed in one handy and free mobile app.

Arrival Advisor is there for new arrivals, to connect them with the tools and information they need at different stages of their resettlement journey.

While finding a home can be difficult in a city like Vancouver, Arrival Advisor is there to give newcomers a head start.

This article was written by Amelia Mitchell, contributing writer and PeaceGeeks volunteer.

Mar 11, 2019

A word after a word after a word is power: from Australia to Jordan and back, stories that move us

In “Spelling Poem,” Canadian author Margaret Atwood writes “a word after a word after a word is power.”

The phenomenon of storytelling has a unique ability to transport us from our reality to another through multiple mediums from podcasts, to television shows and films, good old-fashioned books, and the most ancient and universal method, conversations.

Its greatest power lies in its ability to connect our own perspectives to a much larger picture, opening up the big wide world and bringing it into our living rooms, through our headphones, and providing through inspired imagination a sense of connection with other people, narratives, and experiences. Sometimes the events of our world, both past and present, feel far removed from ourselves. When we lack understanding or relatability, we lack compassion and empathy. These fundamental emotions are key to connection between individuals and communities, and lead us to a more cohesive coexistence. Stories left untold deepen the divide between people. Stories heard expand horizons far beyond frames of reference.


This week, Behrouz Boochani, refugee and detainee on the Australian government-sanctioned but unlawful Manus Island detention centre, won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature for his book No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Boochani’s work was transcribed, incredibly, by hundreds of texts via WhatsApp over a period of five years.

In Australia and around the world, coverage of refugees and the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres is highly politicised. It is a story half told, with devastating results in the form of skewed views on refugee rights, and what demonstrates responsible government action. In many instances, we do not even know it is happening, let alone what is happening.

Boochani takes back this narrative, and makes it impossible to ignore. Boochani moves us through his first-hand experience, his endurance and survival of the horrific treatment of refugees on Manus Island, while providing deeply personal insights into life in detention in its many forms.

In his early days on Manus Island, Boochani’s pain is shared through poems. He writes:

“Days without any plans
Lost and disoriented
Mind still caught up in the waves of the ocean
Searching for peace of mind on new plains
But the prison's plains are like a corridor leading to a fighters' gym
And the smell of warm sweat everywhere is driving everyone insane.”

Some of the details of life in detention are surprising, and provide an insight into Boochani including his affinity with nature which built part of his survival toolkit. Speaking of the flowers after the rain, Boochani muses:

“[The flowers are] dancing incessantly, breathing heavily, gasping as through in love with the cool ocean. I love those flowers. A zeal for resistance, a tremendous will for life bursting out from the coils and curves of the stems.”

Boochani’s story is personal, and through his voice we truly connect to him. He teaches us more about the world, and what’s happening in the dark, hidden corners. And his story urges us towards greater empathy, and voicing our intolerance of unethical and unjust treatment of refugees.


Here in Canada, the importance of storytelling has been formally acknowledged as part of the National Apology to Indigenous People in 2008. The official documentation of stories as the cornerstone of the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre began with an attempt to capture the experiences of survivors of Residential Schools. More than 6500 accounts were shared; there are 80,000 residential school survivors alive in Canada today. These experiences have been preserved and shared, as part of a reconciliation with the past and an acknowledgement of how it continues to shape Indigenous-settler relations in Canada today.

These stories are told in creative ways: last year, the novel Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese was adapted into a motion picture. The film’s director Stephen Campanelli, saw the film as an opportunity to keep the conversation about reconciliation going. He hoped it would give people a more in-depth opinion, and a call to action. In interviews with the Canadian Press, Campanelli revealed that he had sparked a hopeful dialogue with Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood:

"He [Clint Eastwood] was like, 'What? You Canadians did this?' I said, 'Yeah, believe it or not.' He said, 'How come no one knows about this?'
I said, 'Well, they will soon."'

One of the main characters of Indian Horse is actually the quintessentially Canadian game of ice hockey: an activity that permeates the lives of almost all Canadians in some way, shape or form. Hockey is relatable, familiar. Hockey serves as a guiding hand for lead protagonist Saul Indian-Horse through his experiences of suffering and survival during his time in residential schools: lifting readers and viewers out of the dark intermittently, offering hope, and a point of reference.


PeaceGeeks’ Jordan project, Meshkat Community, is committed to tell stories for the purpose of starting conversations and inspiring initiatives to build peace in a region that’s been deeply affected by political extremism and conflict. Meshkat is an ancient Arabic word for “alcove in the wall,” where candles or lanterns were placed to safely illuminate living spaces. Meshkat aims to illuminate alternative narratives to violence through storytelling in art mediums.

Meshkat hosts workshops, art and content incubation programs, artists-in-residence programs, collaborative networks and online engagement tools for local artists, activists, and digital content producers to create and amplify content that promotes social inclusion. This content challenges the hate, violence, extremism, and polarization of other prolific online content in the region, and is hosted on their Arabic language website.

One of Meshkat Community’s current artists-in-residence, Banan Zeraid, recently completed her short documentary "Little Feet." Following the story of Tim, a young Syrian boy, Zeraid tells the tragic tale of a child labourer denied of his basic rights. For Tim, change is not easy, and his journey is long and difficult but worthwhile. This is the message Zeraid looks to share with viewers to advance children’s rights and education in Syria. Zeraid’s short film is just one of many recent works coming out of the growing Meshkat Community.

PeaceGeeks is proud to support young talents, artists and creative works of the Meshkat Community promoting tolerance and encouraging community harmony through relevant and relatable stories.

As important as the stories from Behrouz Boochani, Richard Wagamese, and Banan Zeraid are, our responsibility to seek out, read, watch or listen these tales in our commitment to learn more and drive positive action is imperative.

Learn more:

Amelia Mitchell is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer. Thanks to Tasneem Ma’abreh for contributions about Meshkat Community. This article was edited by PeaceGeeks staff Lauren Hyde.

Feb 13, 2019

Refugee family reunited after years apart just in time for Christmas

Mohammed Alsaleh arrived in Canada as a Syrian refugee four years ago, at the end of November. He fled Syria in early 2014 and spent most of the year in transit in Lebanon, before winning a lottery to be sponsored by the Canadian government. It was month before Christmas when he touched down in Vancouver, and Mohammed describes that winter season as a period of “prolonged jet lag.” After years of living through constant war and conflict, imprisonment, torture, and displacement from his home and family, he doesn’t remember anything about Christmas 2014, his first on Canadian soil. Operating in survival mode, the thought of having his family in Canada with him seemed, at the time, nothing short of impossible.

Mohammed considers the following year his first “real Canadian Christmas,” which he spent with new friends, part of a life he built from scratch, a life that would look very different from what he had in Syria, where he was attending school to become a doctor. Though he was surrounded by his network of new friends and thankful to be settling into a more secure life here, Mohammed longed for his family to be able to share in the joys of the season with him. “During the holidays particularly, you feel far away. You miss your family,” he says. “I was sad I couldn’t celebrate with my family, and I wished I could be with them. I always wished that.”

Remembering Christmas in Syria

Mohammed reminisces about Christmases spent with his family in Syria and his Christian community. “Before the war, there was a lot of diversity in Syria,” Mohammed recalls, “There was peace and harmony between people from different religions, and with different beliefs – like in Canada.”

Prior to the outbreak of war in 2011, Christmas in Syria comprised familiar activities including taking children to visit Santa Claus, and admiring the Christmas light displays. “On Christmas Eve, the whole sky lights up with fireworks,” Mohammed shares, “[the holidays were] always celebrated with family.”

The onset of war changed everything. There was neither time nor resources for celebrations, and on Christmas Eve the sound of fireworks was replaced with the sound of gunfire. “Instead of fireworks, there were planes, bombs, and death in the sky," Mohammed remembers.

The path to reunion

After multiple imprisonments for political activism, which included documenting and broadcasting videos and images of military brutality, and being caught in possession of satirical caricatures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in his med school dorm room (those belonged to his roommate), Mohammed was forced to flee the country to protect his life. Separated from his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and two younger sisters, who made their way as refugees to Turkey, Mohammed ended up in Canada alone.

After several years apart, he determined that the dream of being reunited with his family should become reality. So he set to work. Engaging with his professional and volunteer networks through the Federal Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, and the Immigrants Services Society of British Columbia, Mohammed began raising the necessary funds to bring his family safely to Canada.

By the end of 2017, Mohammed had raised $60,00 - a combination of his own savings, a successful GoFundMe campaign, and significant contributions from an anonymous couple moved to action by his family's plight.

A holiday wish come true

Mohammed's family finally arrived as privately-sponsored refugees on October 17th this year. Mohammed became a permanent Canadian resident just two days before, on October 15th. “I feel like I’ve come full circle,” he says. “Arriving alone as a refugee, and now, as a Canadian, welcoming my family as refugees,” Mohammed beams with pride. “Bringing them to Canada is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

Mohammed is thrilled to introduce his family to his friends and his life here just in time for Christmas. Already, they’ve decorated a Christmas tree, and have gone to Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver to see the Christmas Light Festival.

A new year, a new chapter

“No matter who you are, there’s something about the promise of a new year to be excited about,” says Mohammed. “There’s time for reflection, and an opportunity to start fresh.”

Mohammed’s New Year’s hopes are for his family to have a successful transition and settlement in Canada. His youngest sister will attend junior high, and his other family members are enrolled in English classes.

Arriving in a new country, especially arriving as a refugee or displaced person, and not knowing the language, the culture, or any people there, not knowing how to get around, or what support services are available or how to access them, is intensely daunting. Fortunately for Mohammed’s family, they have him and his self-made support network to rely on as the foundation of their settlement into life in Canada.

Services Advisor Pathways

PeaceGeeks’ Services Advisor Pathways project looks to support new arrivals in a similar way. Canada welcomes an average of 300,000 migrants each year. Access to information for newcomers is one of the top barriers to resettlement today. Launching in March 2019, the Pathways app is being designed in partnership with immigrants, refugees, and community service providers, and will help newcomers more effectively navigate their settlement. The app will be piloted in Metro Vancouver, which is home to 153,000 newcomers to Canada, will be available in seven languages, and will be updated by local service providers regularly in order to remain accurate and informative. Find out more about the project here:

What can you do?

The holidays are not always an easy time for everyone, but Mohammed views them as a universal occasion, and an opportunity to coalesce around singular issues to give back to our communities and make them a better place for all. Newcomers to Canada are amongst the most vulnerable population groups for whom winter and the holidays are uniquely challenging.

Mohammed’s ideal for an inclusive holiday season starts with smalls steps from all of us: “educate your children. Remind them to wish their classmates from immigrant families ‘Happy Holidays.’ You don’t know what they might be going through. We can all do that, to our colleagues and neighbours too. Share happiness with those around us.”

This year, as you purchase gifts for your friends and families, please consider making a small donation to programs that will provide refugees with a holiday meal or support year-round. You can also donate to PeaceGeeks, which will go directly toward our Pathways app project and our other peacebuilding projects here in Canada and in Jordan and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.

PeaceGeeks wishes Mohammed and his family, all refugees and newcomers, our partners, donors, and volunteers, and their families a Happy Holidays.

PeaceGeeks interviewed Mohammed two years ago. You can read more on his story here:

If you, or someone you know, are having a hard time over the holidays, selected support services in Vancouver are:

Amelia Mitchell is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.

Dec 20, 2018
Category: Media

The media needs to diversify its coverage of refugees. And readers need to demand it.

“The media doesn’t do a good job covering refugee stories,” said journalism veteran and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre Peter Klein to the overflowing room at Vancouver Public Library, in September The crowd had gathered for a PeaceTalk panel, an ongoing series of events that Vancouver NGO PeaceGeeks started in 2011 to bring people together to talk about pressing issues of peace and unity.

Klein was joined on the PeaceTalks panel by Vancouver-based journalist Alia Dharssi, Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Jean-Nicolas Beuze, and former refugee and refugee advocate Amir Taghini.

The crowd had gathered to hear stories of refugees, and understand the ways their portrayal in the media could differ from their lived experience. The first speaker, brave enough to share his difficult story, was Taghini.

Taghini echoed Klein’s sentiment—the media needed to improve their coverage of refugee issues. And he would know, as it was his story that had been told, and too often poorly told, as he spent five years detained at the hands of the Australian Government at their internationally condemned offshore detention centre on Manus Island, where he was placed for trying to seek asylum.

Amir pleaded for support to journalists, governments, and regular citizens from a homemade mobile phone smuggled in piece by piece. Access to something as simple as a phone and as complex as connection with the rest of the world are among the long list of restricted items on Manus Island.

Amir was required to share information via a smuggled phone,  as the Australian government maintains tight control over access to Manus Island, as well as  their alternative refugee processing facility on Nauru. Media is not allowed to visit either facility and supervised visits are limited to nearnone and journalists trying to enter have often cited having their visas denied.

Without a combination of Amir’s unrelenting determination and the reach of media, both traditional and online, Amir’s story and ultimately his connection with the five Canadians who privately sponsored Amir to come to Canada would not have happened.

The panel and audience shared their frustration in the too often sensationalized headlines and fast news that leaves little room to tell the complex stories of refugees. Today the world’s refugee coverage is littered with detrimental terms like “illegal arrival” and “border crosser”, while narrowly covering the world’s crises and making refugees  over represented in crime stories.

The media had their say as well in the PeaceTalk as journalists Dharssi and Klein shared their experience working for a range of media outlets. They shared insights into some of the reasons for the lack of in-depth, informative and non-sensationalized coverage of refugees’ experiences.

Dharrasi cited the changing media landscape and mass job cuts leaving limited resources resulting directly in less investigative journalism. And Klein explained that mainstream media is structured to want people to click on more pages to appease advertisers.

Klein reflected on the dark truth for both journalists and readers that the media covers plane crashes not plane landings.

In an over stimulated world, the “plane crashes”—the outlier situations as Klein explained them—get our attention. Outlier situations show the extremes, and while, as Klein said, they make great stories, they ignore the bulk of the issue. “

And if people’s only ‘interaction’ with refugees is via these outlier stories, then they are only seeing a small, distorted part of a much bigger picture.

“Outlier stories can do great damage,” Klein contended.

From Taghini’s perspective, there is also political agendas and government secrecy—like in the instance of Manus Island and Nauru. To this end, Taghini vouched for the journalists who are seeking truth from within the walls surrounded in secrecy by the Australian government.

“There are journalists putting their lives on the line,” he said, “to show the world the truth and to tell refugees stories.”

The panel reflected that many journalists and outlets are pursuing the full story and looking at new engaging ways to make sure it reaches more and more people. During his time on Manus Island, it was The Guardian and Huffington Post ( ), he said, that were telling his story well. Dharssi is inspired by Netherlands-based outlet De Correspondent. They have a model similar to The Discourse (, where she currently writes, which runs a member-based model that gathers information from its members and allows its reporters to dig deep and investigate and share refugee stories in the spirit of slow news.

Taghini reminded us that as readers we have a big role to play in this too. 

“Are we asking, Why is Amir leaving Iran? Are we asking, why are these countries being bombed?”

Taghini put the question back to the room and the panel. The urge was clear. Ordinary citizens, and journalists alike need to be more than curious. We need to be proactive in our efforts to find out more, and to get informed.

Taghini was passionate on this point, that action starts when the ordinary citizen steps in. He ultimately credits the actions of his five Canadian sponsors for his new life now. And, as he mentioned, we can all take action in many different yet powerful ways when it comes to media, like taking responsibility for our media consumption—writing to editors and being inquisitive in our search for more information

It is hard at times to comprehend what is happening to people all around the world. Although, that shouldn’t be used to justify inaction.

At the conclusion of his talk, Taghini reflected on his time in detention, on not only his own story but the stories of all the other families he met there, many of whom are still there. He somberly remembers being disabled by the stories I was hearing from Nauru.

“But I never gave up.”

Thank you to the incredible, informed and insightful panel. And to the inquisitive, passionate audience who joined this PeaceTalk on September 13, 2018.

From the panel and audience combined, we walked away with some insightful ways we can be more responsible consumers of refugee media coverage:

  1. Seek your news from multiple sources. See how different outlets will tell the same story. The panel’s recommendations included: The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Discourse.
  2. Pay for news you respect. Support outlets whose coverage you trust and help them continue to invest in slow stories and investigative journalists (as opposed to “fast news”).
  3. Write to editors. Dharssi called it “power of the readers”. Each of us can write to editors, we can tell them what we want to read more about and we can tell them when we aren’t happy with their coverage.
  4. Seek out more of the story. Don’t know why someone would be trying to reach Canada from Syria, Venezuela, or somewhere else from around the world? The UNHCR’s website do a great job at sharing current world crisis situations. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know all the details now, what matters is you work to find out more.
  5. Turn knowledge to power and action. Share what you’ve learnt with friends, advocate for refugees and help shift the narrative. Get involved in on-the-ground refugee resettlement projects near you. Check out what PeaceGeeks are up to with the new pathways app looking to connect new arrivals to Canada with services, mentors and more or join our #GiveItUp4Peace fundraiser this October.
Oct 5, 2018
Category: Issue Briefs

PEACETALKS #39: Media & Refugee Narratives

Guest Speaker:
Sep 13, 2018
6:00 - 7:30PM
Vancouver Public Library (Central Branch), Peter Kaye Room

Panel Discussion
The news media plays an essential role in how we perceive refugees and asylum-seekers, which raises the question of what is their responsibility when reporting their stories. This panel discussion will explore the current representation of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, its positive and negative impacts, and the potential of journalism to transcend stereotypes.

Speakers include:

  • Jean-Nicolas Beuze, Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Canada
  • Peter Klein, Emmy Award-winning journalist and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre
  • Alia Dharssi, Vancouver-based journalist and editor who has written widely on immigration and refugee issues.
Thank You To:
Partnership With:
Sep 6, 2018
Category: PeaceTalks
Time 2:
6 PM

PeaceGeeks partners with IRC and Mercy Corps for Signpost project

As of October 2017, PeaceGeeks is pleased to announce its involvement in the Signpost project in partnership with major humanitarian organizations International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps.

Learn more about Signpost here.

Signpost project

Signpost is an inter-agency collaboration between the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Mercy Corps and PeaceGeeks. Combining the efforts of PeaceGeeks' Services Advisor and IRC & Mercy Corps' Refugee.Info platforms, Signpost is a digital initiative providing the humanitarian community with a platform to reach refugees, asylum seekers and crisis-affected communities around the world with accessible information. Each Signpost channel provides users context-specific, up-to-date information on vital needs such as legal rights, transportation, and medical services in multiple languages — empowering individuals to make informed decisions at the most critical moments.

Together, we aim to build the go-to platform for trustworthy, responsive and accessible humanitarian information for vulnerable communities in conflict and crisis worldwide. The platform harnesses social media and other digital tools to gather, share and exchange information that helps refugees and other members of vulnerable groups make critical life-saving decisions. These tools are designed to complement traditional human rights protection programming with the overarching outcome of reaching and increasing the safety of crisis-affected populations.

For more information, visit:

Dec 1, 2017

Closing Dadaab: How the Muslim Ban is affecting Somalis

A travel ban implemented on January 29th, 2017, by executive order, has effectively prohibited citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. on any visa for 90 days; in addition, new refugee applications have been suspended for 120 days.

For Somalis and other asylum seekers, the reality of being barred from the U.S. is harrowing. Within the Horn of Africa there are an approximate 892,794 registered Somali refugees, with 37% seeking refuge in Kenya according to data by the UNHCR.

Of those seeking refuge in Kenya, many have made Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp their home. With a population larger than the City of Burnaby, Dadaab is set to close in May. Data from the UNHCR indicated that the 261,496 residents of Dadaab must be resettled since the camp has become rife with violence, disease, and has become a recruiting ground for Al-Shabab, an Islamist militia group.

Resettling those who live in Dadaab is an arduous process that has just become more difficult with the executive order put in place by the U.S. For refugees who have now lost the option to relocate to America, returning to Somalia means going back to a country that has been in civil war since 1991, as well as confronting an anticipated drought crisis, potential famine, and Al-Shabab attacks.

According to an article by the Guardian, “up to 26,000 [Somalis] who hoped to travel to the U.S. have been hit by the new [executive order]. The total includes those cleared for imminent travel, as well as those whose applications are under review.”

“[Refugees], who have all been rigorously screened by US and UN officials, have waited for between seven and 10 years for their resettlement to be approved and organised.
Some had already checked in for the flight to their new homes in the US when they were told they would not be allowed to board the plane. Others had travelled to Nairobi with children ready to leave. “These are people who have packed their bags, emptied their bank accounts, sold all their goods and said their goodbyes. Then they hear they are not going to the US after all,” said one aid worker in Nairobi.”  see more

While the fate of asylum seekers is very uncertain, PeaceGeeks stands committed to developing technology for peace, and is currently working with partners in order to facilitate refugees’ access to services with our Services Advisor App.

Feb 8, 2017
Category: Issue Briefs

#peacehack: Hacking to improve immigrant and refugee settlement

On November 25 and 26 at the HiVE, PeaceGeeks and Simon Fraser University (SFU) brought hacking from the tech world into the community, with an event aimed to address pressing issues confronting immigrant and refugee settlement in Greater Vancouver.

For anyone familiar with the term ‘hackathon,’ an image of caffeine-fueled programmers huddled intensely around computer screens often comes to mind. But beyond being coding marathons, hackathons offer immense potential to connect diverse perspectives and propel targeted, impact-driven solutions. Bringing together newcomer service providers, immigrants, refugees, social innovators, community stakeholders and technologists, our November mini-hackathon called #peacehack put people, rather than the technology, at the center of the process. Facilitated by community tech partner Axiom Zen, #peacehack was an “ideas hack” that used Design Thinking methodology. The process challenged teams of participants to fully understand existing challenges for stakeholders and end users, before designing viable solutions.

The panel discussion on Saturday was particularly revealing towards the shortcomings of newcomer settlement in Greater Vancouver. One of the panelists was Mohammed Alsaleh, a Syrian refugee who was celebrating his second anniversary in Canada that Friday night, and whose journey to Canada has recently been featured in a poignant mini documentary by The Atlantic. Now a resettlement counsellor helping Syrians upon arrival for Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC), Mohammed recounted how existing processes can often feel divorced from the programming that is created to serve immigrants.

A similar sentiment was resonated by fellow panelist Angelique Muhorakeye, a Rwandan refugee and criminology student at Douglas College. Angelique arrived in Canada three years ago with her mother, sister, niece and son. She spoke of being unprepared for aspects of daily Canadian life, from details as small as knowing about sales tax, to aspects as large as knowing what resources are relevant for her family.

Likewise, panelist Michel Pouliot, Executive Director of Burnaby Family Life, cited that 50% of newcomers are uncomfortable navigating the current system to access the services they need, a finding from the Burnaby Intercultural Planning Table. As well, the lack of resources, particularly for childminding and staff recruitment, continues to burden existing newcomer serving organizations.

Panelist Nadia Carvalho, Chair of the Vancouver Immigration Partnership, elaborated on the Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs), which are community-based partnerships aimed at improving newcomer integration through knowledge-sharing, strategic planning and service coordination between organizations. One challenge, as she explained, is that programs are typically government funded for five years, but the process to become a Permanent Resident often takes longer. Nadia also emphasized expanding industry mentorship, noting that mentorship has been shown to increase employment income for newcomers by 60%.

The final panelist, Adel Iskandar, Assistant Professor of Global Communication at SFU, brought attention towards community cohesion and bridging the connection between Canadians, immigrants and First Nations. Acknowledging anti-immigrant sentiments, Adel pointed out conversely that throughout history, immigrants have always been shown to enhance the communities in which they take part.

After the panel, groups broke out to generate problem statements and identify possible solutions for four key challenges identified in the LIPs: improving access to information on services, strengthening local language skills, building community connections and strengthening networking and mentorship opportunities. A fifth group was formed around an issue identified during the event: fostering local understanding towards newcomers. With participants representing diverse age groups, sectors and nationalities from Afghanistan to Brazil to Iraq, the breakout sessions were buzzing with ideas. A recurring theme through each of the groups was that relationships — in one way or another — were the answer to each of the issues. Creating community through dialogue and understanding helps foster empathy and in turn, solutions. 

At lunch, we paused for a delicious meal prepared by Tayybeh, a collective of Syrian refugee women who started a local catering business from their home-cooked food. Afterwards, the breakout groups prepared to present their solutions and designs for prototypes. An impressive range of ideas emerged, which will be workshopped in the new year with local service providers who work in these areas.

These ideas included:

  • Language Mentorship Program: an app that matches newcomers who are seeking to improve their local language skills with local language mentors (retired or student teachers and other interested volunteers);
  • Keymunity: a self-directed case management engine that consolidates information about newcomer service availability, and helps to determine a newcomer’s need and service plan based on a user profile;
  • Keysultant: an embedded “live chat” tool on service websites, which can provide direct answers to newcomers’ questions through responses crowd-sourced from a community of service providers;
  • Linkedegration: an extension integrated with LinkedIn that would allow users to tailor their employment profile to their country or city’s job market based on their location. Features of this extension would include a resume builder, online mentors and invitations to relevant networking events and courses;
  • Building Community Connections: an event series that facilitates community building, following a tiered engagement model that allows participants to move through the series based on their comfort level. Events include orientations to the city and interest-based meet ups.

A second hackathon will take place this spring, where we will take the best and most developed ideas to teams of technologists in order to produce working prototypes.

Interested in participating or staying in the loop about how we are designing a more welcoming future for newcomers? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Written by Daniel Morton, Nikki Koutsochilis and Cherrie Lam

Dec 27, 2016

The PeaceGeeks Services Advisor App - What It Means For Somali Refugees

The sudden displacement of over 300,000 people over a very short period of time is difficult to fathom, yet it is set to happen soon with the recent announcement by Kenya’s government that they will close the Dadaab refugee camp in North Central Kenya—the most populous refugee camp in the world. The camp is set to close by November 2016, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Somalis, back to their country of origin. To put the sheer size of the camp in perspective, it is just over half the population of Vancouver, and has enough people within its confines to be Kenya’s third largest city.


Kenya is citing security concerns as the reason for the camp’s closure, with claims that attacks on its soil have been planned there by the militant al Qaeda-allied group Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab’s plans to eradicate the Somali government to make way for a country under the control of Sharia law continue to destabilize peace in the region.


Originally set up as a temporary transit camp for those fleeing the horrors of civil war in Somalia, continuous conflict and violence in Somalia has forced the camp to remain in place for over 20 years. Many who live in the camp were born there, and have never set foot in their home country.


Somalia remains politically unstable to this day, and just last month Al Shabaab launched terror attacks in the nation’s capital of Mogadishu, targeting the peacekeeping efforts of the UN-backed African Union Mission. Nevertheless, at this moment some Somali refugees have already begun a voluntary repatriation process by returning home. Yet many are raising concerns about the possibility of involuntary repatriation in the months to come following the dissolution of the camp.


To add to the massive influx of Somali refugees coming from Kenya, there are 1.1 million internally displaced Somalis, which means that the implementation of urgent solutions addressing the needs of thousands of displaced people is essential, and meaningful resettlement projects are desperately needed. Resettlement efforts will need to address the complications associated with communicating important information about available services to such a large population of people at one time.


Since 2014, PeaceGeeks has been developing the Services Advisor app to help address the way refugees can access services. Initially employed in Jordan, the PeaceGeeks Services Advisor App works to improve the quality of life for displaced people in times of crisis by improving access to information on essential services, which includes everything from water and sanitation, to services for those who have experienced domestic abuse. Currently, services directory information is shared via traditional paper-based methods. PeaceGeeks has recently begun working with UNHCR Somalia to deploy Services Advisor to support the needs of Somali returnees as the closure moves forward.


The Services Advisor app increases the efficiency of sharing information by replacing current and largely defunct systems of manual record keeping, which are woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing the urgent needs of large populations in flux. The idea is to replace the old system with one that can be accessed by a wide variety of stakeholders simultaneously for improving services access and the coordination of services provision. This includes service providers, UNHCR, refugees and donors alike by putting all information online. By implementing Services Advisor before the mass resettlement process begins, UNHCR aims to make the process of resettlement a more dignified experience for returnees by helping them to get a better grasp of what services are available and where.


This will be all the more important to refugees who have been absent from the country for over 20 years, and to returnees who have never actually been to Somalia to help them make informed decisions about their return.


In order to create meaningful resettlement projects, web applications like this have the ability to improve communications infrastructure and streamline the process of how aid is distributed in times of crisis. PeaceGeeks is currently in conversation with UNHCR representatives in Iraq, Lebanon,Turkey and Greece about deploying the app in those countries as well, and is also considering the viability of deploying the app across all UNHCR initiatives.



Aug 28, 2016
Category: Thematic Issues

Imagine Being Displaced: How the Services Advisor App Helps Refugees

For all the hand-wringing and consternation about the exodus of refugees out of Syria flooding into Europe, it can sometimes be forgotten that the European Union has shouldered only a fraction of the flood of people forced from their homes by the constant rain of rockets and barrel bombs. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are bowing under the sheer numbers of displaced people from across their borders. They are filling parched Jordan, in the grips of a water crisis, and tiny Lebanon, where Syrians now make up a quarter of the population. This is to say nothing of the over 6 million Syrians internally displaced within their own country. The sheer numbers are staggering, and make every day a struggle for Syria’s neighbours to provide needed services to the millions that they host.

Imagine being sick. Imagine needing medicine or toiletries. Maybe what you might need is being offered somewhere, but how would you find it? How could you make sure you had it when you needed it? Some services might be like needles in haystacks, buried beneath the flood of desperate people. There are over 63 service providers in Jordan all over the country that are constantly changing.

Imagine that. Imagine trying to find the necessities of life while their location is unknown or worse—moving. Imagine a service provider not being able to help and the location of another service provider unknown. How would you find out where to go now? Would knowledge spread by word of mouth? Would information become as priceless as the food or medicine that it might lead too?

This is why the PeaceGeeks Services Advisor app is so important. This app instantly connects refugees in camps with the location of services near them and allows those providing the services to gather a better understanding of what is needed. The ability to harness the ubiquity of smartphones in refugee populations to quickly and accurately disseminate information to them about essential services could  the difference between life and death.

In order for the Middle East to avoid further catastrophe, the stability of countries such as Jordan is paramount. A simple app like the Services Advisor can help. By giving refugees the most important tool of all—information—it can help vulnerable people access the services needed and avoid roiling discontent and desperation. This is the power of technology. For those living at the margins, something like an smartphone and a proper app can make all the difference. A difference that could be made from Jordan to Somalia, from Iraq to Turkey to Greece. Anywhere people have been displaced and need the essentials.

Aug 13, 2016
Category: Thematic Issues


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