Citizens of the World

The 2015 migrant crisis caught the attention of the world, sparking a wave of community action and relief efforts, as well raising serious questions about how and why this mass migration was taking place. As a response to the growing refugee crisis, a raft of businesses began to emerge; Lucy Chesters spoke to Chatterbox’s Mursal Hedayat, and Techfugees’ Josephine Goube…

Citizens of the World

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“If you believe that you’re a citizen of the world – you’re a citizen of nowhere,” Theresa May famously stated in her first speech as British Prime Minister, to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, in 2016; a speech which set out Mrs May’s vision for a post-Brexit Britain, atop a podium emblazoned with the party strapline: ‘a country that works for everyone’. Mrs May’s manifesto mentioned a British political landscape, ‘built on the values of fairness and opportunity, where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person – regardless of their background, or that of their parents – is given the chance to be all they want to be.’

During the referendum campaign – which was to decide upon Britain’s membership of the EU – most of us will remember the abhorrent poster propagated by UKIP, depicting a line of refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia during the height of the migrant crisis of 2015; an image which was to play on ordinary people’s fears of mass-immigration. The image – which has been likened to Nazi propaganda – was taken from Getty images and manipulated to remove the presence of a singular white man in the foreground. Playing up to the age-old stereotype as refugees and non-whites as the ‘other’, the poster read: ‘Breaking point – The EU has failed us all.’

The semantics would suggest that it’s ‘us vs them’, when in fact – it’s not that black and white. The ones being failed here, are the hundreds of thousands of people that have been forced from their homes, witnessing sights that we can’t even imagine; have lost family members and loved ones; and have been denied asylum into Europe, after risking their lives during a dangerous journey encompassing thousands of miles. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘You forget that the fruits belong to all and that the land belongs to no one.’ Unable to return to their homes; unable to seek refuge abroad; citizens of nowhere.

“The current refugee system was created out of the ashes of the second world war as an insurance mechanism for all of us,” says Mursal Hedayat, founder of Chatterbox – an online language school that hires and trains refugees to become teachers in their native languages.

“It’s a system that protects every single human on earth from the unpredictable and unknowable outcome of their country becoming uninhabitable,” she says. “I find it very disappointing that people have forgotten so quickly why these systems exist.”

The Geneva Convention, which was ratified by 145 State parties in 1951 and forms the backbone of the UN’s Refugee Convention, outlines the rights of the displaced and the legal obligations of State signatories to provide protection. The core-principle of the Convention: non-refoulment, which means that it is now a rule of customary international law, that refugees are not to be returned to the country where they face serious threats to life or freedom.

“It’s less than 100 years after the creation of those laws, which are there to protect all of us in times of need, and we are perverting them in such a way as to make them unliveable and inaccessible for the currently persecuted, the currently marginalised,” says Hedayat.

“To be completely honest, we could be in need of those laws very soon. There are studies and reports that the numbers of refugees and displaced people in the world will quadruple by 2050 – and this isn’t just going to be from places like Afghanistan and Syria – this is going to be from places like the USA, the UK and China, because of global warming.”

In 2017, the world witnessed a plethora of natural disasters. Devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean, floods in southeast Asia, and droughts in the horn of Africa forced millions of people to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was put in place by the UNHCR at COP23 in December, declared climate change to be a threat multiplier which will exacerbate conflict in the worst affected areas, due to the depletion of basic resources such as food and water. It is agreed amongst scientists that the effects of climate change will increase the number of climate refugees worldwide – the risk of disaster displacement has already doubled since 1970.

“A few bad years in a country can send it spiralling into uninhabitable conditions,” says Hedayat. “With that instability possible, and almost predictable because of global warming, I don’t understand why we would destroy the system.”

The Geneva Convention defines refugees as those ‘fleeing disasters including drought or famine; phenomena linked to situations of armed conflict, rooted in racial, ethnic or political divides, or where such disasters disproportionately affect particular groups’. Since 2008, there has been an average of 26.4 million people displaced by natural disasters; 1998 was the peak year for displacement – correlating with the strongest ‘El Niño’ on record.

“We need that system of community protection which says: ‘if things are going really bad in your back yard – you can come and stay at my place.’ Because we’re all equal and the same under the eyes of humanitarian law,” says Hedayat.

Coming from a refugee background herself – Hedayat and her mother sought refuge in the UK in 1994 when Hedayat was three years old, having escaped conflict in Afghanistan – she has witnessed first-hand the extent of unemployment and degradation in the refugee community, and sought to create a solution to the growing problem.

“There’s been a problem with the Syrian refugee crisis and the escalating numbers of those fleeing their countries and seeking refuge abroad,” says Hedayat. “In handling one of the defining issues of our time, we were really underprepared to help people who come from this higher educational background, and who can contribute so much to the economy given the chance.

“Chatterbox is a direct response to that gap in the provisional services for those refugees that are specifically educated professionals who want to get back into the job market using their skills, and not get trapped doing menial work.”

With a mission to highlight the significantly untapped talent in the refugee community, Chatterbox is an online and in-person language learning platform which trains and employs displaced people to teach their native languages in the booming language learning industry. With over 300 refugees signed up to the system so far, Chatterbox has come a long way since it was founded in 2016.

“We see Chatterbox as the employability springboard for refugees,” she tells me. “We operate as a polished language tutoring service – we set the rates, we find the clients, we do the marketing, and we attract the learners to our unique style of teaching which centres on human interaction. So far, Chatterbox has a 100% course completion rate.”

The UK is currently suffering from a multi-billion-pound language skills deficit, due to the lack of relevant language teachers in the job-market. Through Chatterbox, “most people get turned on to teaching,” says Hedayat. “About half of the people that we work with then go on to become teachers which is crucially important in the UK where we have a significant lack of teaching professionals.”

Hedayat created Chatterbox to provide a skilled work option for refugees, who arrive in a new country possessing degrees, and whose skills are going to waste under the current system. Through creating a platform to put skilled people back to work, Hedayat has not only given people agency, but she has also changed the conversation from ‘what can we do to help refugees?’, to one of ‘what can refugees do to help us?’ She has subsequently been named as one of Forbes’ ’30 Under 30’ social entrepreneurs for 2018.

“We have an online recruitment process,” she tells me. “To become a Chatterbox tutor, you must be a refugee, and everyone we hire has a higher-level degree; they have to be able to speak English to a good spoken level so that they can communicate concepts clearly to their students; and they must have the desire to teach.”

Refugees find work with Chatterbox, through referrals from partners including Crisis, Refugee Action, the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross. “One of the first refugees we hired – let’s call her H, to conceal her identity – we found through the homeless charity, Crisis,” says Hedayat.

“She had been a human rights lawyer in Sudan, and she had been making a bit of noise about women’s rights – offering legal help to women who had found themselves in difficult situations because of their gender. After setting up a legal clinic in her hometown, following 10 years of legal practice – H was chased away by the Islamic extremists in the area for the work that she was doing; and she was forced to seek asylum in the UK,” says Hedayat.

“Once she arrived here, she quickly became destitute like a lot of refugees and asylum seekers, because of the lack of support available. Three months after we had started working with her, she found a job that we provided a reference for – a large part of what we do at Chatterbox is to validate that people are employable and that they can make fantastic employees given the chance. H went on to complete a legal internship, which she learnt about through one of her students at Chatterbox,” says Hedayat.

“If we agree that humans are one of, if not the most important ingredient in a business, then you will always want the best talent to be working in your organisation, and the best talent isn’t always the one that was born within the borders of your country.”

The conversation turns to Techfugees, a global network which is empowering displaced people through technology. “I would count Techfugees as part of the civic response to the refugee situation. They’re the catalysts for a lot of innovation, and actually a lot of attention,” says Hedayat.

“One thing that I want to put across is this: right now, the current flow of refugees into the UK isn’t even at its highest in the past 20 years – the 1990s saw the peak of refugees coming to the UK. So why is the refugee issue being given so much provenance at the moment? It’s down to initiatives like Techfugees, led by Mike Butcher and Josephine Goube, who have really propelled the refugee issue forward in the eyes of the media, and in the eyes of policy makers,” says Hedayat. “It’s a network of ordinary people who have recognised a great future need; a need that the government is not taking any initiative on, and they’ve been making noise about it. Now the question of how we deal with the migration and immigration issue is on everyone’s lips.”

According to an immigration statistics report conducted by the UNHCR in 2016, it is estimated that there are around 118,995 refugees living in the UK – just 0.18% of the entire UK population. An infinitesimal amount of our total population – so why are we so accustomed to scare stories which describe a flood of asylum seekers pouring through our borders? The migrant crisis of 2015 was enough to fan the flames of the populist press, which fed off the fears of the minority and parasitically promoted the idea that these people were not necessarily all asylum seekers; these were economic migrants, risking their lives to travel to our country and take our jobs. This is, unfortunately, an approach shared across many countries throughout the world, when it comes to taking in refugees.

“In France, we have the problem of the population being traumatised by the terrorist attacks, and having confused refugees for terrorists,” says Josephine Goube, CEO of Techfugees. “We’ve been voicing solutions – we’ve been voicing a way of bringing society together.”

Founded by Mike Butcher, editor of TechCrunch, as a reaction to the 2015 crisis, Techfugees is a global network of technology industry experts which have formed voluntary teams, to host a series of conferences, hackathons and events, to find solutions to the refugee crisis. Existing to empower the displaced through technology, Techfugees is a non-profit organisation which works with global partners such as Facebook, Microsoft and UN Women, to generate tech solutions for and with refugees.

“We are one of the voices which is apolitical,” says Goube. “In between welcoming every refugee and every migrant, we address the people that are already here and deal with the issue pragmatically. We’re looking at the long term – Techfugees is creating another narrative to the crisis, which is very much needed.”


Read the rest of this feature in Ethos issue 05

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