There are common themes in many refugees’ journeys: escaping conflict or devastation, migrating unbearably long distances, living in makeshift camps, seeking asylum in countries trying to keep them out, and eventually resettling in communities with completely new cultures and languages.
All of that can take an extraordinary toll on anyone, but refugee parents face an especially unique and stressful challenge. On top of these struggles, they still need to somehow find the strength and support to guide their young children through early development.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian aid organization, is tackling this issue head-on — with technology.
The IRC has partnered with educational mobile platform Vroom to provide Syrian refugee parents with tools to turn everyday experiences into “brain building” moments with their kids. Through a pilot program launched earlier this year in Jordan and Lebanon, the IRC sends displaced Syrian families tips, techniques, and activities that can be accessed on mobile devices.
The program’s results were published in a new report this week, showing that through videos, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other digital means, such an initiative can promote learning and foster a more stable and enriching environment for both refugee caregivers and their children.
Vroom was first created by the Bezos Family Foundation to help low-income families in the U.S. turn shared moments into educational lessons, whether it’s during meals, bath time, or on the go. The goal was to “meet families where they are.”
The IRC worked with Vroom to adapt these tips and activities for refugees, and translated them into Arabic for Syrian families.
While folding clothes, for example, parents can teach their children different shapes, or they can use different food names at a market by asking a child what letters they start with. One video shows a woman named Umm Abdullah and her daughter, Sadal, introducing a game called “Stacking Time,” in which a child can build using differently sized dishware while her parents cook or clean.
These ideas and exercises might seem simple, but they can have an immense impact on a child’s development in a tough environment. More than 3.7 million Syrian children have been born since the civil war there began more than six years ago. They’ve only known violence, poverty, and displacement, all of which often prevents them from accessing traditional education and social services.
The IRC-adapted Vroom tips could help parents fill in some of the gaps.
The testing and prototyping methods for the program were based on human-centered design and behavioral science. The IRC took into account cultural appropriateness and relevance for Syrian families, the best mediums and channels to deliver content, and the best framing of messages to inspire more engagement.
“WhatsApp was not just powerful because it reaches all kinds of families … but also because there is community around it.”
They field-tested a variety of methods for delivering these tools, such as SMS texts, a dedicated Facebook page, WhatsApp groups, animated videos, and more. The IRC learned that Syrian families prefer video much more than short texts. And because Facebook and WhatsApp can reach the most vulnerable and isolated communities, and are already prevalent among refugees, they were among the best ways to spread information.
“Nearly every family knows about WhatsApp, and uses it as a way to communicate with family members throughout the region,” says Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the IRC. “WhatsApp was not just powerful because it reaches all kinds of families and the most vulnerable families, but also because there is community around it.”
That kind of engagement and sharing of ideas, she says, was a perfect fit for the Vroom pilot program. Meanwhile, the Facebook page attracted more than 3,200 followers within just nine days.
They also prototyped a standalone Vroom mobile app for Syrian refugee families, but Smith says most parents weren’t accustomed to downloading a new app. It can be a significant hurdle, and they learned not to expect people to do it on their own.
The new program is a continuation of the organization’s previous educational efforts with Syrian families throughout the Middle East. Traditionally, the IRC has taught parenting skills in groups, or social workers and community health workers visited homes to give parents techniques to support their children’s development.
But with more than 5 million Syrian refugees around the world, living in different regions, contexts, and situations, those kinds of efforts can be costly and logistically challenging.
“These parents and their kids have been through, in many cases, such severe circumstances — having witnessed violence, but also seeing their communities disintegrate in front of them, and all of the challenges of moving around,” Smith says. “We realized that we needed to figure out ways to scale the project and reach many more parents than a typical group-based approach can offer at low cost.”
Mobile technology and internet connectivity allow for that kind of scale. Most Syrian refugee families have access to a mobile device, and according to a 2016 UNHCR report, refugees in Jordan spend between 10 and 20 percent of their cash distribution on connectivity.
But Smith says technology isn’t a catch-all solution. While it’s influenced the IRC’s education initiatives, a lot of people believed tech would fix the fact that education systems aren’t effectively servicing children in crisis.
“There’s still a lot of [ways] technology can help, but I think people now are realizing that technology is a tool, and it takes a lot more than just putting the tool in a classroom or in the hands of a child for it to be effective,” she says.
“It takes a lot more than just putting the tool in a classroom or in the hands of a child for it to be effective.”
For the IRC, the Vroom pilot program shows that it’s important to test different kinds of technology, but also test how you actually distribute it and make it the best tool to educate parents, children, or teachers.
In the coming months, the IRC plans to expand the program to more families within the region, adapt more games and tips, and interview more families about what they like best. It’s also looking to integrate the Vroom program into its refugee education initiatives with Sesame Workshop.
Ultimately, both the IRC and Vroom want to empower refugee parents to see their roles beyond just providing for their children, and also take care of themselves.
“We’re looking at how we can adjust some of the tips so that they are not just for parents to do different activities and games with children, but for parents to work on their own stress management and their own support for themselves,” she says.