Five Myths About Refugees and Technology

By Julie Yelle

At Harmoni, one of our primary aims is to change the way refugees are perceived worldwide. As we’ve spoken to more people, we’ve realized that there are many misconceptions about what life is like as a refugee. So we’ve decided to “debunk” the top five myths we’ve heard regarding refugees and technology.

Myth #1: Most refugees have no means to connect to the internet.


The vast majority of refugees across the globe, in cities and in rural areas, have access to wireless internet via mobile coverage. In urban areas, 90% of refugees have access to 3G mobile coverage and the remaining 10% have access to 2G coverage—percentages closely comparable to the global population’s—according to a 2016 UNHCR report. Even in rural areas, where 20% of refugees have no connectivity, a large majority of the refugee population does nevertheless have some form of mobile coverage.


Myth #2: Refugees do not use smartphones.


Thirty-nine percent of refugee households own an internet-capable phone, and an additional 32% own a basic phone. Device affordability represents the largest barrier to internet use at refugee sites, and refugees are 50% less likely to own a smartphone than the general global population. Yet refugees who do not personally own mobile devices are not necessarily off the mobile grid. It is common for refugees to share mobile devices with family members or, especially in refugee camps, with their neighbors. Access to mobile devices also varies widely from one refugee community to another. In Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, Penn State researchers found that 86% of youth own a mobile handset and over half access the internet on a daily basis.


Myth #3: Smartphones are a luxury for the elite, not a basic humanitarian need for refugees.


If you were to visit a refugee camp and ask the first refugee you met to show you his or her most important possession, that person would likely reveal to you personal documents, first aid supplies, a cherished momento—or a smartphone. If you would view that smartphone as a status symbol or a toy, think again.


A UNHCR and Accenture research study conducted in 44 countries found that many refugees consider mobile and internet access as critical to their safety and security as food, water, and shelter. Refugees in multiple countries make incredible sacrifices to maintain mobile access, often prioritizing connectivity over clothing and healthcare. In Tanzania, refugees have even sacrificed 10 days’ worth of food rations in exchange for money to buy cell phone data. The fact that refugees often spend up to a third of their disposable income on internet and mobile services reflects that staying connected is expensive, but it is also indispensable. For refugees, who rely on mobile and internet communication to access life-saving services and information, navigate unfamiliar physical terrain, communicate with loved ones about their location and safety, and feel connected to the rest of the world, technological connectivity is a lifeline, not a luxury.


Myth #4: All refugees have low levels of digital literacy.


Counter to public perception, refugees often come from professional, middle-class backgrounds and in fact, as a 2015 OECD report stressed, “tend to have higher skill levels than the general population in origin countries.” Many refugees are young men and women who went to university and have had experience working with computers. A 2017 OECD report suggests that Syrian and Iranian refugees in particular are often university-educated. Refugee hackathon participants have even designed innovative technological solutions to address humanitarian needs and won awards in the process.


Myth #5: Refugees use the internet for personal reasons, not educational or professional purposes.


The primary reason that refugees use the internet is to communicate with friends and family (UNHCR 2016), but it is certainly not the only reason. Thousands of refugees have enrolled in online courses via Coursera for Refugees, Kiron University, and other internet-based education providers. Teachers and students often use mobile phones as educational tools by participating in virtual discussion with their peers through online social networks on platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook. Mobile devices are also used as a livelihood tool to “find employment, run small businesses and work in ancillary services,” according to a 2017 GSMA report. Many refugees also see smartphones as “easy” and “useful” tools to learn English or other local languages, study for driver’s tests, prepare for university entry exams, and otherwise take critical steps to integrate into their host communities.

   “IMG_2067”  by  Abel Caine  is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

“IMG_2067” by Abel Caine is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We at Harmoni recognize that many refugees have access to mobile infrastructure, basic digital literacy, and the skills and motivation to be connected with opportunities in the tech field. Based on this information, we’ve developed Harmoni App--a mobile app that gives refugees simple work they can do right from their smartphones. For more information, contact us at


Barriers to Refugee Employment

By Megan Towle

This past March, our team filmed a documentary on refugees living in Greece. Our aim was to understand the realities of life as a refugee in Greece, a year after the refugee crisis reached its peak. The world’s initial response was to manage the immediate needs - food, water, shelter. Now the needs have shifted from basic to survival to the more enduring. Refugees are asking, how can I build a life here? How can I contribute my skills to this new community? Where do I fit in?

Refugee integration is defined in many different ways, but it is often understood as the key goal the EU is working towards to “solve” the refugee crisis. Employment is a key measurement for economic and socio-cultural integration.

According to the UNHCR, economic integration refers refugee’s ability to, “attain a growing degree of self-reliance and become capable of pursuing sustainable livelihoods, thus contributing to the economic life of the host country.” Socio-cultural integration requires refugees to, “acclimatize”, and local communities to “accommodate refugees to enable them to live amongst or alongside the receiving population without discrimination or exploitation, and contribute actively to the social life of their country of asylum.”

While employment is widely understood to be the key tool to both economic and socio-cultural integration, it is still a challenge for many European nations and refugees alike. Refugees face many barriers when seeking employment in a new host country. These barriers include:

1. Qualification Recognition

When we were filming, we often asked our interviewees “what did you bring for the journey?” We received a lot of the same responses - a couple changes of clothes, money, a phone, and their diploma.

More often than not, these personal items are lost or damaged during the journey, which makes validating credentials nearly impossible. A great portion of refugees left highly skilled jobs or were pursuing higher education, but without proof of their qualifications - european employers are less likely to hire them into jobs that fit their skill levels.


A recent study focusing on refugees seeking asylum in Austria found that of the refugees that have found work, 40% are overqualified for the positions they held. This trend of downward professional mobility can lead to lowered self esteem, depression, and a lack of motivation.

Hiring refugees into jobs that meet their skill levels is critical for the individual to feel capable and like a member of their community.

2. Lack of local network and knowledge of job market

Think about your employment journey for a minute. Before you found your first “career” job, did you send resumes blindly over the internet? Did you search your LinkedIn connections for your in? Did you set up informational interviews with family and friends? Attend job fairs? Networking events in your particular field?


The norm for which American’s typically find jobs are ingrained in our culture. There are unspoken rules for how we go about searching, and rarely do people stray from that path. Now flip your perspective to assess the process from a refugee’s point of view. Refugees have less developed social networks on which they can tap into while job searching. For example, only 41% of refugees living in France reported knowing someone in France before they arrived. With limited connections, not to mention knowledge of the language, it is more challenging to identify opportunities and follow the social norms for finding employment.

This process can especially be difficult for women. In many of their home countries, refugee women were less likely to hold jobs outside of the household. For example, in Syria, only 12% of women held jobs outside the household in 2016. Now they find themselves in an unfamiliar country, working full time, trusting another person to take care of their children, while still preserving their own culture and identity. While so many refugee women are doing so with grace and tenacity, they are coming from a much different vantage point than local women who have been raised believing they are equal to men, they should have the same responsibilities as men, and have had their education systems reinforce those ideas.

3. Trauma endured along the way

Mental health is a huge topic worthy of our attention when discussing refugee employment. Just like how in the states, we talk about the affects of PTSD on soldiers coming home from war, Europe is learning more and more the effects of PTSD among the refugees entering the workforce.

According to the UNHCR, during the Syrian civil war,

"Many Syrians have suffered multiple rights violations and abuses from different actors, including massacres, murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking, enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence, as well as recruiting and using children in hostile situations. indiscriminate bombardment and shelling have created mass civilian casualties and spread terror among civilians. Furthermore, parties have enforced sieges on towns, villages and neighbourhoods, trapping civilians and depriving them of food, medical care and other necessities.

These acts of violence were perpetrated for years before many refugee’s made the decision to leave. Unfortunately, the journey out of war torn Syria to Europe was often also riddled with adversity - deepening the trauma. By the time the refugee arrives in Europe, they not only have lived through and escaped a war, but they have likely faced prolonged uncertainty, stress, captivity and separation from loved ones.


Just like we know veterans require extra time and patience to re-enter society, refugees will require the same. While many employers are very aware of the effects of mental health and PTSD, it is important to keep in mind how employers can best create an environment that focuses on mental health and adapts to ease the transition for refugees back into a peaceful and stable community.

Harmoni’s Approach

Harmoni connects refugees to the digital economy by offering training and connection to employment. Through our community centered approach, we break down some of these barriers to refugee employment while being the resource they need as they begin to place roots in their new community. We have two programs, a coding bootcamp and a mobile app that makes work easy and accessible. Our app gives refugees basic data processing and analytics tasks that they can do anywhere and our bootcamp trains refugees to code, allowing them to find challenging, meaningful work that will give them a sustainable livelihood again.

During Harmoni’s bootcamp, we help our graduates build their soft skills to navigate the new job market, network with employers, and become employed. We aim to become a hub for refugee support, both physically and mentally. Our facility is staffed with mental health professionals and counselors to offer support throughout the training process. But equally as important, our facility and program will continue to be a center for connection, mentorship and community long after a refugee completes the program. Harmoni’s vision is a community in which all people are able to build their skills, earn an income, and create a meaningful life, regardless of migration status.


Filmmakers to Founders - the women changing the refugee crisis into an opportunity.

By Megan Towle

All great ideas a born with a lot of hard work, a fair amount of luck, and a little wine.

Two years ago, Megan Majd was awarded the Davis Projects for Peace Grant. With it, she traveled Europe with the World Wide Tribe, a nonprofit that raises awareness of refugee issues through film. She spent two weeks in France and Greece, and filmed a documentary and a few short films. Once she had the opportunity to meet and document the refugees behind the crisis she knew she had to come back.

In the fall of 2016, Megan founded the Refugee Relief Project. The Refugee Relief Project set out to create a full feature documentary on the stories of refugees living in Greece, while bringing resources and money to grassroots community organizations working through the crisis. With a few social media posts and some impressive word of mouth, 8 women from a variety of backgrounds and locations volunteered their time and resources to who raise over $27k to bring this vision to life.

In March 2017, the Refugee Relief Project arrived in Greece. Over many dinners, glasses of Greek wine, and long conversations with refugees and volunteers alike, we learned the resounding challenge for refugees with asylum in Greece is access to employment. Because the current unemployment rate for Greek citizens is around 30%, the vast majority of refugees in Greece are unable to work, even though they are technically eligible with their legal status.

As we met more and more young refugees with excellent english skills, an idea began to form. In the US, when a few of us women were running low on spending money, we would complete small projects on UpWork, an online freelancing platform. Freelancing has allowed our members of our team to work from any place at any time, and have money placed directly into our bank accounts. Why couldn’t a refugee do the same? We arrived back in the states and began the post production phase of the film, but tested our theory with a refugee friend of ours we had met in Athens. He translated some of our Arabic interviews through google docs, using his tablet and wifi. He was able to execute this task extraordinarily well, we paid him for his work, and the idea was set in motion.

While the film team has continued working through post production, Megan continued researching, networking, and communicating with refugees to find a way to make digital work widely accessible. Over a few wine filled google hangouts with some of the original Refugee Relief Project members, we crafted a plan beyond our film to create a sustainable impact

Most refugees have smartphones, tablets or access to a computer through local community centers, and nearly all have the desire to work. We began building a plan to educate refugees in digital work, including programming and web developement for more qualified refugees. For less qualified or educated refugees, we built a mobile platform to connect them to a specific type of digital work, called microwork, literally meaning small work. Microwork tasks are simple, digital tasks that require a human eye. Examples include verifying that user generated content doesn’t contain spam or labeling an image for a machine learning application.With a plan to train and employ refugees from all skill levels in a variety of digital work opportunities, Megan was accepted into GSV Labs Pioneer Accelerator, and Harmoni was born.

Our team is made up of volunteers from Refugee Relief Project and from other members of our community that have a passion for using business to create positive change. We are currently building our mobile platform, preparing for our pilot program this fall, and connecting to clients who have a need for digital workers. For more information, please see and reach out if you have any interest in our work. We would love to tell you more.

The Gig Economy and What it Means for Refugees

By Megan Majd

In the past, a “gig” was a term exclusively used by musicians. Today it encompasses far more. It has come to mean an entire classification of jobs, essentially considered short-term work assignments. People are becoming increasingly creative with how they make a living, and the economy is responding by building marketplaces that support it. We have an entire “gig economy” made up of platforms like Upwork, Airbnb, and Etsy.

Platforms like Airbnb allow people to become “hosts” and marketplaces like Etsy allow people to sell goods they make. While Upwork (formerly oDesk-Elance), an online outsourcing marketplace, provides a place for customers to hire freelancers who compete for work in the digital space. Online outsourcing is currently a $4.8 billion market and it’s projected to grow to $15–25 billion by 2020.

Where might a refugee fit in? There are over 21 million refugees in the world, and over 65 million displaced people, most with little to no access to work. Refugees are from all over the world; they are currently coming in waves from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Eritrea. They’ve suffered horrible violence and those lucky enough to escape their home countries are facing urban destitution or years in a refugee camp (the average stay in a refugee camp is 5 years).

 Vasilika Camp in Thessaloniki, Greece By Megan Majd

Vasilika Camp in Thessaloniki, Greece By Megan Majd

Day in and day out, they wait. They wait for asylum, they wait to hear from their family, they wait until to receive food and shelter from the NGOs and governments that support them. When you ask a refugee what they want, they will say they want to go home. But because they cannot, their second ask is to make a living, so they can provide for their families.

Finding work has has proved to be one of the biggest challenge for the refugees in Europe. In Greece alone, the unemployment rate is 23%. Even if a refugee is granted asylum, their odds of finding a job that utilizes their skills and pays a live able wage is slim.

Let’s bring it back.

How might we connect this massive pool of people, willing and able to work, with this online outsourcing marketplace?

A platform like Upwork, requires a set of skills and resources that most refugees don’t have. With little access to computers, it is very difficult to work as a freelancer online.

What many refugees do have, however, are smartphones, motivation, and time.

Microwork is a segment of online outsourcing. Simply put, it is a digital job that has been broken down into small tasks to be done by a human. Tasks include image labeling, data authentication, and sentiment analysis; simple tasks that cannot be done by a machine. Right now, microwork is approximately a $500 million industry and due to the rise in big data, it is predicted to grow to $2 billion by 2020.

Refugees often don’t have the proper paperwork required for full-time employment. By being hired as a “microworker”, a refugee is able to work as a contractor and get paid online.

If companies want to help refugees there are very tangible ways they can do so, today.

We at Harmoni are building a mobile application that will allow a refugee to do microwork on their smartphone. Our platform is built with refugees in mind, and will allow them to work, to have hope for a future. We are currently in an incubator at GSV Labs in Silicon Valley and are launching our pilot program at a camp in Greece in October.

To find out more and to connect with our team, visit

 The Calais Jungle in Northern France By Megan Majd

The Calais Jungle in Northern France By Megan Majd