Tech Support for Ukrainian Refugees in Hungary
Hi, I’m Kate Coyer of Central European University in Budapest. In 2015, thousands of Syrian refugees en route to Western Europe were trapped at Keleti train station in Budapest when the Hungarian government blocked their free movement. Hundreds of local volunteers brought food and blankets; I gathered some friends to see how we could support communication access. Along with my colleagues at the university, we organized a group of volunteers who quickly provided a fundamental modern-day essential for those feeling war: wifi.
While food and shelter kept people alive, it was wifi and phone changing that allowed refugees to navigate a strange land, let their loved ones know they were safe, and plan the next steps of their journey. Our work was covered by NPR , the BBC , and other outlets .
Now we find ourselves in 2022, with another wave of refugees desperately fleeing war, this time from Ukraine. While the faces are different, the needs are the same, and when we meet these new refugees, we hear echoes of 2015: people ask for wifi even before inquiring about food and shelter.
Why is wifi so important? Here are a few of the reasons:
- Refugees need to connect with loved ones and make the necessary plans for onward journeys or temporary stays in Budapest
- Hungarian is not a language most people speak, tools like Google Translate are invaluable in helping refugees communicate with local volunteers
- Accessing Google docs and Facebook groups where Hungarians are listing places to stay is a top priority for all (and are the platforms volunteer organizers are using to manage and organize accommodations
- Loading maps and getting directions in one’s native language likewise helps refugees get oriented and find the help being offered
- Finding reliable currency exchange and financial information is vital to getting settled and avoiding scams
- Access to content to keep up with news in their own language, as well as providing distractions and entertainment for distressed young children
We are helping solve the above needs at train stations, at border crossings, and at various make-shift welcome centers (including one supporting foreign students fleeing Ukraine, many of whom are African nationals).
We are applying many lessons learned in 2015 to our present challenges by focusing on:
- Buying easily accessible tech off the shelf to get up and running fast
- Improving existing capacities with better wifi routers so we may improve refugee’s access to the internet as quickly as possible
- Rapidly prototyping and testing ideas before investing too much in any one solution so we can discover what works best in the field
We’ve already begun distributing make-shift phone charging stations and a few hot spots. For our next phase, we need a quick influx of funds to:
- Deploy mobile hotspots. This was a huge success in 2015: Hot spots picked up at local electronics retailers allow us to add capacity where wifi either doesn’t exist or is unable to meet growing demand. We need to get hot spots out there and load them with data SIM cards.
- Build ad-hoc mobile phone charging stations. Another success from 2015: by taking a “down and dirty” approach, we used a mix of power strips, duct tape, plywood, and power banks to build portable charging stations. We are also exploring newer camping and outdoors-oriented charging gear that didn’t exist in 2015.
- Solar charging stations in border regions. In addition to our work in Budapest we are helping people in the border areas where there is often spotty access to internet and power outlets. Many people are subject to long waits in freezing nighttime temperatures, with no way to get in touch with loved ones or recharge phones. We can fix that.
- Tech support and resources for local volunteers and humanitarian aid groups. Volunteers from all walks of life are coordinating food, shelter, and provisions, and they too need reliable access to Google and Facebook, where most organizing is being done, as well as access to other tools. Dedicated mobile phones and laptops, in conjunction with better wifi and additional access points, serve as a major force multiplier as we “help the helpers” stay online and organized.
For our initial efforts and prototyping phase, we are asking for $10,000, and once we assess what will work best at scale, we will organize a new, more specific appeal for additional funds as needed. Once we have proof of concept, we will pursue corporate donations of the equipment we find works well (eg phones, laptops, etc). Corporate donations of phone chargers and power banks that can be distributed to those in need will also be pursued.
When we drive to the border, in addition to field testing newer tech support ideas & delivering hot spots and charging stations, we also fill the car with food, water, and requested provisions to help support local volunteer distribution in the field. We are also liasing with colleagues in neighboring Romania and Poland to see how we can help support internet access and tech needs there. All unused and excess funds received will be donated to Migration Aid and the Budapest Bike Mafia. These volunteer organizations in Hungary have been tirelessly working to provide provisions and accommodations for people fleeing Ukraine.
While we are devastated to be reliving the crisis experienced here in 2015, we have a good sense of what and where the tech needs are, and how to quickly respond to them.
Thank you for any support in these efforts.
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