Refugees United: Reconnecting people with their families
In the comfort of my lounge and slippers in London, I picked up my mobile phone and dialled a number in Copenhagen and within seconds I was talking to David Mikkelsen.
This might be your reaction, as this is something we do on a regular basis – talking to people all over the world.
The poetry of this particular interaction is that David and Christopher are the founders of a technology non-profit organisation that uses the internet and entry level mobile phones in order to act as a tool to reconnect thousands of families displaced by war.
If you ever hear Christopher or David speak, the one thing that comes across is their genuine and infectious passion for family and helping others. I began by asking David what was their thought process in setting up Refugees United:
“Our journey began when my brother and I met an Afghan refugee by the name of Mansour, who had lost contact with his brother after the war. He did not even know if he was alive. So we decided to help him and we managed to reunite him with his lost brother of 5 years.”
“Christopher and I were speechless – the only difference between us and them is that we were born on the other side of the fence. We didn’t even need to talk about it, we knew that it was unacceptable in this day an age for families to be separated with no means getting back in contact with one another.”
And so, from a small rented studio flat and a shared bed in Copenhagen, the brothers set about making their dream a reality – to the point where they have just had 50,000 profiles sign up and with a working partnership with UNCHR in Uganda. It’s hard to believe that this is all possible from a company that has an employee list of eight.
My surprise at the small operation that has such a massive goal was met with an experienced grace of someone that has spent years explaining the concept.
“There is no point in spending a lot of money and time trying to re-invent the wheel. I have no idea about tech! And I’m not a businessman. So what we did is utilise the expertise of Ericsson for the phones, MTN and Safaricom for their network and the UNCHR for the man power to reach the people. We’re not a massive company; we’re a tool that is meant to help refugees help themselves; to allow them to let their loved ones know how to reach them without alerting their persecutors.”
Through their many travels as a documentary director and writer, David and Christopher came to see that refugees have a fear of authority due to the perceived threat that the authorities represented in their war-torn countries. “What our system allows refugees to do is sign up and only put on the site information that makes no sense to the rest of the world but makes perfect sense to your loved ones. Like the name of a family pet, or a secret reference point that only you two share.” David and Christopher gave the example of their fat cat Ode (or “Futte” in Danish).
If you are anything like me, then you would ask yourself why a multinational company like Ericsson, whose goal is the bottom line aid Refugees United. The answer I suppose comes from how Christopher and David deal with every situation.
“The thing is, people talk about refugee in massive numbers: 30,000, 25,000 etc. but what we do is deal with the individuals. We’ve created a tool that allows the individual to take charge of the process of finding their family.”
It’s this ethos of dealing with individuals about individuals that has been the key to their success as David explained:
“We don’t talk to Ericsson the massive company, we talk to individuals in these organisations and speak to them on a human level. Everyone has someone that they care about and when they see that two seconds of their time, multiplied by the combined work force of their company, can help a refugee find their loved one, they will be a happy to be part of it”.
When highlighting how selfless their organisation is, the brothers were quick to correct me by saying that “our life is certainly better because of what we are doing. For example, this Friday, we had six reconnected families confirmed and that is a personal high that cannot be replicated. We are lucky enough to have big companies willing to put their expertise with us in order to put families that have been torn apart by war together again.”
Refugees United’s focus on the plight of lost families can even be seen in the 15 minute promotional video. I was struck by how relatively little information there was about how the organisation functions; concentrating mainly on two refugees’ stories. When asked about this, David and Christopher said:
“We made it this year because we got to know the wonderful people of Media Storm in NY and they wanted to help out. We wanted to show the world what refugees united is all about in a serious way and with the people of concern as the main focus. We think that most documentaries done around social causes just show the people working at these causes – less about the ones it’s all about. Refugees United from a refugees perspective and not from “our” perspective.”
However, though the organisation is small in the number of its employees, it has some definite and clear goals that are certainly not meagre: “We believe that by 2012, we will have about 180,000 people using Refugees United to find their families and it will, hopefully, soon be an integral tool for every NGO and organisation in the world for reconnecting families together again. We will solve this problem.”
Though their main focus is always to be the simplest and easiest tool for families to use and reconnect with one another and to be a useful “hammer in the toolbox of every NGO”, the Mikkelesen brothers may have stumbled upon something else that is even more extraordinary – how Refugees United functions.
“We have not had any government aid, we have not been a financial burden on anyone and that is something we hope to continue”.
The donation of time by massive companies, such as the “wonderful foundations like Danfoss, Omidyar Network, IKEA Foundation and Maersk Foundation,” and financial support from private foundations, allows Refugees United to do the work they need to do at a fraction of the cost. Christopher and David were keen to point out that “They are the backbone of RU – enabling us to always provide this service for free to the most vulnerable.” And what’s more amazing is that the brothers from Copenhagen managed to make these successful companies realise that the real reward is not money that may come from this but the satisfaction of helping others. The mission of Refugees United is to create a life line of communications, to connect the unconnected and bring families back together.
So, if our government could take a leaf out of this organisation of eight full time employees, maybe we can even keep our public services regardless of the dwindling revenues in this tempestuous financial climate.
To borrow a quote from the founders: “Alone we can achieve some – together we can achieve all.”charity, refugees, Refugees United, Uganda, UNCHR
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