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Students and alumnae design social media platform for refugees

DOXA is a finalist in the Hult Prize competition, which seeks to support social entrepreneurs.

The woman who Al-Quraan Siwar ’17 calls “Farida” is a single mother and dentist from Syria living in the Chicago area. She lost her husband in the Syrian Civil War, moved to Egypt and gained refugee status in America. Despite the support of the government and that of her refugee resettlement service, RefugeeOne, she, like many immigrants, faces a very difficult problem: She just doesn’t know anyone.

These are the kind of people Siwar hopes DOXA will help.

DOXA is a new social-media project organized by several Kenyon students and alumnae, including Jae June Lee ’17, Maher Latif ’17, Sruthi Rao ’16, Houda El Joundi ’16 and Siwar. The team is running a crowdfunding campaign on generosity.com to help launch the project. As of press time, the campaign raised $1,520 of the $3,550 goal.

The team also entered the prestigious Hult Prize competition, which seeks to help student “social entrepreneurs” create products that are both self-sustaining and socially beneficial. Out of a pool of more than 50,000 applicants, DOXA was one of the 300 applicants chosen to pitch their idea at the regional finals this weekend in Boston. If chosen, the team will be enrolled in an intensive start-up training course, given money to begin operation, and then pitted against other candidates from around the world.

“Our central idea is to create stable and beneficial relationships between ordinary people who have found themselves in extraordinary circumstances,” Lee said.

DOXA, which is now in early prototype form, is a service like the career networking website LinkedIn in that it seeks to build a support network — but for refugees specifically. The working prototype asks users for information like current location, work interest and spoken language and matches them with an interested party, which can be anybody from a more well-established refugee to a citizen who is interested in helping out.

DOXA seeks to remedy three central problems that the members of the team identified in refugee communities, according to Lee.

First, many refugees lack the broad network of support and mentorship. Additionally, many refugees arrive in their new country with significant skills but lack certification that American employers can accept. Finally, many refugees do not have the language experience to excel in their fields, because basic English as a Second Language (ESL) classes lack the technical vocabulary required for a diverse workforce. For example, a class might qualify someone to hold a conversation or order a meal, but not to discuss medical procedures.

Farida is a dentist and got her certification in Syria. After moving to the U.S., she interviewed for a variety of dental assistant jobs before she was told that, though qualified, she was not eligible for the position because her potential employer felt she could not communicate effectively with patients.

“She has a great work ethic and is very qualified,” Siwar said. “She attended every ESL class, but so much of the refugee organizations’ budgets are spent on the resettlement itself, there isn’t any leftover for occupation-specific training.”

This is where DOXA comes in. The service could match Farid with someone willing to teach the technical vocabulary, help her get recertified to assume a full-time dental position or even to get her a job.

One of the reasons the group is determined to launch the DOXA project is that many refugee resettlement agencies are either downsizing or failing. Since the Trump Administration cut the number of admitted refugees from 110,000 to 50,000, the government, which has already let in 30,000, has only a small amount left to admit by the end of this year. Because agencies are paid by the person, funding is scarce.

Lee and Siwar first worked together last September when they were planning on raising money to help fund one of the many refugee organizations in the U.S. but then decided they would rather do something more long- term.

“We all have some experience with refugees,” Siwar said. “Jae June spent time in Calais [a refugee camp in Calais, France] and I worked in refugee camps in Jordan. One of our members even did research in Morocco. We wanted to do something more.”

After brainstorming ideas, Lee, Siwar and El Joundi went to Chicago to speak with various refugees and resettlement agencies to find out what it was that would help refugees the most. When the trio returned, Rao and Latif joined in, and the team started focusing on plans to connect various members of the refugee community.

The team is confident, despite the fact that the chances of being the top project at the Hult Prize are “statistically slim,” according to Siwar. The crowdfunding campaign is part of their plan to continue the project independent of the prize. The team plans to hire coding-savvy refugees to improve upon their prototype, rather than just outsourcing their work.

“We have these highly skilled individuals,” Siwar said. “If you’re trying to build or tailor a project to a refugee, who better to build it?”

The winners of this stage in the Hult competition will be announced on Monday. Regardless of the decision, Lee says DOXA will continue to be in development — the team is even planning to go to Chicago to do more research after the competition. Some day, the team plans on using DOXA to help immigrants not just in America, but in countries with large populations of refugees, like Paris, Istanbul and Berlin.

“What the current world refugee settlement regime is doing now and what they were doing last generation is the same.” Lee said. “The technology has changed, why hasn’t it?”