From Ukraine to Afghanistan, Israeli charity SmartAid aims to bring tech to crisis zones – eJewish Philanthropy

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The room at the refugee center in Moldova feels more like an advanced customer call center than a classroom: 20 laptops with noise-canceling headphones, an interactive projector at the front of the room, powered high-speed internet access by SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service.

But after 45 minutes of silent concentration on the screens, the 15 children seated at the desks put down their headsets and fled to recess, the sounds of screaming and playing echoing through the room.

There are more than 170 classrooms like this in Poland, Moldova and Ukraine, run by SmartAid, an NGO founded in Israel in 2016 to provide personalized technological responses to humanitarian and natural disasters around the world. In Moldova, SmartAid is partnering with local organization Phoenix International Cooperation and Development Center to run nine smart classrooms for Ukrainian refugee children, with five more set to open this month.

The classrooms are the result of a project of the Ukrainian Ministry of Education called “All-Ukrainian Online Calendar”, which allows students to continue their lessons with Ukrainian teachers online, regardless of where they are. students or teachers. Even when children in the same room connect to different classrooms, they still have a similar break schedule. About 90,000 Ukrainians are still in Moldova today, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“We discovered, after a month, that one of the big problems was studies,” said Irina Rusanovschi, founder and director of Phoenix, a Moldovan NGO she created in 2014 to focus on local problems for young people. children. “When we went to visit the refugee centers, we saw children and students sitting in front of their mobile phones for hours trying to get online with their teachers in Ukraine.”

Rusanovschi and other parents like her have known since the pandemic how difficult it is for children to try to study online. About 7 million Ukrainians have left since the Russian invasion in February, and about 4 million have returned, according to United Nations data. Many refugee families in Moldova are housed in dormitories with everyone in the same room, and the buildings do not have enough internet bandwidth to keep all the children online at the same time.

SmartAid classrooms attempt to eliminate these issues by moving students out of their living spaces.

“It’s important for them to all be together in the same room, because when they have free time, they can communicate with other students around them,” Rusanovschi said, adding that it helps fight a part of the isolation that has plagued Zoom classes during the pandemic. .

Smart classrooms are usually built in refugee centers or dormitories where there are large populations of refugees. In addition to smart classrooms, SmartAID has also donated thousands of tablets and laptops to students in Ukraine where smart classrooms are not available for schoolwork, telehealth, or mental health counseling.

Classrooms are one of many SmartAid interventions in international crises. Shachar Zahavi, co-founder of the group, knows what it’s like to be the first on the ground after a natural or humanitarian disaster. He coordinated relief in dozens of emergency situations for 18 years, first as the founder and CEO of IsraAid, an Israeli first aid and disaster relief organization that was launched there. two decades and sent teams to disaster areas around the world.

Zahavi first began to reflect on the glaring discrepancy between how aid organizations were using existing technology during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed an estimated 300,000 people.

“At first, no organization was willing to enter Port-au-Prince because we were afraid of riots,” he said. “But if there was a use of drones [to view the city]we could have seen that there were no riots, and we would not have lost two or three days of response.

The main challenge SmartAid is trying to address is the disconnect between the people on the ground in disaster areas and the distant tech companies in their offices in Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv: doctors, social workers, nurses and teachers. in the field have cultural knowledge, but who may not be familiar with cutting-edge technologies. Tech companies employ programmers and developers who are passionate about social justice and know the latest gadgets and software, but lack the cultural knowledge to successfully adapt their technology for local implementation.

“The idea behind this is to build a sort of bridge between the tech world and the aid world,” Zahavi said. “The use of technology in [the] non-profit world is really weak… It’s gotten a bit more popular since COVID-19, but not to the level where it can really affect humanitarian aid.

In Zahavi’s experience, when most aid organizations consider cooperating with tech companies, they view these companies solely as financial donors. Zahavi wants to change that, to involve tech companies more in shaping disaster response itself.

“It’s not just about bringing technology to humanitarian organizations, it’s also about helping the tech community understand that you have amazing ideas, but there’s a difference between [solutions for] Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda,” Zahavi said. Although the countries are side by side, he added, “the differences are great, because in one country, telecommunications and [financial technology] is more improved, and [in] the others are less.

SmartAid receives its funding from Kärcher, the Ted Arison Family Foundation and other corporations and private donors. It has 10 full-time staff, 50 project-based rotations and over 300 core volunteers. SmartAid’s estimated budget for 2022 is $900,000, up from $300,000 in 2021. It receives services from technology companies worth approximately $5.5 million, including hardware, software , products and services from renowned companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Salesforce, Toyota and DHL. .

SmartAid has also deployed this approach in past crises. Immediately after Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas on September 1, 2019, killing 74 people and causing $3.4 billion in damage, the greatest need was for telecommunications. The storm had wiped out internet and phone lines on the hard-hit Island of Abaco, and aid workers on the ground had no way to coordinate with their organizations or each other about what was needed and where. SmartAid built a communications center where aid workers could access the internet via SmartAid computers or Starlink satellite-powered WiFi, and also provided organizations with walkie-talkies and distributed 5,000 solar-powered lamps in addition to portable water purifiers and hygiene packs for women. .

Zahavi found that providing telecommunications is essential to relief efforts, and can even be a challenge in developed countries. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the remote crossing points to Poland and Moldova had rudimentary communications infrastructure and could not handle the tens of thousands of refugees crossing each day, as well as the hundreds of organizations trying to help – which relied, in some cases, on a single cell tower.

Zahavi also stressed the importance of understanding what infrastructure is and is not available in the area the groups want to serve. At the start of the Ukrainian crisis, organizations received many donations of medical devices for the front lines. But much of the donations went to places without reliable electricity, which appliances needed to operate. SmartAid solved the problem by trying to match solar generators with devices that needed power.

One area of ​​potential growth, Zahavi said, is financial technology, or fintech. According to the International Rescue Committee, direct cash assistance is one of the most efficient and effective ways to support people displaced by conflict or disaster. But it can be difficult, even dangerous, to get those cash or preloaded credit cards into people’s hands if they’re in active combat zones or if banks are failing. Fintech payment apps like Venmo or PayPal allow transactions to continue without cash or local banking infrastructure.

In Afghanistan, SmartAid is supporting vulnerable women with cash relief and communication packs of cell phones and solar chargers to connect them with mental health professionals.

“There are high-tech and low-tech solutions, and it doesn’t have to be AI [artificial intelligence], it can be three levels lower,” Zahavi said. “There is clean water which is a product of extracting moisture from the air, or clean water which pumps water through the sand and special chemicals which clean the water,” he said. “There are many different levels of technology that end up making the water clean.”

One of the barriers to using technology for disaster relief, Zahavi said, is the problem of knowing what to do when devices break down. If a product sits in a corner gathering dust because no one knows how to fix it, it’s useless. In Ukraine, where almost 300,000 people work in technology, this was not a problem. But elsewhere, it can be.

“If you can’t buy the product that’s broken in the country, you have to think twice about even bringing it,” Zahavi said. “But if the product is already in the country, that means the industry already exists, and you need to identify the right service providers and expand that circle of service providers.”

SmartAid tries to identify local professionals who can fix the technology. It also helps to ensure that after a disaster, the technology can stay in the community that hosted the refugees, so that the locals feel valued as well.

For smart classrooms, this means that if and when Ukrainian students can return home, laptops and smart classrooms will stay in Moldova. Rusanovschi said most refugee centers in the capital Chi?in?u are currently housed in educational buildings, so an in-house computer lab will come in handy in the future.

In the meantime, they have started using the smart classrooms at night to teach Romanian and English to Ukrainian parents in hopes of helping them adjust to their new life. And during the day, Rusanovschi said, smart classrooms provide some normalcy for children who have spent the past six months in limbo.

They wake up, go to school, do their lessons and they are with other children,” she said. “They make friends. It feels like going to school.


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