Refugees United is a non-government organization (NGo) that reunites refugees all over the world through an online search engine. Founders David and Christopher Mikkelson spoke to AW about why, in 2005, they decided to address the issue of displaced refugees.
In 2005, brothers David and Christopher Mikkelson met Mansour, a young Afghan refugee living in Denmark. Only 12-years-old and living completely alone in a strange country, Mansour’s story touched the Mikkelson brothers, who decided to embark on a journey to find his family. After successfully tracking down Mansour’s younger brother, who was trapped in modern-day slavery in South Russia, and after realising the immense difficulties refugees have to endure, the brothers decided to leave their teaching careers and focus entirely on reuniting refugees with their families.
Although the inception of the idea was in 2005, it took nearly three and a half years before they had developed a highly professional product. In November 2008, Refugees United went live, and with 700 people already registered on the site, the Mikkelsons hope to continue to strive forward in their quest to bring together families that have been brutally broken.
Arabian Woman (AW): What inspired you to start Refugees United?
Mikklesons (M): We created the NGO after meeting Mansour, a young Afghan refugee living in Denmark. Four years prior to our meeting, Mansour had fled the Taliban regime with his family and had tragically become separated from both his parents and siblings during the excruciating escape. He ended up in Denmark, alone, at the tender age of 12. When we met Mansour, what he wanted, more than anything in this world, was to find his family. Along with Mansour, we soon began a long journey, both mentally and physically, trying to relocate his family. While trying to unearth information on the family’s whereabouts, we realised the immense difficulties the search entailed, mainly due to lack of crossborder information, lack of infrastructure and language barriers. Fear also added much to the equation. No one had created an anonymous forum for families to reconnect.
Even with our assistance, armed with knowledge of formal institutions and language skills, and travelling far and wide, it has only been possible to locate Mansour’s younger brother. Even though Refugees United cannot provide physical reunification, it is our hope to provide certainty for those who need it most- families that have been separated. No one should endure this kind of uncertainty and solitude. No parent should suffer the torture of not knowing the whereabouts or fate of their children.
AW: How did Refugees United finally happen? What kind of work was involved?
M: After finding Mansour’s brother, we realised that no one had created a global, anonymous and central registry in aid of refugees looking for missing family members. We decided to create this missing link. We began the process of setting up the organisation, the search engine and the database. Given that we wanted to create Refugees United in a different and, to us, more dynamic way, we decided to enlist the aid of the business world as well as the humanitarians.
“Not knowing where my family is makes me feel like I’m never really at home-Mansour”
The first step in the process was actually to create a visual identity, a beacon of light, so to speak, which we can shine into the darkness surrounding many refugees. The fact is that Refugees United is very much an information project, bringing knowledge to a destitute group among us so often cut out of the technology and information loop so many of us enjoy. Then came the gradual creation of the website, search engine and database. This involved a string of people such as ethnologists, programmers and interface experts, all in order to create the simplest and most intuitive system since many refugees are not computer skilled. The question of security has taken many, many months to answer satisfyingly, creating a system which doesn’t track IP addresses, or otherwise disclose the true identity or whereabouts of a person, until he or she is ready to do so.
AW: How is Refugees United different?
M: Refugees United’s mission is to help refugees relocate missing family and friends through an online search engine. The objective is to build a global and anonymous network of refugees to allow them to find out where their families are. Some of the differences between other tracing units and Refugees United are that we work on-line, we offer full anonymity, our tool can be used by all refugees, regardless of legal status and conflict and we put the power in the hands of the refugees themselves. Only you know your own situation, hence you decide what information is relevant and safe to use.
AW: What has the response been like so far?
M: The response so far has been tremendous! There has been such an obvious need for this system to be brought into the world, that everyone we encounter and talk about the project with is keen to help. And it is indeed a fortunate thing. We like to think of Refugees United as a people-to-people aid system, where everyone can make an absolute difference.
If one person in Dubai shares the mission of Refugees United with a refugee, and he or she registers, and the same takes place in, say, Lebanon, then there is a very real chance an everyday person can function as the connector bringing these two back together.
It really is, as mentioned before, a question of enlisting the help of our peers and fellow men to ensure the information about Refugees United spreads as far into the corners of the world as possible. If one person relays the information of Refugees United to an NGO working with refugees, then a connection has been made. The possibilities for cross-cultural and crossborder cooperation are tremendous and we hope everyone will join us to accomplish this.
Just imagine, with the right minds and the right action, a global epidemic of parents lost
from children, siblings from each other, can be remedied.
AW: How many people have found the people they’re looking for through the site?
M: Given that we don’t monitor the site’s activity, out of reasons of security, we cannot provide information on anyone who has found family yet. And, given the fact that we launched the organisation in November 2008, we don’t expect success stories to start coming in until maybe six months or a year later. The real success today is the fact that your esteemed readers are made aware of Refugees United. The real success of Refugees United is having enlisted the help of people, corporations and communicators to roll out the call to help across the horizon. By joining the hands of many, we’re effectively gathering an ocean of stakeholders bidding in to do their part in pushing towards a solution to a problem of horrific magnitude. And with the roughly 700 registered right now, if we were to help just 100 of these to reconnect with their missing family, it would be, to us, an extraordinary accomplishment. Of course, we hope to help many, many more than that.
AW: Can you tell us a little about your sources of funding?
M: As Refugees United is independent of all formal institutions, states and governments, we are funded through private and corporate support. We have established a very well-functioning network of supporters who donate, work for us free of charge, or give us great discounts.
Many companies wish to support the simple and effective idea of Refugees United, and we are both happy and proud that we have been able to attract so much goodwill. However, funding remains a crucial issue for us as we continuously need to spread the word, update the search engine, improve the mailing system, translate the application, travel to camps, centres, etc. So we encourage all with an interest to make a contribution to our work– either privately or corporately.
AW: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
M: The biggest challenge so far has been, and continues to be, to find the finances to keep the team behind Refugees United running in the future. In creating an NGO with business-like mind-set, we have successfully outsourced everything to third parties participating pro bono in our declared goal to create the most high-impact, low-cost organisation possible; and we’re proud to say we have succeeded. But we still need money to pay the few salaries, to pay for computers and so on. Refugees United was initially created on a bank loan, as we believed that if we didn’t do this, no one would. And it had to be done now. Not tomorrow. Not the day after. The world’s 79 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people cannot wait. Help is needed now.
AW: What is the demographic break-up of the people who register with you? Is there any predominant region/country?
M: Again, we cannot keep an exact track of the users of the search engine out of security and anonymity. However, we can see that Iraqis, Afghanis, Bosnians, Sudanese, Somali, and many others are registering on the site. Also, Burmese, Koreans, Colombians and so on are beginning to appear on the site. The Middle East and South America are our predominant regions and also where we place our largest focus.
AW: Which areas are most affected?
M: The most affected areas are the Middle East, Central and Eastern Africa, South America and South East Asia. In the vicinity of five million Iraqis are either refugees or internally displaced within their own borders.
Millions of Afghans remain refugees, many finding it difficult to return. The Palestinians are, of course, the single-largest refugee group. Many do not realise that Colombia has some of the highest numbers of refugees as well. Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Somalia are all countries with an immense refugee problem, and very few resources to deal with the humanitarian crises at hand.
AW: What can our readers do to help?
M: They may volunteer with Refugees United, helping us to disseminate the information about the organisation. They may go to the site and make a donation. Perhaps some of them work for a company interested in supporting the global mission of Refugees United, or perhaps they have contacts with NGO’s wishing to partner with us, in creating a global network. Maybe some have acquaintances sitting on foundations, able to help us bring the work of Refugees United further out into the world. It really only is desire that can limit what one can do. Often, it is the tiny spark that brings forth a powerful wave of dedication and a chance to do something great for this world. A difference is ours to make.
AW: What are your future goals for the organisation? How will you realise these goals?
M: Our goal for the organisation is to have ended the problem of refugee families not being to find each other within the next 10 years. Furthermore, it is to explore the partnerships we’re rolling out in 2009, with us beginning to donate computers to NGO’s and refugee camps, in partnership with a computer conglomerate. We will be unveiling this partnership later this month. Next, we’re working on creating a mobile phone solution, to make refugees able to search and register via SMS, using both 2G and 3G phones.
This is particularly exciting, given the 3.8 billion mobile phones in our world, with an additional 500 million coming every year. We are working with a mobile communications company on the pilot project now, and look forward to present the new solutions.
If you would like more information on Refugees United, please visit: www.refunite.org
Article by: Arabian Woman