Surekha Kulkarni, founder of Beaded Treasures, has made it her goal to empower refugees and other disadvantaged women in her community. Before partnering with Volunteers of America to open a Beaded Treasures retail store in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, Kulkarni was already teaching women to make and then sell their jewelry at home gatherings. Kulkarni was inspired to start the project after taking a jewelry-making class while visiting relatives in India. When she returned to her home in Louisville, she realized she could use those skills to teach refugees and other disadvantaged women in her local community to do the same. In addition to jewelry-making skills, women also learn all aspects of running a business, including marketing skills and financial literacy. To learn more about Beaded Treasures, watch the above video.
I first visited the Zaatari refugee camp in early 2015. Located in northern Jordan, the camp is home to more than 80,000 Syrian refugees. I was there as part of a research study on refugee camp wireless and information infrastructure.
It’s one thing to read about refugees in the news. It’s a whole different thing to actually go visit a camp. I saw people living in metal caravans, mixed with tents and other materials to create a sense of home. Many used improvised electrical systems to keep the power going. People are rebuilding their lives to create a better future for their families and themselves, just like any of us would if faced with a similar situation. As a geographer, I was quickly struck by how geographically complex the Zaatari camp is. The camp management staff faced serious spatial challenges. By “spatial challenges,” I mean issues that any small city might face, such as keeping track of the electrical grid; understanding where people live within the camp; and locating other important resources, such as schools, mosques and health centers. Officials at Zaatari had some maps of the camp, but they struggled to keep up with its ever-changing nature.
An experiment I launched there led to up-to-date maps of the camp and, I hope, valuable training for some of its residents.
THE POWER OF MAPS
Like many other refugee camps, Zaatari developed quickly in response to a humanitarian emergency. In rapid onset emergencies, mapping often isn’t as high of a priority as basic necessities like food, water and shelter.
However, my research shows that maps can be an invaluable tool in a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. Modern digital mapping tools have been essential for locating resources and making decisions in a number of crises, from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to the refugee influx in Rwanda.
This got me thinking that the refugees themselves could be the best people to map Zaatari. They have intimate knowledge of the camp’s layout, understand where important resources are located and benefit most from camp maps.
With these ideas in mind, my lab teamed up with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Al-Balqa and Princess Sumaya universities in Jordan.
Modern maps are often made with a technology known as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Using funding from the UNHCR Innovation Fund, we acquired the computer hardware to create a GIS lab. From corporate partner Esri, we obtained low-cost, professional GIS software.
Over a period of about 18 months, we trained 10 Syrian refugees. Students in the RefuGIS class ranged in age from 17 to 60. Their backgrounds from when they lived in Syria ranged from being a math teacher to a tour operator to a civil engineer. I was extremely fortunate that one of my students, Yusuf Hamad, spoke fluent English and was able translate my instructions into Arabic for the other students.
We taught concepts such as coordinate systems, map projections, map design and geographic visualization; we also taught how to collect spatial data in the field using GPS. The class then used this knowledge to map places of interest in the camp, such as the locations of schools, mosques and shops.
The class also learned how to map data using mobile phones. The data has been used to update camp reference maps and to support a wide range of camp activities.
I made a particular point to ensure the class could learn how to do these tasks on their own. This was important: No matter how well-intentioned a technological intervention is, it will often fall apart if the displaced community relies completely on outside people to make it work.
As a teacher, this class was my most satisfying educational experience. This was perhaps my finest group of GIS students across all the types of students I have taught over my 15 years of teaching. Within a relatively short amount of time, they were able to create professional maps that now serve camp management staff and refugees themselves.
JOBS FOR REFUGEES
My experiences training refugees and humanitarian professionals in Jordan and Rwanda have made me reflect upon the broader possibilities that GIS can bring to the over 65 million refugees in the world today.
It’s challenging for refugees to develop livelihoods at a camp. Many struggle to find employment after leaving.
GIS could help refugees create a better future for themselves and their future homes. If people return to their home countries, maps — essential to activities like construction and transportation — can aid the rebuilding process. If they adopt a new home country, they may find they have marketable skills. The worldwide geospatial industry is worth an estimated $400 billion and geospatial jobs are expected to grow over the coming years.
Our team is currently helping some of the refugees get GIS industry certifications. This can further expand their career opportunities when they leave the camp and begin to rebuild their lives.
Technology training interventions for refugees often focus on things like computer programming, web development and other traditional IT skills. However, I would argue that GIS should be given equal importance. It offers a rich and interactive way to learn about people, places and spatial skills — things that I think the world in general needs more of. Refugees could help lead the way.
When Kate James joined Pearson in 2014 as its chief of corporate affairs and global marketing, the international education publisher was going through some changes. One such move included a shift from what James calls “arm’s-length philanthropy,” whereby a corporation simply cuts a check to an outside nonprofit, to taking a more active role in developing change-driven solutions.
In the second installment of our series “10 Leaders on Business for Good,” NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman talked with James about how Pearson is altering the landscape of public-private partnerships for the better and what other companies can learn from those efforts.
You’ve worked at both philanthropic foundations and big corporations. What can a socially focused company do to enact change that might be harder for a nonprofit to do?
The journey that Pearson has been on, and continues to be on, is figuring out how to move from most of our social-impact work being done by a foundation at arm’s length to really embracing the opportunity for social innovation. To more bluntly answer your question: the private-sector dollar is super-important, especially given the scale of the challenges that the world is facing. Also, a large company can more easily convene other powerful players behind a cause while harnessing its campaign capabilities. Corporations can put their brand into play and leverage their commercial influence to reach more people in need. Pearson isn’t just coming at a problem with a check; instead we’re saying, ‘Hey, we can bring a lot more to it with our R&D capabilities.’
What projects is Pearson working on currently that you’re particularly excited about?
Right now we’re focused on three big initiatives. One that we are certainly most proud of is Project Literacy, which is no big surprise for an education company. When we conducted our initial research into the issue, we were struck by the fact that there are 757 million people around the world that lack basic literacy skills. And so Pearson seized the opportunity to create a coalition that’s working to close the literacy gap. We’ve attracted more than 100 diverse partners, from Microsoft to USAID, who all realize education is a fundamental part of any solution, from reducing child mortality rates to enabling someone suffering from AIDS to wholly understand their disease.
Pearson has also launched an internal incubator for employees to develop their entrepreneurial skills. They’re given the time to really think about ideas that can reach communities that otherwise Pearson’s products and services wouldn’t be reaching. For example, we’ve seen proposals for really smart ways to utilize the power of virtual reality and another that examines the refugee challenges in Germany and how to meet them.
And then there’s our work in Jordan with Save the Children on a program called Every Child Learning. Our partnership plays to our R&D strengths; we’re piloting a digital learning solution to deliver education to Syrian refugees and host community children in Jordan, with an eye toward adapting and scaling these in other emergency situations. Because these kids are often moving from place to place, we believe a mobile education platform is part of the solution.
How has Pearson’s focus on researching and developing solutions for social good changed the working environment for employees?
By constantly innovating and trying new things, we’re working to align our social-impact work with our own business goals and objectives. When you get that alignment, it’s amazing how much more resolve employees have and how much more engaged they are. When you’re focused on the double bottom line, then the work is sustainable and that means companies will be much more involved in philanthropic efforts and for a longer period of time. That’s what we have at Pearson that was missing before: a deeper level of connection between a foundation’s work and a corporation’s commercial strategy.
What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?
I started my career at GlaxoSmithKline, and the head of corporate affairs then was a wonderful lady. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but she made a lot of effort to talk to the young women graduates who were coming into GSK, and she became a phenomenal role model. She showed us how you could navigate a career path right to the very top. What really stuck with me is the importance of and the responsibility to really spend time with young women often. Some of our sparkiest young employees are women and, from the get-go, they can see that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. As the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other. I think that’s a pretty important mantra for all women in senior positions to take pretty seriously.
It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”
Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.” Nicole Riggs is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Make It Happen, a transmedia production company that aims to inspire large-scale social change.
Disappointed by the selection of hummus sold in supermarkets, Manal Kahi, a native of Lebanon, started making her own, using her grandmother’s recipe. Then, during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, a light bulb went off in Kahi’s head: What if refugees could share their local cuisines and earn a living by doing so?
Last November, Kahi and her brother launched Eat Offbeat. Watch the video above to see how this ethnic food delivery company hires refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Nepal who are talented home cooks and trains them to be professional chefs. MORE:Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change If One Cooked and Served You Dinner?
Melanie Domenech Rodríguez, a multi-cultural psychology teacher at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, came up with an innovative way for her students to gain some hands-on experience with the topics they discussed in class: Every Tuesday night, students volunteer to help local refugees and immigrants at an employment and citizenship clinic they created.
Rodríguez and others initially trained the students, but now they run the clinic themselves.
Antonia Keller, a student coordinator, tells Lis Stewart of HJNews, “It’s been really exciting for me and really rewarding to meet all the people that move to Cache Valley. I think it really enriches the valley and makes it a better place to have people from all different backgrounds and experiences here.”
Keller and the other students help immigrants craft resumes, fill out job applications and complete the paperwork required for the naturalization test. While there are other organizations in the community that help immigrants study for the test, no one else was helping them handle the paperwork. “It’s really intensive,” Keller says, “and really a kind of big bureaucratic thing to tackle on your own.”
The clinic has been successful enough that Utah State students will continue to run it in the spring, surely resulting in more insights like the one college student Alecc Quezada had about how privileged he is to have grown up in the United States. “I knew that to become a citizen you had to take a test, and I knew what resumes and what jobs required, but it’s so much easier knowing the language especially and having that cultural background,” he says. MORE: For More Than 100 Years, This House Has Been Welcoming New Americans
More important that putting gasoline in our cars, we need food to survive, and our farmers are the ones who keep us fed. A single U.S. farmer produces enough food to feed 155 people.
Worryingly, the population of American farmers is only getting older. According to the last census, the average age was 58.3 years and a third of farmers were older than 65 in 2012, the Associated Press writes.
Even though there’s been a small uptick of younger farmers between the ages of 25 and 34 (due to government support and increased interest in locally-grown foods) there’s still a big void that will need to get filled.
Thankfully, our newest Americans could play a big part in the country’s agricultural future. MORE:Ask the Experts: Why Should Americans Care About Employing Immigrants?
In central Maine, the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) is presenting immigrant families with an opportunity to break into farming and help feed the country. Not only does the program also give them a chance to escape poverty and debt, but it also provides a shot at a college education, the Christian Science Monitor reports.
A large number participating in NASAP are refugees from civil war-torn Somalia, South Sudan, and the Congo. (Modern Farmer reports that Maine is home to roughly 5,000 Somalis.)
According to their website, NASAP provides training, on-farm workshops and one-on-one consultation to recently resettled refugee and immigrant farmers living in the greater Lewiston and Portland areas.
By working in NASAP and selling their crops to restaurants, farmers markets and grocers, an enrollee can bring in about $2,000 to $4,000 a year in supplemental income and up to $20,000 yearly, the Christian Science Monitor states.
“We’re so proud to be here,” Somali participants said via translator to Modern Farmer. “We couldn’t have this opportunity without your support, and we appreciate it.” DON’T MISS: Thousands More Angelenos Can Now Enjoy Farmer’s Market Produce
With its downtown high rises housing global oil companies, and its vast, sprawling suburbs that can only be reached by navigating packed freeways and dizzying highway overpasses, Houston does not seem to be a place where a farmer could find a quiet corner to coax a harvest from the soil. But thanks to the unlikely partnership between a co-founder of a software company with nary a notion about gardening and a small group of African refugees with deep roots in the Congo’s fertile soil, several small urban farms are flourishing — bringing hope and joy to the immigrants and fresh produce to their neighbors. Plant It Forward was established by Teresa OʼDonnell, co-founder of Bridgeway Software, who says, following the success of her company, she was “looking for a means to give back to the community.” The group’s genesis was sparked by a story in the Houston Chronicle about the problem some Iraqi refugees (many of them doctors and engineers) were having finding jobs. “I thought it would be a good fit,” O’Donnell says. So she contacted Catholic Charities, a major worldwide force in refugee resettlement efforts. They implied that helping these Iraqi professionals settle was not much of a challenge compared to the giant problems facing immigrants with few skills.
Houston is the number one refugee destination in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. Some 70,000 immigrants from 78 countries have settled in the Texas metropolitan area since 1978 — many drawn to its healthy economy and low housing prices.
To help make her aware of their needs, Catholic Charities suggested she accompany a volunteer that was meeting refugees at Houstonʼs international airport. “It was a seminal moment,” she says. OʼDonnell watched as nine people disembarked, “all wearing the same shoes, carrying the same bags, all wearing a name tag and all unable to speak English…I thought, ʻOh my god! They don’t have a chance.ʼ” From that moment she was committed to find a way to help. MORE:It Wasn’t Easy to Welcome 25,000 Refugees, But Boy, Is This Town Glad It Did
Many of Houston’s African refugees arrive from the war-torn African Republic of Congo-Brazzaville where the earth yields so-called “blood diamonds” and rare metals used to manufacture smartphones and tablets. That same land is blanketed with some of the world’s most fertile soil — a happy circumstance for its multitude of poor citizens. O’Donnell learned that many of the refugees farmed small plots in their home countries, giving her the notion that perhaps they could make a living or get some economic benefit from urban farming.
After meeting with local pioneers in the urban farming movement, O’Donnell set up Plant It Forward, a training program that helps refugees farm crops suitable to the Houston climate (including taking advantage of the region’s two-harvest-a-year cycle) and develop sales skills.
In May 2012, the program leased three acres on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, and later that year, the first class graduated. Now, the organization has increased in size from one to three urban farms (the other two are located at a local church and at a large community garden site) and in scope — including additional classes in urban gardening and business skills. And for the first time ever, this year’s group includes several women, which is particularly important given that female African refugees have a hard time finding jobs due to their lack of English language skills and little educational history, O’Donnell says.
Initially, Plant It Forward aimed to help supplement the income refugees earned by working menial jobs like janitorial services. But it became apparent that, due to the program’s success, some could develop an urban farming business that would provide their entire income. By farming small plots — around two or three acres — and setting up weekly vegetable and fruit stands, several graduates of the program have been able to live off the land and develop a solid, profitable relationships with customers who look forward to the weekly harvests.
One of Plant it Forward’s stars is Sarment (his last name withheld because many refugees harbor understandable fears given their traumatic history). The 51-year-old is a native of Congo-Brazzaville where he had worked as a taxi driver before fleeing and becoming a refugee in neighboring Gabon for 10 years.
“I left the Congo because of the war,” Sarment says through an interpreter. “I left and went to Gabon,” he says. “They told me that I couldn’t drive a taxi because I was a stranger…I made a garden there. In Gabon, I had three people who worked with me in my garden. I was the boss. My garden there was 150 square meters. I mostly grew tomatoes. I also grew eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, sorelle, roselle [hibiscus]. We would sell the vegetables at the market,” he explains.
His garden was a success, but one day, “the military came and said you can’t stay here — if you stay, I will kill you. If I kept farming, they would put me in jail or kill me. I was the boss, so I was in danger, not my workers. After that, the United Nations said it was not safe for me, so they sent me to America.” On Feb. 22, 2010, Sarment, his wife and family arrived in Houston.
In May 2013, Sarment graduated from Plant It Forward’s agricultural program and now operates his one-acre farm in Westbury, a suburb of southwest Houston. He is what the program dubs an “independent farmer,” earning his full income from the produce that he grows. (According to OʼDonnell, independent farmers can gross $30,ooo to 40,000 a year or more in the program.)
Life is good for Sarment now. He and his wife recently welcomed their sixth child — a baby boy — and also his first grandchild. He is taking English language classes and practices with customers at the weekly farm stand sales. “I can work with my family to build my farm and go home and all is good,” he says. “Language is hard — [but farm] work, for me, no problem. I can say itʼs all okay for me in the garden.”
As for his future? “Iʼd like to stay in America. I’d like for my project with farming to grow. I want to stay here, not return to my country. For me — I need my family and my farm. Today this work is small like this. And tomorrow,” he says opening his arms up wide and grinning, “it will be big!”
OʼDonnell, who works full time as the director of Plant It Forward, has big dreams, too. She is working to lease more land and has met with city leaders not just in Houston, but also other cities to explain the concept.
Houston’s neighborhoods have proved enthusiastic about having access to fresh produce, which Plant it Forward sells at stands located at its three farms and at the city’s Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers’ Market on the weekends. The organization also offers a farm share program that delivers its goods to homes on a subscription basis, and O’Donnell is also working to deliver produce from the farms to local chefs.
More so than anything, O’Donnell is excited about the success of this community-building program, which connects her “pioneer farmers” to empty land “that was just being mowed every week” — satisfying “the huge demand for local food.” DON’T MISS:How a Pair of College Students Persuaded Their Town to Legalize Urban Farming
In many states across the country, the economy is picking up after the long recession, making aspiring entrepreneurs eager to launch their small businesses. The only problem? Requirements for loans from traditional banks are still strict, leaving potential business owners, including many immigrants who may not have the credentials banks are looking for, with no capital to start their ventures.
In Colorado, the solution to this crunch has come through several microloan nonprofits that are able to lend smaller amounts than commercial banks do, and serve a wider variety of people, including refugees who want to open shops, home childcare businesses and restaurants.
Denver-based Somali refugee Abdullahi Shongolo was one beneficiary of these programs. Three years ago, a microloan enabled him to buy an international grocery store, leaving him with a rosy view of his adopted country. “If you try, this is America—you can,” Shongolo told Thad Moore of the Denver Post. “This is the country that went to the moon, man.”
According to Moore, microlending is booming in Colorado. Community Enterprise Development Services, a lender specializing in helping immigrants and refugees, increased the number of borrowers in the most recent fiscal year by 150 percent. None of the 51 loans the nonprofit has made since it opened in 2010 has defaulted.
“Refugees do not only bring a few bags of clothes and a few belongings,” Suleyman Abbgero, who used a microloan to open a coffee kiosk in an Aurora mall, told Moore. “They also bring a lot of ideas. If they are given the opportunity, they can do much more.” MORE:From Field Hands to Farmers: This Program Helps Latino Immigrants Become Land Owners