Works in Progress - Autumn 2018

Citizenship Prep

Expanding refugee access to online resources

By Clara Cushing | September 4, 2018
Shaina Kasanoff

While visiting the Thai-Burmese border in 2011, Jessica Marks noticed something that aroused her curiosity: refugees living in camps were regularly using computers. She wondered, upon returning home to the United States, what kind of access to technology migrants and refugees in this country had that could help them in the process of resettlement. It turned out that refugees here were indeed using computers or smartphones at least once a day, yet very little practical information was available to them on the Internet.

“Refugees and migrants are resourceful and resilient; they can make the best decisions for their own future,” Marks says, “but they need information and access to resources.” So, with a team of volunteers, she founded the Refugee Center Online (RCO), making its free content available in 45 languages. The site includes a virtual classroom for GED and citizenship test prep, information about American culture, a class for educators who teach refugee children, and a community forum where visitors can tell their stories and connect with others like them. The site also contains information on changes in immigration policy. Within 48 hours of the first executive order restricting immigration from seven countries, RCO had translated an explanation of the policy into 16 languages. After more than 20,000 page views, the site crashed, necessitating a rapid move to a bigger server.

With help from a Carnegie Corporation grant used to promote the GED classes via social media outreach, the site’s user base has grown from 70,000 to 250,000 in a year. Marks and co-president Miranda Kaiser anticipate that number exceeding half a million this year, with users (such as the ethnic Karen woman below) coming from all 50 states and abroad. Still, many newcomers cannot afford data plans and rely on public spaces to connect to Wi-Fi. Funding from the Chicago-based Frankel Family Foundation and a new partnership with the UN Refugee Agency should help RCO start converting its online content into apps so that users can download content and access it offline. Clearing the obstacle to accessibility means that the group can focus on more fundamental questions—“questions around language, culture, and post-traumatic stress,” Kaiser says.

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