Palestinian Startup helps Refugees Find Free Legal Aid via SMS

By Akudo McGee 5 Min Read

As news stories across the globe are quick to remind us, we are now witnessing the most massive wave of forcibly displaced people ever recorded. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) currently estimates that 65.6 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes.

Of that number, there are almost 22.5 million refugees worldwide. While governments around the world struggle to accommodate and redistribute these displaced persons, other organizations are also pitching in to alleviate the increasing arrival of newcomers into countries, which, in many cases, are alien to them.

Supranational entities, like the European Union as well as NGOs and grassroots organizations, take part in efforts to educate, place, resettle and provide medical treatment for refugees. One such organization, which seeks to confront practical issues associated with forced migration is a Palestinian startup called Souktel.

Souktel provides legal assistance by SMS, hinging on a resource that most refugees are likely to have available anyway. It’s part of a growing trend to develop software programs for refugees and other displaced individuals which can be used on most cell phones. Cellphones are important since refugees often keep their phones with them to track their location, communicate and reunite with family or friends.

Souktel partners with the American Bar Association to provide accurate legal assistance for matters such as applying for visas or enrolling children in school. Users can submit their questions in the language of their choice, where it is then translated, sorted and distributed to the appropriate legal team.

Souktel’s team is comprised of staff with experience working in the field of humanitarian aid and software engineers who understand the depth of the humanitarian crisis and the vulnerable position of displaced persons.

By educating refugees about their rights and assisting them in reaching legal resolutions for their issues they are less likely to face human rights violations or be manipulated due to ignorance of another country’s regulations.

Souktel strives to provide accurate, reliable information by SMS, mobile audio, and mobile messenger so refugees can access pertinent legal information literally at the tip of their fingers.

This isn’t their first rodeo. In 2009, they released an alert system in Gaza and the West Bank in order to accurately distribute emergency supplies. Since they are based out of Ramallah (a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, close to Jerusalem) they also have first-hand experience dealing with refugees and reviewing which resources work best for displaced persons who may not have access to the same technology as others.

Jacob Korenblum, founder of Souktel said he was inspired when he saw younger Palestinians relying on their mobile devices for communication and other basic services. He first worked to make job seeking SMS services available in Palestine.

Korenblum has constructed similar platforms for other humanitarian aid organizations and has now made Souktel available to over a million mobile device users. The services are used by refugees across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa and are available for both basic mobile phones and smartphones.

Souktel’s unique focus combines cooperation with human rights organizations and the use of platforms (like text or mobile radio) which refugees already have access to and know how to use. The idea behind this is that solutions created to facilitate a less traumatic or confusing transition from one’s home country to another country should be multifaceted enough to address refugees’ complicated needs.

Since legal issues are complex and affected by factors like age, citizenship and asylum status, among other things, approaches to helping refugees must also take into account that their questions and concerns cannot be handled in isolation.

For Korenblum it’s only up from here. His next venture is developing artificial intelligence and chatbot programs to assist users. Like the current technology for Souktel, the new programs will be designed to run with minimal internet access and will not require a fast internet connection to function optimally.

During a time when throngs of people are forced from their homes and have to adopt the language, customs and legal framework of new countries, the creation of programs such as Souktel go a long way. This free SMS service is available in over 30 countries and we look forward to seeing it expand in the near future!

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