Hacking The Refugee Crisis

“Sometimes it’s too overwhelming, and you just want to say: ‘I can’t believe they are really doing this to you.’ But you can’t say this because they need to talk, and they need to be heard.”
These were words from 20-year-old Maria Luisa Catrambone who has spent the last 2 summers working on board The Phoenix, a migrant search and rescue ship based in the Mediterranean.

Back in 2014 her family, frustrated by the lack of political support for Europe’s refugee crisis, privately funded and launched a ship to save the thousands of migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.

To date, her family’s initiative MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) has rescued over 13,000 migrants. They save peoples lives, pulling them out from fragile, overloaded, sinking dinghies; providing food and warmth temporarily until they are transported to European shores to meet NGOs. But what hooked me about Maria Luisa’s perspective was her insight into the emotional and mental scars of those displaced by conflict, social and economic dysfunction.
Once safe on The Phoenix, once basic physical needs had been seen to, upon the realization that they were heading to safety. Without provocation, it was in that moment of stillness the rescued the migrant was overcome with the need to open up and share their story.

Re-imagining the “Hackathon”

Last Saturday at Newspeak House in Shoreditch, Maria Luisa Catrambone took the microphone and shared alongside, Camile Tournebize refugee child protection expert from NGO Terres des homes; Dina Ariss, an activist for gender equality and refugee empowerment; Dr. Clare Shortall, a paediatrician with a focus on refugee and migrant health. Dr. Hina Shahid a member of the Muslim Doctors Association and many more exceptional individuals working on the front line of this crisis.

They brought their insights to a group tech enthusiasts and social impact activists gathered for EmpowerHack’s Humanitarian Health hackathon. I attended as a participant; eager to experience what creating tech with purpose might look like. I left with new friends, new tech knowledge and a template for building a community with purpose.

Where media outlets incite fear and political policy works to shut down borders, ordinary people are looking at ways to affect change. EmpowerHack, supported by numerous partner communities, is collective human agency brought to life. It’s purpose; to drive forward the development of tech-based solutions to the health and wellbeing challenges faced by female migrants and refugees throughout Europe.

EmpowerHack re-imagines the hackathon “boys in hoodies + pizza + beer” stereotype. Founded and led by female powerhouses Han Phan, Hera Hussein & Kimi Laurie, EmpowerHack places sustainable impact at the core of the challenges it addresses. Its values centre on collaboration, sharing ideas, and inclusivity. During the event’s opening, Han Pham spoke on the importance of staying accountable to those you are looking to serve: “Don’t avoid asking the hard but right questions up front”. Spending time getting clear on this first, saves you falling down rabbit holes along the process.

EmpowerHack Team
EmpowerHack Team

Hackathon’s get a bad rap for birthing countless tech solutions that never get used. EmpowerHack’s organisers sidestepped this pitfall by connecting with NGOs, doctors, social workers and other health professionals who had lived and breathed the crisis first-hand. They provided a platform for these expert mentors to share their experiences and insights.

Activist Dina Ariss, born and raised in Syria, told us of her cousin who recently escaped the conflict. Though now settled and out of danger, her cousin’s thoughts are never far from her home, friends and family. She devotes time to translating for fellow refugees. Knowing she can help in the smallest of ways keeps her connected and gives her purpose.

Listening to facts, stats, images, videos, anecdotal accounts of scenes these expert mentors faced everyday cut straight to the heart of the proposed design challenges and set the mind racing with ideas. Everyone gathered in that room got a sense of the urgency with which we needed to respond with impactful solutions.

“Um…but I’m don’t code?!”

As Jack & Eddie, EmpowerHack mentors and seasoned web developers circulated the group, encouraging each team member to sign up to GitHub, my palms got sweaty with the threat of having to learn some HTML. “I’m not a techie. I don’t belong at a hackathon!”, my inner critic piped up. Getting to know my fellow participants I quickly realized it’s that type of thinking that keeps those who want to help isolated and operating in silos.

The EmpowerHack team recognize the value of diverse skills and perspectives needed to bring solutions to life. This hack was not just for techies; user experience specialists, marketers, humanitarian experts and creatives were all warmly welcomed into the community. It was safe space, free from judgment where you could learn by doing. In fact, it thrived on knowledge exchange with experts and mentors lending their skills to different “competing” teams over the weekend.

The design challenges brought forward for development from their previous hackathon spoke to mental, physical health issues women and girl refugees are facing. Examples were:

  • HerStory – a digital community to support women that have faced gender-based violence share their stories.
  • Soul Medicine – a smartphone app that sends inspirational quotes to refugees via SMS or WhatsApp.
  • Hababy – a web app that provides prenatal and postnatal information for refugee women.

Embracing ‘the pivot’ was a mindset exercised throughout the weekend. Iterative testing and learning mean at some point, we came up against elements that didn’t work and needed to change track. The EmpowerHack experience reminded me that every failure is an opportunity for growth and learning. It’s with this anchor you can hold tight to integrity.

The EmpowerHack team showed us what a tech community with purpose looks like. Key ingredients for success involve the following actions:


  • Listen to the needs of the community you are serving. Active listening can be uncomfortable but this is where knowledge, understanding, and growth occurs. Get stuck in, immerse yourself, have conversations, listen more than you speak without judgment or agenda.

Follow through on what’s really needed

  • Identify what is needed versus what you are willing & able to achieve.
    Insight lives in that sweet spot between what people say + how they say it (i.e. emotional cues, intention)+ what they do. Reflect on what this means for you and search for empathy to activate the right intention in the actions you take and solutions you propose. Tech as a tool only takes us so far, it requires human resources to make its impact sustainable and meaningful.

Fail fast and come back stronger

  • Keep iterating. There should be an ongoing dialogue with your audience, listen to feedback and stay focused on the question of what is needed to inform priorities. Impact is the goal, it’s never going to be perfect first time and that’s ok. It’s about how strong you come back each time you fail ‘pivot’.


  • Be honest about your capabilities, knowledge, area of expertise. Who can you join forces with? In the closing comments of the hackathon weekend Techcrunch ‘Editor At Large’ and Techfugees founder, Mike Butcher, highlighted the need for grassroots activists and relevant stakeholders to join forces and work together to develop ideas to fruition rather than re-inventing the wheel or pursuing solo vanity projects.
    Open source ideas are the future!

Visit EmpowerHack.io to learn more about the team’s projects and future events.

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