We talked to the founder of Gherbtna about his innovative news platform for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Mojahed Akil, a Syrian refugee himself and was one of the first programmers who understood how to code humanity out of a humanitarian crisis. Now programmers in Europe and America are spending nights without sleep and lots of red bull trying to follow his example.
Interview and text by Annabella Stieren
NewsNext: Hi Mojahed, you are in Gaziantep now where you started Gherbtna three years ago, what was your motivation?
Mojahed Akil: Today, we are an NGO who runs a website and Application for Syrian refugees. But three years ago I arrived as a refugee myself in Turkey used my skills as a web engineer and build it on my own. Gherbtna is an Arabic word that can best be translated with “the feeling of being foreign, lonely and in exile”. Millions of people who have been displaced because of the conflict in Syria can relate to this emotion. So, my first motivation was to give people information. For example, people come to Turkey and have no idea of the language, the laws, the communication. So we take all the rlevant information and news from the municipalities and officials and translate them into Arabic.
NewsNext: Can you give us an example for that?
Mojahed: Well for instance you don’t know how to get the residence permit, what you need: two pictures, certificates etc. or how to open a bank account, nobody in the banks speak English or Arabic, so we tell the Syrians which documents they need: passport photos, residence permit etc. and to which bank they should go.
NewsNext: You cannot just go to any bank?
Mojahed: No. Lots of banks don’t accept Syrian refugees as costumers. But Asiya Bank is good for instance and the KuveytTurk bank was as well but they have a new law to not accept Syrian customers. So we update this and tell our readers.
NewsNext: Why did they stop?
Mojahed: Well because of Paris, obviousely. Because now we all are terrorists.
An animated video explains how and why Gherbnta was developed. In Arabic.
NewsNext: That is important information for all the Syrians in Turkey. But Gherbnta goes beyond just providing news what else do you do?
Mojahed:We also have a section called “I need” where you can enter anything, for instance I need a house or a language course. And then we connect them with people who offer such things. There are a lot of Syrian institutions here in Gaziantep for instance who offer language courses. We also have a “Find a job section” where people can advertise a job. For instance a Turkish company looking for someone with experience in accounting.
NewsNext: So it is like craigslist for Syrians in Turkey?
Mojahed: Yes, but nicer design. And we have a specific section that is “Ask me” So you can enter your location and send us a direct question. People with difficult questions. We get around 25 requests everyday. For example: I am a Syrian in Egypt but my wife is in Syria and we want to meet in Turkey how can we do it?
NewsNext: And how do you help the refugees then?
Mojahed: We have a great network. Of normal people who learned how to speak Turkish like me and who then ask the authorities. They are very helpful .
NewsNext: Who are the people that work for you? And how do you make money?
Mojahed: We are and NGO, so whenever we get money from funding we try to pay our contributors. But we have three people working for us constantly. It is hard because you need a lot of information and if people leave because they get a “real”, well-paid job we need new people and it takes a lot of time to educate them about all the procedures and contacts. For money, we also rely on google advertisement. We have 3.000 to 4.000 page visits a day and over 20.000 downloads of the App. On facebook we have almost 65.000 likes. So we can make nice advertisement.
NewsNext: So what is your plan for the future? What is the next step?
Mojahed: Well we want to expand to Europe. Or to inform people who want to go to Europe. For instance we make some articles already about, which documents you need for reuniting your family in Germany. Or about new laws in Denmark, how is the life in the Netherlands or nice projects for refugees in the UK. The problem is we are not experts in this countries so we need a larger network of people on the ground in Europe who understand the languages and the situation.
NewsNext: Would you like to go to Europe yourself?
Mojahed: No, I like to stay here. I am needed I know everything here. I am closer to Syria and if the war ends, I will go back home. Inshallah.
Gherbtna is a great information tool for refugees. It combines a lot of great existing ideas and applies them to the specific situation of refugees in Turkey. Other app-developers in Europe have learned from Mojahed and created similar applications. A Hungarian couple for instance has developed infoAid an app that provides important travel updates for refugees, where the Hungarian government fails to deliver information. Google has launched an open source information hub for registration information on Lesvos, Greece and accelerated the translation system with instant visual translation in Arabic, German and English. In Berlin at a recent “Hackathon”, a weekend long event in which programmers, designers, refugees and activist came together. The result was among others an app hat tells you when your number in the registration center LaGeSo is being called. Refugees told the programmers that this would crucially improve the day-long waiting procedures.Another team applied Mojahed’s idea in the context of Germany and will launch Germany-says-welcome soon. Doctors without borders launched an app for downloading emojis that relate to the refugee crisis. A little bit crude and tasteless maybe, but turning dowloads into donations.
None of these apps, includes is as considered and comprising as Gherbtna, though. As Mojahed says, the most powerful and life-saving tool on the journey seems to be correct information and trustworthy facts: News on their particular situation. Smugglers and fraudsters know that and have exploited facebook and whatsapp groups to spread rumors and make money. Refugees usually do not know the language of the new countries, fleeing an opressive regime with no press freedom usually they do not trust the media or the usual information channels. Indeed Mohajed and his team have created a news platform and application that compiles the information refugees ask for in a user-friendly and direct way. The menu and categories are easy to understand and simple and refugees can ask direct questions. It is craigslist, air-bnb, bbc news and google maps in one – for refugees.
Sadly, Mohajed and Gherbtna are struggeling for money to continue and extend their great work even though they jumped in and solve a problem that governments and the international community are supposed to solve.