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Refugee Energy: Tap It!

By Shlomo Maital


My friend and colleague Prof. Dan Shechtman (Nobel, Chemistry, 2011) has been tirelessly touring the world with a message: For poor and emerging countries, the way to a better life is technology-driven entrepreneurship and startups.

   Today’s Hebrew language newspaper Haaretz has some proof.

   Journalist Zvi Barel, who tracks events in countries bordering Israel, writes about startup energy in the midst of great misery – in refugee camps in Turkey and in Jordan, packed with Syrians fleeing the chaos and genocide in their country.

     Al-Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan and other camps have one million refugees, living in great squalor. Turkey has camps with even more refugees, 2.5 million.

     In Za’atari, recounts Barel, “Ra’shim” , from Aleppo, ravaged by war, fled his city three years ago. In the camp there are a great many shops opened by refugees. By one count – there are 3,000 small businesses (in the camp, and in nearby Jordanian cities) with monthly revenues of $13 million. I wrote about one such shop in an earlier blog – a shop that rents wedding dresses.   Aided by the Oasis 500 fund in Jordan, Ra’shim opened a website to enable these shops to sell on the Internet, and raised 3 million dollars. He now has branches in Dubai and Oman, employs many young Jordanians and Syrians and plans to expand.

     Some of the small shops and businesses in the camps in Turkey have been begun to employ local Turks, in significant numbers.

     Satellite photos show that nearly 60 per cent of Aleppo has been destroyed. It will take 7-8 billion dollars to rebuild it. Oil-rich Arab nations have the money, but will never contribute such sums. So when this awful Syrian civil war ends, it will be up to people like Ra’shim, with entrepreneurial energy, to rebuild their country, with minimal resources.

     And they will.

     The incompetent EU has now more or less decided to bribe Turkey to stop the flow of immigrants. Does anyone in the EU wonder, whether an injection of entrepreneurial energy like that of Ra’shim could revive Europe’s dead economy, and generate entrepreneurship where virtually none exists, like in France? Did anyone in the EU consider giving a small fraction of the $3 billion bribe to Turkey, directly to refugees and refugee entrepreneurs?  

     In Silicon Valley, a high percentage of startups are launched by Indians, Israelis, Chinese and others?   Precisely what the EU needs – but will now not get, because it cannot see its nose in front of its face.

Coursera for Refugees

By Shlomo Maital


   Today, Monday June 20, is World Refugee Day.  According to the UN, 65 million refugees have been created this year — torn from their homes. 

      It has special meaning for me, because in a very real sense, my mother and father were refugees. My mother’s family fled from Bessarabia (now Moldova), following pogroms in 1904 and 1905 that killed many Jews, in Kishinev, and came to Saskatchewan.     My grandfather, after whom I am named, left in order to raise money to bring his family out to safety; he saved every penny, sent the money – and it was lost when World War I broke out. He died heartbroken, in Pittsburgh, during the global influenza epidemic, in 1918.   My father, a teenager, then struck out with his sister, Dora, who was only 12, to emulate his own father, and after a very very hard journey, and bitterly cold winter in Antwerp, made it as an immigrant to Canada, and brought his mother and siblings over. My father became a small-time builder, providing houses for lower middle income people at affordable prices.   Canada has always had an enlightened policy toward immigrants, more than its big southern neighbor, and immigrants in turn have built Canada with energy and ambition, like my mother and father did.

That is why I am so delighted with Coursera and its Coursera for Refugees, which launches today. Coursera has partnered with Technion, so that we can offer a four-course Startup Entrepreneurship specialization. We hope thousands of people all over the world will take our courses. Perhaps even a few refugees.

   Working with Coursera has been a delight. The Coursera team knows how to build MOOCs (massive open online courses) and helps those willing to provide them.  

   Here is Coursera’s program, which emerged from a two-day ‘hackathon’ ideation session:

   “On World Refugee Day (June 20), we will launch our new Coursera for Refugees program in partnership with the U.S. State Department on World Refugee Day. Coursera for Refugees will provide nonprofits serving refugees with group financial aid and organizational support – for more details, please refer to our Q2 Product Roadmap. This program represents a big step toward realizing our vision of a world in which anyone, anywhere can access a high-quality education, and we are very excited for this launch! Please note that Coursera for Refugees is under a press embargo until June 20. On or after June 20, we hope you will share this news and the Coursera for Refugees site with all of your professional and personal networks once it is live on June 20.”

       There is much hand-wringing over the heart-wrenching refugee problem, but little effective action. Kudos to Coursera for taking action. Now let’s see if we can help refugees get the education they need, just as Canada helped me, son of immigrants, get an excellent education and eventually, become a professor and author.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital