New Feature on Microsoft's Customer Stories

Thanks to our lovely friends at Microsoft we have another story to share with you today featured on Microsoft's Customer Stories. Head over to this link to learn more about our story, our research, and how the tech behind it all makes it possible to address information asymmetries in the urban refugee experience.

The Tech Behind Urban Refuge App

This week Urban Refuge is excited to share an exclusive interview with our team and our tech evangelists on the inner workings of the app featured on Microsoft's Xamarin blog. If you've been wondering what we're up to and how we're going to achieve it from the technical point of view head over to this link!

A big thank you to Lacey Butler from the Urban Refuge team!

The UR Gals take the Healing Colors Gala!

By: Ellie Hitt

Under the twinkling lights of the Exchange in Boston, we gathered at the Healing Colors Gala to raise money for the Mawada Initiative Fund and their initiatives to support Syrian children. On display were pieces from Artolution, David Gross, and GAMA (Gathering All Muslim Artists). A few members of Urban Refuge had the honor of attending the gala on behalf of the team and danced the night away to traditional music and later to an amazing dj. 

The highlight for us was viewing the art created by Syrian refugee children through the Artolution program. Artolution works in conjunction with nonprofits such as UNICEF and Mercy Corps to bring the arts and psychosocial support to Syrian children in the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps as well as in Jordanian host communities. We had the distinct privilege of chatting with one of the founders, Joel Bergner, about his involvement with the organization and the promotion of arts especially among children who have experienced extreme trauma. Their programs have been used to help Syrian children process their experiences and to unite the children with their host communities to reduce tensions. Most importantly for Joel is ensuring that the work they do remains sustainable which explains their focus on training local artists to continue their mission.

Throughout the night, we were constantly amazed by the links we saw between our work and the work of Artolution. Although we have different mechanisms, both of our teams are trying to reestablish agency for Syrian refugees and trying to bring their stories to light. As the other founder of Artolution, Max Levi Frieder, explained, their program teaches art so that the children will know “what they say matters and who they are matters”

A huge thank you to Zaina Arslan for inviting us to such an amazing event! 

If you are interested in learning more about Artolution and supporting their efforts, check out their website here. 

Urban Refuge
Sara Mardini: From Refugee to Rescuer

BY: Ellie Hitt

In 2015, when the engine failed on the lifeboat carrying her and 20 other individuals from Turkey to Lesbos, Greece, Sara Mardini bravely jumped into the water to keep it afloat. Swimming for over three hours, she and her sister were willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the others on the boat. After 3.5 hours in the open water, they made it safely to shore and have started lives anew away from their home in Damascus.

Honest and smart as a tack, Sara talked to us about the normality of her life in Damascus before the war (essentially driving around spending her dad’s money and swimming), her journey from Syria to Berlin and back to Greece, and the importance of advocating for refugee and women’s rights.

Unfortunately for Sara, her dream of being an Olympic swimmer would never come to fruition due to a shoulder injury generated that fateful day. Although not able to swim on account of her shoulder injury, she was able to cheer her sister Ysra on at the 201 Rio Olympic games where she represented the refugee team. Despite her experience, she reminded us, “Be proud of yourself and no one can break you.”

With her swimming dream deferred, she decided instead to give her life in the service of others, using her self-described life saving English skills to teach others who are fleeing the Syrian conflict.

Moved after her talk, participants tearfully approached Sara to sing her praises and she welcomed them with literal open arms. It’s easy for anyone to see that Sara remains optimistic. She has since returned to Greece to work for Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a greek nonprofit that provides emergency response and humanitarian aid. Just like our team at Urban Refuge, she “believes in people”, for ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

With her swimming dream deferred, she decided instead to give back her life in the service of others, using her self-described life saving English skills to teach others who are fleeing the Syrian conflict.

After accomplishing and overcoming so much, what’s her next stop?  Hopefully Harvard, oh and (in her own words) “I want to be Amal Clooney.”

Interested in supporting Sarah’s efforts with the ERCI? Check out her page here:

Urban Refuge
Abeer Masri: Locating Empowerment and Syria on the Map

BY: Ellie Hitt

Enjoy the next feature of our “Phantom Helpers” series: an interview with Abeer Masri, the Legal Consultant for Urban Refuge.

EH: What are the ways in which your connection to Syria has informed your work on this project?

AM: Being a Syrian who was uprooted and started all over in a new place makes me familiar with what the Syrian refugees are facing and going through. When I spoke to the Syrians in Amman via Skype, we understood each other right away. I felt their needs and pain and they told me that they felt that there are no borders or barriers between us. Being a Syrian who lives in Boston made me the bridge between two cultures and my job is to make the Syrian refugees feel safe to use the app and to let them know that they are not alone!

How has it been balancing motherhood, law school, Urban Refuge, and everything else you are involved in?

It is not easy, but the goal we are aiming for is definitely worth it. Being a member of Urban Refuge is a great experience. It allowed me to discover new things about myself and what I am capable of once I put my mind to it. I learned that when you believe in something you will make the time for it. Handling family, studying and work is a very complicated task, but I discovered that once you become a mother your super powers will start to show up soon enough. On the other hand, my family support was a huge deal for me, they believe in what I am doing and always back me up and my little one liked attending Urban Refuge meetings. Finally less sleeping hours…

What motivated you to stay in touch with this project? What has been the best part of being involved with Urban Refuge?

The idea of empowering the refugees by giving them the knowledge is the heart and soul of this project and number one reason why I am part of it. And moreover, Urban Refuge is a great team to work with. They are wonderful amazing, brilliant ladies and anyone would be honored to work with them. 

In your opinion, what is the most pressing problem surrounding aid for Syrian refugees?

Not knowing how to reach out to get the help they need. In a strange country asking even the smallest question become a challenge to the refugees. So, even if the aid is out there, refugees don't have the necessary tools to reach out to get it.

After the rollout of the app, do you foresee any challenges for Urban Refuge? If so, what problems do you think the team will face the app?

I have some concerns about the security and laws in the countries that we are planning to launch the app in. Also, about the way that Syrian refugees would react to the app and their flexibility to use it.

What is your dream or vision for the future of this project?

I have very high hopes for the app! I want it to achieve its goal by serving refugees everywhere. After the Syrian crisis is ended and there are no more Syrian refugees to serve, I want it to become an international tool that serves original citizens in their countries around the globe.  

Thanks once again to Abeer for her support of Urban Refuge. We couldn’t have done it without her!

Urban Refuge
Updates on Our Progress

BY Andrea Vidal

It has been a busy few weeks for Urban Refuge both here in Boston and in Amman, and we would like to share the latest with you!

Recently, Professor Noora Lori went to Amman with the goal of further establishing Urban Refuge in the city, finding more information for the database, and pulling together a team that will work with us on the ground. She also received invaluable feedback on the usability of the app, which we will consider incorporating once she comes back to Boston. Professor Lori was able to visit the UNHCR, the Jordanian Royal Geographic Centre, and the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation, and Microsoft – Jordan. All of this forms part of our preparation for the app's launch in May!

In Boston, my Co-Director, Ellie Hitt, and myself had the honor of being the closing keynote speakers at Weston High School for their Forced Migration Symposium. We spoke to roughly 100 students on our process, the refugee crisis, and how they as students can engage with issues that they are passionate about. It was so special to be able to connect with younger students who were specifically passionate about forced migration and refugee rights. We left Weston's campus more motivated than ever to continue our work and to continue engaging with students of all ages. At Urban Refuge we firmly believe that with a little bit of initiative, lots of questions, and a good attitude, anything is possible.

Apart from these two big events, our team has been hard at work researching other potential cities, putting together an outreach strategy to implement in Jordan once the app is widely available, applying to grants, and translating all of our content to Arabic.

As always, if you have any questions or would like to get involved, please feel free to send us an email at 

5 Things I Learned From Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Last January, I traveled to Jordan and interviewed 40 Syrian refugee women living in Zaatari refugee camp and in various cities. Out of the 4.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, Jordan is the third largest host of Syrian refugees and has a history of taking in refugees from different countries. The women I met invited me into their homes and spaces and talked to me about their hardships, fears, and wishes. Through my various conversations and interactions with individuals who had been forced to flee their homes, I learned 5 important things about life and resilience that dispel many of the misconceptions about refugees.

1. The majority of refugees live in cities, not camps.

Urban refugees don’t always make it onto the news, but they are suffering immensely. Over 650,000 Syrian refugees are living in Jordan and the majority lives in unfinished apartments and dilapidated buildings in the cities. Urban refugees struggle to pay for rent, food, heating oil, and utility bills. They are also often the first to have their aid cut. In 2014, the World Food Program (WFP) cut food vouchers for urban refugees in Jordan. Some refugees in the cities are still without food vouchers and some only receive 10 JD per person per month, which is equivalent to about 14 USD.

The camps aren’t glamorous by any means, but there are over 100 organizations providing aid to 80,000 refugees in Zaatari. Whereas in the cities, where 85% of refugees reside, organizations are overrun with requests and are underfunded and understaffed.

2. Don’t judge a group by the actions of a few. 

One of the women that I met, Shadia,* invited me into her home, prepared a traditional Syrian meal for her family and me, and told me about her experiences in Jordan. As we sat on worn mats on the floor eating with pita bread as utensils, we discussed the treatment of refugees by humanitarian aid providers. Shadia was grateful for all of the assistance she received, and she explained that she had generally been treated well by aid providers. For the instances when aid providers had not been so amiable, she stated, “Just like humanitarian aid providers who may not always be friendly, there are good Syrians and some bad ones, but the bad ones shouldn’t represent the whole group and hide the good ones.” Shadia’s conviction is especially relevant to the hateful rhetoric that has been employed against Muslims and refugees. Her remarks remind us how imperative it is not to pass judgment on an entire group based on the actions of a few.

3. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

Fatima, another woman I spoke with in Zaatari, told me about the hardships she faced. She had 2 kids, and she worried about their futures, especially because the educational system in the camp was weak. She yearned to work or learn a skill, but vocational programming was limited and did not always lead to employment. Her efforts to provide for her children were also stifled by the limitations of living in the camp. She recounted an incident in which she carried her 8-year-old son who had a piece of glass stuck in his foot to a clinic at the opposite side of the 2-mile camp because none of the ambulances were available to take them.

Despite these struggles, Fatima remained resilient. “What doesn’t break the donkey’s back makes it stronger,” she stated. Refugee women know all too well that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

4. Hateful rhetoric in the West towards minorities is having far-reaching effects. 

“Should we immigrate if we have the chance?” asked Mohammad, one of the women’s husbands, while we sat in their caravan in Zaatari. Mohammad, his wife, and 5 children lived in cramped quarters in substandard conditions, and he was unable to find work to provide for his family. “We see on TV the American politicians speaking badly of Arabs and Muslims and the harm that refugees are facing all over Europe,” he continued. Mohammad, like any parent, worried about the future and safety of his children. If given the chance of resettlement (which is very slim to begin with), Mohammad felt safer staying put in his difficult situation rather than traveling to a distant Western country where he had seen such negative responses towards Muslims and refugees. 

After everything refugees have heard and seen on the news about Americans comparing Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs“ and the praise of a twentieth century war general who dipped bullets in pigs blood and shot Muslims, can you blame them for being wary of resettlement, no matter how much they are suffering? The fact that refugees in a camp with extremely limited cable and Wi-Fi are able to see the negative actions and comments towards Muslims and refugees shows the far-reaching nature of the abominable speech that we should be actively condemning. 

5. Despite their own hardships, refugees are still able to empathize with the suffering of others.

Ali, one of the men that I met, explained that he was fasting in solidarity with the residents of Madaya, Syria, a town that was under siege and cut off from humanitarian aid for months. Ali, his wife, and his 4 children all shared 2 caravans with a small open space in the middle covered by a tent. They had no running water and used a propane tank to stay warm. They also had been living in Jordan for 4 years with little prospect of returning to Syria in the near future; however, he was still able to empathize with others who were suffering. Ali’s story is a clear example of the common humanity of refugees that so many politicians are trying to hide in order to restrict the movement and resettlement of refugees in the West. 

We as a society have a responsibility to stop perpetuating negative images of refugees that have come out in full force throughout the last couple of years. Fleeing your home does not make you a terrorist, a “rabid dog,” or a bad person. It should go without saying, but refugees are just trying to survive and support their families. We must stop fearing refugees, and instead, we should defend their right to seek safer lives for themselves and their families.

Michelle conducted research in Jordan in January 2016 for her Senior Honors Thesis with the support of the Pardee School of Global Studies, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilizations, and the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University.

*The names of the refugees mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

*The original article was published on Huffington Post.

Urban Refuge
Garima Sharma on Entrepreneurship, the Power of Technology on Social Impact, and Non-Bra Burning Feminism

BY Ellie Hitt

This week begins our series highlighting the "Phantom Helpers" who have supported Urban Refuge throughout our development from the classroom to the present. 

Self described as a storyteller, creative strategist, consumer of all things social media-related and passionate feminist, Garima Sharma is a journalist and former editor from India, currently pursuing her MS in Media Ventures at the College of Communication at Boston University.

Garima immediately expressed interest in our project when she discovered Urban Refuge is entirely comprised of women. Skyping in from LA last spring, her idealism, enthusiasm, and the belief in the power of technology to spark social change breathed life into our idea at the earliest stages of our app development. 

In addition to her words of inspiration, Garima shared her business savvy. Below are a couple kernels of wisdom she shared with us about honing in on our product and target audience which she has graciously allowed us to share with you via this blog.

Be Fragile, Nimble, and Ready to Pivot: During our earliest stages, every week our concept was modified as we explored new fields of interest and connected with more partners and consultants. Garima reminded us that there is no shame in taking steps back and reorganizing. What distinguishes us as a group is the fact that we are willing to adapt with every new piece of advice and data we receive. She urged us to look at Facebook and Twitter as examples of the beauty of improving our ideas to deliver the best product possible.

Bridging the Cultural Gap: Hailing from India, Garima appears to acutely understand the importance of bridging the cultural gap when marketing and developing an app. She reminded us to focus on the language we used and also to initiate the conversation with our clients themselves. Although we may think we understand our clientele because we have researched the refugee experience in Amman, we cannot purport to fully comprehend all the questions and concerns of the population we are attempting to cater to. Our collective research has forced us to be profoundly in tune with the implications of our word choice. In every step of the process, we have tried to gain feedback from our clients which is something we intend to continue through the use of refugee peer consultants on the ground in Amman. 

As a class, we want to publicize our gratitude for the conversation we had with Garima and the brilliant insight she offered on a gamut of issues especially during our earliest stages.

If you want more wisdom from the source herself, feel free to check out her out on Twitter (@garimasharma) or get lost in her accomplishments on LinkedIn. We can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.

Urban Refuge

BY Andrea Vidal

The first months of each year bring a breath of new life for many. As a proud, all-female team working on forced migration, many events in these first months of 2017 have deeply challenged us. Recently, one instance seemed to project our essence: the silencing of Elizabeth Warren and her subsequent decision to finish speaking Correta Scott King's words on social media.

This is really how Urban Refuge started. Each of us decided to take IR500 Forced Migration and Human Trafficking out of a desire to act. When we found our policy recommendations falling short of action, we took change in our own hands.

I am fascinated by each of our own separate wills becoming a single coherent voice. Within that voice lies a deep sense of camaraderie.

This gives me a fierce hope for the future.

In honor of International Women’s Day (or everyday as we celebrate it at UR) and Elizabeth Warrens persistence, I wrote this poem to remind us of our spirit.




Each swings the door to a classroom like the rest,


boots dragging…


there is excitement.


there is exhaustion.


there are nerves



Building Connecting






A collective…


each becomes we.


boots skipping


there’s vibrancy,


there’s vida…



We are waves



Building mixing




So we continue.


Michelle addresses the United Nations

by Michelle Abou-Raad

Michelle Abou-Raad had the chance to speak at the United Nations at the 15th Coordination Meeting on International Migration organized by the Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 

Skip forward to 1:16:00 to hear her speak on behalf of the UN Major Group of Children and Youth (UNMGCY). We are so proud to have one of the Urban Refuge team members addressing such pressing issues regarding international migration! 


 Click the image above and skip to 1:16:00 to hear Michelle. 

Click the image above and skip to 1:16:00 to hear Michelle. 



Urban Refuge
The Work Permit Initiative for Syrian Refugees in Jordan

BY Victoria Kelberer

This week we are highlighting the work of Urban Refuge team member Victoria Kelberer. Published in conjunction with the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, her policy paper examines the implications for policy and practice of the Work Permit Initiative. 

Find the full report by clicking the graphic below. 

Urban Refuge
Working Within Your Power

By Ellie Hitt

“God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

….and the insanity to pursue what I know to be increasingly difficult.

Though I am not religious, I’ve been pondering the quote (and my addendum) a lot lately in a world that seems increasingly outside of my control--a world in which I wake up each morning to the news of another set of rights stripped from one group or peoples to the next.

I’ve been swinging between poles all week. Empowerment to disempowerment. Felicity to frustration. Action to inaction.

I’ve spent time thinking about how to manage the conditions I find myself in and trying to categorize what I do and do not have control over.

This is not a form of acceptance. It’s a concerted effort to distinguish between perceived problems in an attempt to plan better for the things I can control. It is a calling to look deep within myself to realize what I believe and just how deeply I believe in it to distinguish what I will do to ensure the world I live in encourages my generation’s boundless potential.

I’m fired up. Our Urban Refuge team is fired up. With the launch in Amman coming closer with each passing day, I can’t help but to cling to the insanity that we all share that some ideas and all people are worth fighting for.  Just because we cannot control everything, does not mean we do not have power to make a difference.  Working on Urban Refuge has taught me there is much within my power to make an impact and change things for the better.   

Just because we cannot fix a broken international system that seems to be turning its back on refugees and displaced peoples in a day, doesn’t mean we should not try. Just because we can’t single handedly end a civil war or drastically alter systems of aid delivery with an application, doesn’t mean we should not try. Just because we cannot always convince our elected representatives to listen to our voice, does not mean we should not shout.

Every day, we must do what is in our power to create the world that reflects our values. The sheer size of a movement does not dictate its success so we must increasingly work together to strategize, organize, and practice open dissent against injustice that threatens the rights not only of ourselves but of others. We must learn to be more effective allies and to put our bodies on the line in defense of others. We must work within our spheres of influence, within and without institutions and politics, and with each other to learn best practices and build empathy.

We must never succumb and always fight to overcome. We must unite with our commonalities rather than let ourselves be divided by our differences.  Respect, empathy, and love cannot be signed away or blacked out with the stroke of one man’s pen.

Urban Refuge
Snapshots from Amman


“Why hasn’t this been done before?” was a phrase I encountered at just about every organization I visited in Amman. Indeed, “Why hasn’t this been done before?” became somewhat of a refrain of our trip, a typical response to our explanations of our efforts at Urban Refuge.

During the first week of January, I traveled alongside fellow team member Vicky Kelberer to Jordan to conduct research and to prepare for the upcoming launch of Urban Refuge. Because of the generous support from our Crowdfunding campaign, we were able to cover transportation costs within Amman in order to verify organizations and services in our database on our trip. We embarked on this process by dividing up data points regionally before visiting the locations and asking questions to ensure that all of our information was up-to-date and ready to be added to the application. Although we started the process of aid location verification, the rest will be completed by a team of Syrian and Jordanian interns on the ground.

What Urban Refuge intends to do—map aid and services—is a basic process that will have a large impact on refugee and vulnerable populations in Jordan. For us, the beauty of this idea lies in its simplicity. Judging by the response we received in Amman, others agree.

Through my experience visiting organizations, I found that although some locations were accurate, others had missing or entirely inaccurate information. Others simply did not exist! Because refugees living in Amman often have limited resources, making one’s way to an address found online only to find that there is no organization is not only costly, but also disheartening. For this reason, as a team we are committed to verifying all of the information in our database before adding it to the application.

Having visited some of these organizations on our own, we now better understand how to train our interns to ensure that our process is as efficient and safe as possible. The official Amman-based team will be up and running soon so be sure to follow us on social media to track our progress!



 Urban Refuge team member Michelle Abou-Raad admiring street art in Amman, Jordan. 

Urban Refuge team member Michelle Abou-Raad admiring street art in Amman, Jordan. 

Urban Refuge
Urban Refuge and Womanhood


Sitting in a panic in a cafe in Istanbul, I hastily scanned the courses open for the Spring 2016 semester racing to elect my courses before my scheduled registration. Although one of the courses I selected was open to anyone, the seminar I found myself in last January was ultimately comprised of 22 women. It was with this all-female team with whom I would embark upon the adventure that finally led to our humanitarian aid app, Urban Refuge. At our one year anniversary as a class, I have found myself reflecting on the value of our work not only as a team, but as a group of women working in concert for a grander purpose.

I was used to being surrounded by women: strong, outspoken, gifted, and intelligent women. A graduate of an all-girls institution in Nashville, TN, every day for four years I witnessed the power of women. I watched women excel in the classroom, on the athletic field, on mock trial teams, in Model UN debates, on stage through performance, and in our communities.

I was supported, challenged, loved, and enlightened by those women and their talents, experiences, and stories. I realized the power of women early on.

Thus, when during my junior year of college I enrolled in a class on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking at Boston University, the idea that a group of 22 women could examine a problem like the Syrian Refugee crisis and determine at least one actionable step wasn’t much of a jump. Nor was it a jump when we started debating the merits and challenges of actually creating an app for Syrian refugees.

I believed that this group of women could and would create such an app. Of course we could band together to revise and rewrite plans, to consider all angles of a particular action, and be empathetic and inquisitive at each turn. Of course women could reach out to companies across Boston and ultimately across the world. Of course these same women could meet with leaders within Google, Uniqlo, and Microsoft and even discuss our team’s plans with a candidate for Secretary General of the United Nations.

Yet the truth is that most teams, especially those working in technology, are not comprised solely of women. Although the main goal of Urban Refuge is to use technology to address information asymmetries in the urban refugee experience, we hope to serve as an example to young women that their ambitions are worthy and that they can make a difference in their communities and beyond-- with or without technology.

This is not to say that all-women teams are automatically geared for success. They aren’t and we have had our fair share of ups and downs already. But what matters is that we as a team strive each day to expand our knowledge and network and to improve our idea. What matters is that our friends and family have supported us in this endeavor as have people around the world because they agree with our core mission and values.

All along, we have been dedicated to pursuing cross-sector solutions to promote agency and empowerment for individuals in need. For me, these two words have been a crucial part of me acknowledging and embracing my womanhood. Perhaps this is why I and (I suspect) many other women on the team feel so committed to this project and this crisis. We understand that all humanity is inherently linked and that injustice to one means injustice for all. So here’s to all women, may 2017 bring peace, stability, and empowerment!


Urban Refugewomen, technology