Empowerment through the Internet

The Refugees Emancipation project focuses on providing Internet access to refugees. In today's guest contribution they tell how the project came to be.

Refugees Emancipation was founded in 2000 by Chu Eben. He and other asylum seekers, arriving in Germany in the late 1990s, began facing the difficult legal conditions and restrictions, which now dictated their lives. These included social quarantine, mandatory residence in specified locations, no right to education, food vouchers, and more. To address these grievances, they started protesting and organised demonstrations at the refugee centres with help of some of their German supporters. Through these protests, the refugee initiative Flüchtlingsinitiative Berlin-Brandenburg (FIBB) was created.

After a couple of years, they realised that their situation had not changed. Despite persistent demonstrations, they remained in far away refugee homes, where their situation hardly changed. Unfortunately, their supporters, as well as the German civil society, did not really know what their day-to-day life in the refugee homes looked like.

Then came the idea to create a space in the refugee home, where such supporters would come and exchange with them at the mental level, how they could emancipate and empower themselves. In those years, Internet access was still relatively expensive but it was deemed as the best platform for communication, as well as education, purposes. Chu Eben and five other refugees decided to learn basic computer skills and the Linux operating system. They asked their student supporters from the Technical University of Berlin (TU) for financial assistance to cover three months of transportation cost. This assistance enabled Eben and his colleges to learned basic computer skills through a three month course at LOTEC Berlin, a computer shop and information network.

In 2000, the first Internet café for refugees was built in Potsdam. Hearing of this project, in turn, began sparking the interest of many private computer enthusiasts. This increased interest led to the eventual setting up of Internet cafés in the German small towns and neighbourhoods, including Bad-Belzig, Prenzlau, Luckenwalde, Rathenow, Eisenhüttenstadt, Berlin-Hellersdorf and Berlin-Marienfelde. Today, the project has nearly weekly inquiries from other initiatives, from all over Germany, on how they can replicate the project's concept in their locality.

The main challenge still faced by project participants today is one of shifting mindset – to encourage participants to shift from a self defining sense of victimhood to active managers, who can organise logistics, knowledge exchange, finances, interactions with the German authorities and supporters to create a common project.

Secondly, the concept of empowering refugees has been challenging and it has been very difficult for the German civil society to accept that refugees should be given power.

Over the last years, it has been very necessary to have partners who have supported Refugees Emancipation through knowledge acquisition, hardware donation, human resources and financial assistance. Students from the Technical University (TU) in Berlin, LOTEC, ADEFRA (an organisation for African-German women and men), JungdemokratInnen/Junge Linke (JDJL), and other many individuals have been instrumental in transforming the refugee Internet café into fully fledged learning centres. Other helpers, such as the Integration Officer in Brandenburg, CCCB (Chaos Computer Club Berlin), Freifunk (a non-commercial initiative for free wireless networks), freiLand (a self-administered cultural centre in Potsdam), the ThoughtWorks software company and SNT, a dialogue marketing specialist, play important roles in running the organisation. The project also features international partners, such as the DAIN Project (Digital Activist Inclusion Network) in England.

Day-to-day experiences with refugees show that, as soon as they arrive, receive shelter, food and clothing, the next thing, which is urgently needed, is to connect them with their relatives back home. This connection is mostly done via the Internet (Facebook, Skype). Along with communication needs, refugees also immediately require the Internet to gain information on a myriad of new subjects. This includes researching the asylum process, health provisions, alternative education sources, etc. The biggest problem facing refugees, is the uncertainty of their immediate and long-term future. This uncertainty, fostered by legal barriers, is the obstacle refugees face in starting their new lives.

We at Refugees Emancipation think it is time that civil society increases pressure to develop and provide alternative solutions. These solutions must also be backed by a strong political lobby.

Refugees Emancipation believes that the Internet and communication access is part of these solutions. We intend to continue enabling Internet and computer rooms in more refugee centres and housing and develop alternative forms of Empowerment for refugees. These could include using the Internet for personal expression through online radio, Facebook, children's online programmes or as alternative means of education, such as to learn German through an online course.

Please support Refugees Emancipation's donation campaign. Or make a donation with your #rpTEN ticket! More info on our ticket website and in the FAQs. Thank you!

Photo credit: Refugees Emancipation