Today is World Refugee Day. And to mark the occasion, I'd like to share with you a true story which was related to be me by Christopher Mikkelsen, one of the co-founders of Refugees United. It is the story of Estelle, her cousin Patrice, and how the power of connectivity bridged more than 16 years of war, flight and a struggle just to survive.
In 1996 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, soldiers raided the village of Uvira in a brutal search for boys to join their rebel army. Estelle fled into the forest with her five hungry children and walked for days toward a place she did not know, called Tanzania.
In the chaos, she lost both her parents and Patrice, who was like a sister to her.
Earlier this year, after enduring beatings, torture and a second flight from Uvira, Estelle was reunited with Patrice. It turned out they were both living in Nairobi, Kenya, only 5km apart.
The two Congolese cousins were reconnected by Refugees United, a Danish non-profit organization dedicated to bringing together refugees with their loved ones. We have been working with Refugee United since 2010, to help them transfer their anonymous database to a mobile platform to make this service available in different markets with partners like mobile operators MTN and Safaricom.
Our ambitious initial target was to register 120,000 refugees for the service. By June 2012, more than 135,000 refugees have registered and many families have been reconnected.
According to the UNHCR, more than 43 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide. At the Rio+Social summit, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told us that in 2011, 800,000 refugees were added, the highest number in history. Many, if not most, of these people have no internet access – especially in Africa – but a large percentage do have access to mobile phones. This highlights the power of mobile communications to bring about change in the developing world.
In Nairobi, Estelle registered on the Refugees United platform, recognized Patrice's details and nickname, and got her mobile phone number and they were able to reconnect. The cousins still continue to search for other family members.
Events to mark World Refugee Day will be held across the globe today. The UNHCR theme for 2012 is Dilemmas, you can go to the UNHCR Take Action campaign site or download the Refugee United and Ericsson updated android mobile app to explore the traumatic decisions that millions of refugees make every day.
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie is also raising awareness of the plight of refugees in a public service announcement for today's events: http://allafrica.com/view/resource/main/main/id/00040300.html