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Integrating Refugees Digitally

In December 2015, Patrick de la Hamette, a Luxembourgish computer enthusiast who has been involved in charity work since his teenage years, visited the refugee camp in Esch-sur-Alzette. There, he met two young refugees with engineering experience who had just fled wars at home and qualified for international protection. No internet access was available at the camp, and they also failed to connect with the free municipal Wi-Fi network. Without a second thought, De la Hamette bought a large antenna for the modest sum of €10. He didn’t know it yet, but he changed their lives and his own that day. Within two years, his nonprofit association, Digital Inclusion – supported by the Oeuvre Nationale de Secours Grande-Duchesse Charlotte and the Mateneen program* – would refurbish and distribute more than 1,000 computers and hire three employees and dozens of volunteers.
(Featured Image: Patrick de la Hamette launched Digital Inclusion in 2015 / Image Credit © Olivier Minaire)
Digital Inclusion catches fire

De la Hamette admitted that he never intended for his personal initiative to become an association, especially one that received such widespread interest. In addition to buying an antenna, he also refurbished and donated an old personal computer after noticing that the camp of 60 people only had one game console. The idea of Digital Inclusion was born! He shared his donation on social media, asking friends to donate computer equipment they were no longer using. The result? Twelve computers.

“I invited refugee friends to my house and we started repairing and updating the first machines in my attic. For each refugee that received a machine, ten others wanted one too. I asked for more computers via Facebook. Today, our stock is always full,” De la Hamette said.

“The majority of our volunteers are refugees themselves and they are proud to see the computers they have brought back to life for refugee families in Luxembourg”

In February 2016, a Luxembourgish television journalist discovered this network of “handymen” and relayed the call for donations during a report, accelerating the initiative. Together with sociologist Isabelle Mousset, Digital Inclusion continued pursuing its mission of social inclusion for every person in need. In April of that same year, the association moved into the basement of the Hariko building, managed by the Red Cross, in Bonnevoie. By July, it had received the support of the Oeuvre Nationale de Secours Grande-Duchesse Charlotte as a mateneen project.

“Financing as a mateneen project has allowed us to rent a space and develop our business. The second part of the funding then allowed us to hire two people part time, because each week we received about 50 requests for computers,” De la Hamette said. Its new premises include an office, a workshop room, a training room, a maker space, a storage space and a reception area.

“From the beginning, my philosophy was to give refugees the opportunity to do something with their time and their hands, not just therapy through busywork. The majority of our volunteers are refugees themselves and they are proud to see the computers they have brought back to life for refugee families in Luxembourg,” he noted. “The association also welcomes more and more job seekers among its volunteers.”

All refugee families in the Grand Duchy will soon be equipped with a computer donated by Digital Inclusion, giving access to all 4000 refugees. The symbolic 1000-computer mark was crossed in October 2017!

“We have several challenges in our current society: digitization, migration, the reduction of e-waste and social inclusion. I am proud to have found a technical solution for this social challenge.”

Increased digital autonomy

The association’s global vision is digital inclusion and access to the digital community for all. Not only do refugees benefit from the help of De la Hamette and his team of volunteers, but qualifying, low-income residents can also receive computers.

“Our philosophy is to give each person digital autonomy through a computer and internet access, facilitating the social inclusion of newcomers. The computer thus becomes a tool to independently learn French, take an online course, communicate with family abroad, express oneself on social networks or even create a company,” De la Hamette explained.

The association’s classroom is always full. Courses to master tools, such as Word or Excel, are in high demand. To facilitate exchanges, translators juggle French, Arabic and even English within the courses, which fall under the ECDL – European Computer Driving License program. Established in 1997, this program aims to democratize digital skills through the use of computers and certified digital tools. Other digital trainings are also provided, for example, workshops on learning French online. During the meetup, volunteers share the most effective e-learning sites for learning the language of Molière.

“We have several challenges in our current society: digitization, migration, the reduction of e-waste and social inclusion. I am proud to have found a technical solution for this social challenge. Of course, we have an excellent social security system, but the question of digital access as a factor of social inclusion has, in my opinion, not been sufficiently taken into consideration. The common denominator among our volunteers is that they have IT skills but are unemployed. With the automation of work our society will evolve, and we must find a solution to create jobs at the local level,” De la Hamette continued.

“As long as not everyone has a mobile phone or a computer, we should not throw them away, but instead recycle and reuse them.”

Voluntary entrepreneurship

A developer and IT analyst for the social security administration (CCSS) during the week, De la Hamette is fully committed to the cause during his free time. In addition to his interest in the digitization of society, one of his motivations is connecting unemployed refugees and employers: “Aws Alomar, our Technical Manager, has just been granted Land Occupancy Approval (AOT) from the Employment Development Agency (ADEM). He is one of the first five refugees without international protection status to obtain such an authorization in Luxembourg.”

Apart from volunteering, there are hardly any job offers for refugees without international protection status, as the authorizations are highly time-consuming and intensive. Even after obtaining the necessary status, accessing the labor market is difficult because of the language barrier. Through volunteering, refugees can find some fulfillment and show their families that they are working for the good of other refugees.

“It’s an extraordinary project. If you start by helping a few people and meet other people in the same situation, your reflex is to help them too. When we see that there is the possibility to help all refugees, as it is the case with the association, we say, ‘why not,’” De la Hamette remarked.

“We adopt a holistic approach by providing free trainings, as well as support for those who receive computers. If we raise funds it is always to benefit disadvantaged people and those looking for work. The two refugees I first started tinkering around with are still volunteers of the project. Our two fixed employees, Anna Szymanska, sociologist and Project Manager, and Aws Alomar, Technical Manager, are supported by a third rotating position that is shared by several members. At the moment, a Syrian woman, an engineer by training, works two afternoons a week, as well as an Iraqi and a Brazilian. We have had 80 different volunteers since 2016, including a dozen who frequently return.”

With ten tons of material already recycled, the project has a strong impact, not just on digital inclusion and social integration, but on the circular economy. Anyone can donate, whether individuals or businesses. During Silicon’s visit to the association’s workspace, we met a manager of the Mudam – Luxembourg’s modern art museum – who came to donate a box filled with unused computer mice and keyboards, following exhibitions that required the screens only.

“We want to create awareness. As long as not everyone has a mobile phone or a computer, we should not throw them away, but instead recycle and reuse them. I would like us to spread the principle of zero waste in Luxembourg and, given the size of the country, we should be 100% inclusive at the digital level. It’s a political message! It is ethically wrong not to give these resources to those who need them,” De la Hamette insisted.

*Launched at the end of December 2015 by the Oeuvre Nationale de Secours Grande-Duchesse Charlotte in response to the refugee crisis and society’s solidarity, Mateneen is a call for unique projects in Europe. It has a fund of €12 million. More than 80 projects can be deployed in nine sectors: culture, sustainable development, education/training, employment, information/coordination, housing, community meetups, health/psychological support and resource support.

This article was first published in the Autumn 2017 issue of SILICON magazine. Be the first to read SILICON articles on paper before they’re posted online, plus read exclusive features and interviews that only appear in the print edition, by subscribing online.

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