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← What refugees need to start new lives

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Showing Revision 8 created 04/04/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. About two years ago,
  2. I got a phone call that changed my life.
  3. "Hey, this is your cousin Hassen."

  4. I froze.

  5. You see, I have well over
    30 first cousins,
  6. but I didn't know anybody named Hassen.
  7. It turned out that Hassen
    was actually my mom's cousin

  8. and had just arrived
    in Montreal as a refugee.
  9. And over the next few months,
  10. I would have three more relatives
    coming to Canada to apply for asylum
  11. with little more than
    the clothes on their back.
  12. And in the two years
    since that phone call,
  13. my life has completely changed.
  14. I left academia
  15. and now lead a diverse team
    of technologists, researchers and refugees
  16. that is developing customized
    self-help resources for newcomers.
  17. We want to help them overcome
    language, cultural and other barriers
  18. that make them feel like they've lost
    control over their own lives.
  19. And we feel that AI can help restore
    the rights and the dignity
  20. that many people lose when seeking help.
  21. My family's refugee experience
    is not unique.

  22. According to the UNHCR,
  23. every minute, 20 people
    are newly displaced
  24. by climate change, economic crisis
  25. and social and political instability.
  26. And it was while volunteering
    at a local YMCA shelter
  27. that my cousin Hassen
    and other relatives were sent to
  28. that we saw and learned to appreciate
  29. how much effort and coordination
    resettlement requires.
  30. When you first arrive,
    you need to find a lawyer

  31. and fill out legal documents
    within two weeks.
  32. You also need to schedule a medical exam
    with a pre-authorized physician,
  33. just so that you can apply
    for a work permit.
  34. And you need to start looking
    for a place to live
  35. before you receive
    any sort of social assistance.
  36. With thousands fleeing the United States

  37. to seek asylum in Canada
    over the past few years,
  38. we quickly saw what it looks like
  39. when there are more people who need help
    than there are resources to help them.
  40. Social services doesn't scale quickly,
  41. and even if communities do their best
  42. to help more people
    with limited resources,
  43. newcomers end up spending
    more time waiting in limbo,
  44. not knowing where to turn.
  45. In Montreal, for example,

  46. despite millions of dollars being spent
    to support resettlement efforts,
  47. nearly 50 percent of newcomers
    still don't know
  48. that there are free resources that exist
  49. to help them with everything
    from filling out paperwork
  50. to finding a job.
  51. The challenge is not
    that this information doesn't exist.
  52. On the contrary, those in need are often
    bombarded with so much information
  53. that it's difficult
    to make sense of it all.
  54. "Don't give me more information,
    just tell me what to do,"
  55. was a sentiment we heard
    over and over again.
  56. And it reflects how insanely difficult
    it could be to get your bearings
  57. when you first arrive in a new country.
  58. Hell, I struggled with the same issues
    when I got to Montreal,
  59. and I have a PhD.
  60. (Laughter)

  61. As another member of our team,
    himself also a refugee, put it:

  62. "In Canada, a SIM card
    is more important than food,
  63. because we will not die from hunger."
  64. But getting access to the right
    resources and information
  65. can be the difference
    between life and death.
  66. Let me say that again:
  67. getting access to the right
    resources and information
  68. can be the difference
    between life and death.
  69. In order to address these issues,

  70. we built Atar,
  71. the first-ever AI-powered virtual advocate
  72. that guides you step-by-step
    through your first week
  73. of arriving in a new city.
  74. Just tell Atar what you need help with.
  75. Atar will then ask you
    some basic questions
  76. to understand your unique circumstances
  77. and determine your eligibility
    for resources.
  78. For example: Do you have
    a place to stay tonight?
  79. If not, would you prefer
    an all-women's shelter?
  80. Do you have children?
  81. Atar will then generate
    a custom, step-by-step to-do list
  82. that tells you everything
    that you need to know,
  83. from where to go, how to get there,
  84. what to bring with you
  85. and what to expect.
  86. You can ask a question at any time,
  87. and if Atar doesn't have an answer,
  88. you'll be connected
    with a real person who does.
  89. But what's most exciting

  90. is that we help humanitarian
    and service organizations
  91. collect the data and the analytics
    that's necessary to understand
  92. the changing needs of newcomers
  93. in real time.
  94. That's a game changer.
  95. We've already partnered with the UNHCR
  96. to provide this technology in Canada,
  97. and in our work have conducted
    campaigns in Arabic, English,
  98. French, Creole and Spanish.
  99. When we talk about the issue of refugees,

  100. we often focus on the official statistic
  101. of 65.8 million forcibly
    displaced worldwide.
  102. But the reality is much greater than that.
  103. By 2050, there will be
    an additional 140 million people
  104. who are at risk of being displaced
    due to environmental degradation.
  105. And today -- that is today --
    there are nearly one billion people
  106. who already live in illegal
    settlements and slums.
  107. Resettlement and integration
  108. is one of the greatest
    challenges of our time.
  109. and our hope is that Atar can provide
    every single newcomer an advocate.
  110. Our hope is that Atar
    can amplify existing efforts
  111. and alleviate pressure
    on a social safety net
  112. that's already stretched
    beyond imagination.
  113. But what's most important to us
  114. is that our work helps restore
    the rights and the dignity
  115. that refugees lose throughout
    resettlement and integration
  116. by giving them the resources that
    they need in order to help themselves.
  117. Thank you.

  118. (Applause)