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<nettime> German entrepreneurial spirit to_heal refugees' plight
Patrice Riemens on Thu, 25 Feb 2016 10:15:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> German entrepreneurial spirit to_heal refugees' plight

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A German entrepreneurial spirit to heal refugees’ plight
By Guy Chazan, Financial Times, February 22, 2016

A shipping container in Hamburg has become a symbol of how German 
entrepreneurial talent and technical know-how are combining to help 
alleviate the refugee crisis.

Harald Neidhardt, a Hamburg businessman, and Mirko Bass, an executive at 
US tech multinational Cisco, converted the 20-foot box into a medical 
clinic connected by video-link to an army of remote interpreters. It has 
proved a big hit with doctors treating the thousands of sick and 
exhausted migrants still pouring into Germany, many of whom urgently 
need medical care after weeks on the road but who do not speak German.

“We asked ourselves what we most needed, and it’s connectivity and 
language,” says Mr Neidhardt, a shaved-headed serial entrepreneur in red 
trainers. He is one of many Germans who are harnessing technology to 
help their country cope with the 1.1m migrants it took in last year. The 
inflow has placed its social services under huge strain, sown discord in 
the EU and raised questions over the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

People like Mr Neidhardt usually start by volunteering time and 
expertise — part of a national mobilisation that has few precedents in 
Germany’s recent history. Their ideas are often small-scale, local 
responses to specific problems. But in many cases they have outgrown 
their modest beginnings and found enthusiastic backers across the 

One such idea is the Welcome App, pioneered by two small software 
companies in Dresden. It offers refugees information in Arabic, Farsi 
and English on everything from Germany’s constitution to the address of 
their nearest jobcentre. The app started out as an attempt to highlight 
another side to Dresden, a city that has become notorious for the noisy 
rallies held by the anti-immigrant movement Pegida.

But the app is expanding fast, attracting commercial sponsorship and 
contributions from municipal budgets. It has spread from Dresden to 
cover four other cities, including Frankfurt and Munich, and seven towns 
have signed up.

Peggy Reuter-Heinrich, co-head of software developer Heinrich und 
Reut­er Solutions, who helped pioneer the app, has plans to cover all of 

“The refugee crisis acted as a big spur for people like me to do 
something morally useful,” she says. The fact that the app has taken off 
in such a big way “really surprised me”. However, she still sees it as 
more of a social enterprise than a moneymaking proposition, and has 
donated all profits from the app to migrant-related causes.

Hanseatic Help has had a similar trajectory. It started off in the 
corner of an exhibition hall in Hamburg, collecting and handing out old 
clothes to refugees. It has since grown into a massive logistics 
operation, with its own supply chain management program — developed by a 
volunteer with a background in IT.

Donated clothes are sorted, packed and entered into a computer system 
that allocates each one a QR code and a storage space in the 
organisation’s huge warehouse. With its forklift trucks, pallets and 
heavy-duty shelving, the store looks more like a fashion outlet than a 
refugee charity.

“We were very lucky that from the start we had volunteers from the 
logistics industry, as well as management experts who could help us 
improve the structure of the operation,” says Simone Herrmann, head of 
Hanseatic Help.

She says that as well as handing out items directly, the clothes store 
has shipped some 2m articles to smaller distribution points throughout 
Hamburg, and is expanding to service local homeless shelters and other 
social programmes. It has even transported clothes to refugees in the 
Greek islands and northern Iraq.

The organisation is funded by donations from individuals and companies, 
and receives no money from the state: it is entirely staffed by unpaid 
volunteers — some 1,500 work there every day.

The container developed by Mr Neid­hardt, founder of event and media 
company MLOVE, and Mr Bass reflects a similar drive. The two men were 
keen to do something to help the asylum seekers flowing into Hamburg, 
and combine that with community projects they had worked on together. Mr 
Neidhardt admits he is somewhat obsessed with containers, which he sees 
as “raw, ad hoc and mobile”. He has used the structures to create a 
“future city campus”, an event space in Hamburg’s port area.

Their focus narrowed on the medical situation in Hamburg’s refugee 
reception centres, where they were both volunteering to distribute old 
clothes. Clinics there had up to four interpreters on hand, at a cost to 
the city of €225,000 per site a year, yet most of them sat idle for much 
of the time.

Also when it came to refugees from the more far-flung countries such as 
Eritrea, doctors were often left trying to communicate with hand 
gestures, broken English and pained facial expressions. So the two men 
came up with the idea of fitting a container with WiFi and a link to a 
remote interpreting service. It would be mobile, and so easily 
deployable to camps that needed it most. Mr Bass put the idea to his 
bosses at Cisco.

“They were hesitant,” he says. “They said we don’t sell containers — 
what’s the business case?” Disappointed, he posted the idea in the 
company’s internal chatroom. One of his European managers immediately 
agreed a budget for a pilot project. Six weeks later, a “refugee first 
response centre” was installed in a car park of a building supplies 
market in the west of Hamburg, which is now home to some 1,200 refugees.

The two men partnered with SAVD, an interpreting service based in Vienna 
that has a roster of 700 translators speaking a total of 52 languages. 
Doctors can summon native speakers of Hausa and Tigrinya at the click of 
a mouse.

Dr Hans-Otto Wagner of the University Medical Centre in 
Hamburg-Eppendorf, who has used the service, says it has improved the 
doctor-patient relationship, since “language is the key to 
communication”. He says it has helped establish whether patients have 
physical ailments or “whether they are traumatised and need 
psychological help”.

Meanwhile, demand for the first-resp­onse centres is growing. A local 
charity, the Dorit und Alexander Otto Stiftung, donated €900,000 to the 
city of Hamburg to help acquire 10 more centres, with the city agreeing 
to cover the running costs.

Mr Neidhardt aims to expand the containers into “telemedicine”, so 
doctors can share X-rays, access specialist services remotely and 
diagnose ailments by video conference. That would allow the centres to 
be deployed in remote locations. “My dream is to install these units 
along the whole migration route, all the way to Lesbos,” he says.


Refugee aid hacks

When it comes to aiding the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have 
arrived in Europe, it helps that most of them have smartphones. “The 
first thing they ask for when they arrive — after food and water — is 
power and WiFi,” says Mike Butcher, a technology writer.

Mr Butcher is the driving force behind “Techfugees”, a non-profit 
venture established last year to co-ordinate the international tech 
industry’s response to the refugee crisis. The group has organised a 
conference in London and hackathons in Oslo, Warsaw and Sydney in an 
effort to generate techie ideas that could help migrants.

“It’s a bridge between the creative, wacky world of engineers and 
hackers, and the rather slower-moving world of the NGOs,” Mr Butcher 

Projects it has backed include the Refugee Aid App, which helps migrants 
to find food, shelter, legal aid and medical care upon their arrival in 
Europe: MeshPoint, a rugged WiFi access point that can be set up in any 
weather conditions: and Migreat, a digital personal assistant to help 
refugees navigate the asylum application process.

It allows them to make an informed decision on where to apply for 
refugee status by comparing different countries’ rates of approval, 
rules on the right to work and application-processing times.


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