Necessity met innovation last fall when IRC Dallas caseworker Derek Smith decided technology could help answer some of his clients’ frequently asked questions.
He was teaching Swahili and English classes outside of his job as a Reception & Placement caseworker when he was struck by inspiration. “I would get a lot of questions in class about my work. At the office, I was continuing to see clients come in with questions about finding resources.”
From how to get a bank account or cash a check, to where to get legal help, Derek and his teammates frequently spent time answering the same questions from clients who were trying to learn where to get the services they need.
“The light bulb just kind of clicked for me,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in making apps, and I realized that there wasn’t one that could help new arrivals answer these questions. It seemed like a good way to help our clients be more self-sufficient. Usually, a phone is one of the first things they get – why not help them have all of that information on their phones?”
Called “The Collective for Refugees and Immigrants,” the app provides a wealth of resources for refugees. It helps them find culturally-appropriate food stores and explains how to find an English class. More importantly, it’s available in six languages: English, Arabic, Burmese, Farsi, Kiswahili and Kinyarwanda. The app was first introduced via Android, then made available for iPhones.
Derek used WordPress to assemble the site. His first priority was making it highly functional; he’ll look at adding more features and improving the look and feel of it over time. Flyers in the lobby of the Dallas office have helped advertise the site, and he made a presentation about it to the Dallas Area Refugee Federation so that other refugee resettlement agencies are aware of it.
With the basic structure in place, Derek is focused on outreach and improvement. Watching downloads in the app store helps him get a sense of who is using it. It currently has just over 40 downloads in the US, but he’s also managed to reach people in Kenya, Mozambique, Spain, and a surprising 2,500 in China. Word of mouth is helping to spread the word; he recently received an email from a client from Afghanistan asking when the app would be available for iPhones, so Derek let him know when that happened.
“It’s not where I want it to be yet – but I’m proud of it,” he says. “For now, the app is mainly just a way for our clients to locate resources and connect with others, but my hope is for it to grow and achieve partnerships with various organizations and possibly employers in the area. Through their own accounts, partners could share additional resources. Finally, I hope to add courses on essential tasks such as locating and signing in for health appointments, navigating the city via our public transportation, asserting tenants’ rights once they're out of our care, etc.”
It takes a village to build an app. Special thanks to Derek’s co-creators:
- Kaleigh Tomaso (Health & Wellness supervisor) compiled a list of various specialists for the hospitals & clinics section
- Yui Iwase (New Roots) identified various culturally appropriate grocery stores
- Shiva Thompson (Health & Wellness caseworker) provided the translations for Farsi
- Grace Naw Mu Thur (Finance) provided Burmese translations
- Shekna Kahindo (Interpreter) confirmed Kiswahili translations
- Ashraf "Ben" Hamza (Former Interpreter) provided Kinyarwanda translations
- A former client assisted with Arabic translations, during breaks from his studies to complete medical school
Want to contribute to improving the app? Email Dallas [at] Rescue.org.
Story by: Lynsley Smith