Democratizing information with a network for displaced refugees

Most refugees living in urban areas have no viable way of reaching out to fellow refugees and sharing critical information. Urban Refugees used Twilio Programmable SMS to build a messaging-based network that empowers refugees to self-organize and build community.


Empowered refugees to create grassroots social networks for sharing information

Seeking to escape the squalid conditions of typical refugee tent camps, many refugees in the 21st century are moving to urban areas with higher living standards. Yet these refugees often confront the same economic hardships as the local urban poor and face additional challenges due to their refugee status—including constant fear of being arrested, detained, and forcibly returned to their home country.

Urban Refugees, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO), is fighting to change the way refugees receive and share information so that they can keep up to date on the issues that affect their communities. The NGO sought a platform that could help it democratize communication for refugees without requiring a large investment in time and money.

Twilio Products

  • Programmable SMS

Urban Refugees

“Refugees can create their own distribution lists, share critical information within their community, and become empowered to self-organize easily.”

Sonia Ben Ali, co-founder, Urban Refugees

Communicating from the bottom up with Twilio

The father of Urban Refugees co-founder Sonia Ben Ali fled Tunisia when she was young. Growing up, she heard about the struggles of being displaced from one’s home country. In 2007, she saw it firsthand. “I slowly realized the extent to which the humanitarian assistance is focused on camps, when actually most refugees live in cities,” Sonia says.

Urban Refugees used Twilio Programmable SMS to create SMSUp, a messaging-based social network that makes it easy for refugees to share information. When refugees are scattered throughout cities with no viable way to reach out to fellow refugees, they get their information from agencies such as the United Nations. In this top-down method of communication, there’s an information gap. Sonia believes SMSUp empowers refugees to fill that gap by sharing information with one another.

“SMSUp is an easy-to-use, low-cost grassroots service that uses a bottom-up approach,” she says. “Refugees can create their own distribution lists, share critical information within their community, and become empowered to self-organize easily.”

To create a new group on the network, a refugee simply sends a self-chosen number to SMSUp. Anyone can subscribe to the new number and, once subscribed, send messages to the group.

Urban Refugees

Interest from around the world

The decision to use SMS as the means of disseminating information was an easy one for Sonia. A majority of refugees don’t have access to smartphones or reliable internet. That ruled out building an app or creating a community group online. SMS proved to be the least-expensive, furthest-reaching means of communication for refugees.

Each city has a different set of challenges for disaster-affected people to overcome. Sonia’s efforts using communication technology to knock down communication barriers have resonated with people outside of the areas where she works.

“Refugee groups from all over the world have expressed an interest in our program. We even have a waiting list,” Sonia says.


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