February 7, 2019

Backed by Data, the RefugeeMobile smartphone program Helps Refugees Assimilate

It may come as no surprise that giving free phones to refugees could help them resettle, but now there are data that suggest exactly how much the phones help and in what ways. The RefugeeMobile program provides free mobile service and phones loaded with applications directed at helping refugees settle in the United States. A partnership of three organizations head the work: the mobile service provider Sparrow Mobile for All, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and Refugee Services of Texas.

But as with many programs designed to boost economic progress and global development, the intended outcome and the actual outcome may differ. Whether they do or not remains unknown until studied. The organizations behind RefugeeMobile took the important step of soliciting an independent evaluation. The University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities performed a randomized, controlled trial that compared refugees who received phones to others who did not. The study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Vodafone Americas Foundation, with support from Tableau Foundation.

“One phone call can save my life. It makes me alive. If my kids are sick, one phone call might save their life. It’s like having another person help me.”

The researchers looked at a sample of refugees who were resettled in Texas, randomly issuing phones to some of them  for study. Families that received the phones made more progress than those who did not. The details are unannounced pending publication, but researchers have shared a summary of their findings. This is what they discovered.

  • They are 28 percent more likely to have Internet at home;
  • 45 percent more likely to interact with someone from a different culture;
  • 38 percent more likely to visit their child’s teacher to discuss performance at school;
  • and 9 percent of the families reported that they could converse in English “very well” as opposed to no one in the control group.
  • Program participants were also potentially more likely to be employed and have higher paying jobs, though these results are not statistically significant.

The program appears to help resettlement agencies, too. Refugees equipped with mobile tools were more capable of helping themselves, using apps for translating words, navigating their new city, finding transportation, communication through voice, text and email and seeking jobs. The more self-sufficient refugees freed their case managers to focus on other challenges of integration. Refugees who received phones had fewer interactions with their case managers, especially in-person meetings, and a much higher percent of interactions were by phone.

Stepping away from the data for a moment, one resettling refugee expressed how the phone made a difference to her personally. “There is no life without a smartphone. One phone call can save my life. It makes me alive. If my kids are sick, one phone call might save their life. It’s like having another person help me,” the anonymous participant said in a statement.

“The results are very encouraging and the hope is to expand this experiment on a much larger scale to more fully understand the potential role that smartphones can play for vulnerable populations,” says the study’s lead author Dr. William Evans, co-founder of the Wilson Sheehan Lab.

RefugeeMobile is Expanding. Here’s How to Help

An 18-month pilot program in Texas has concluded, and RefugeeMobile now has a grant from the Vodafone Americas Foundation to launch a second phase. The plan is to create a platform that can scale up and expand into new communities and work with new resettlement agencies including Catholic Charities Fort Worth, HIAS, and Jewish Family Services of Seattle, Washington.

The program now seeks additional funds for new expansions into other resettlement areas around the United States. It also plans to help families that are separated at the border to reunite, using the communications enabled by cell phones, data plans and applications designed to help families find their lost loved ones.

Wireless customers in the US can also sign up with Sparrow to sponsor phones and data plans for refugee families and other communities in need.

Learn more at sparrowmobile.com/refugeemobile.

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