Creating Digital Access for Migrants and Refugees through EWB.
BlogCreating Digital Access for Migrants and Refugees through EWB.

Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) recognises that digital access is a major barrier to disadvantaged and marginalised groups participating in Australian society and is developing a digital access strategy to help bridge the digital divide.

"It can be very difficult for refugees and migrants who come from different backgrounds to integrate into the local community. It’s really important for them to have the opportunity to participate early on. To do that, they need to be able to use a computer and the internet.” EWB Connectivity Program Coordinator, Christian Bottcher.

The EWB digital access strategy involves conducting an extensive survey of digital inclusion programs run by national organisations such as Infoxchange, GreenPC, Leep and Rotary’s Computers 4 Learning to find out which programs are effective and if there are gaps.

The development of the national strategy is complimented with local Chapter led digital inclusion initiatives. A current example is the new Connectivity Program that EWB WA is trialling with a new community partner – the Metropolitan Migrant Resource Centre Inc. (MMRC).

The WA Connectivity Program aims to facilitate the settlement and participation of migrants, especially refugees, in their local communities by improving digital participation. Digital inclusion is recognised as an important step in facilitating participation as it opens doors to communication, social activities and employment.

The Connectivity Program also provides an opportunity to raise awareness about cultural diversity, foster respect and understanding and facilitate meaningful volunteering.

An eight-week pilot was run in mid-2016 after EWB WA Region President Sheena Ong established a partnership with the MMRC with the help of EWB volunteers River Hearn-Colley and Ai Vui Chew. The program was coordinated and delivered by EWB MMRC Partnership Manager, Soroush Tehrani, and EWB Connectivity Program Coordinator, Christian Bottcher.

Christian explains the reasoning behind the pilot.

“The MMRC told us it can be very difficult for refugees and migrants who come from different backgrounds to integrate into the local community. It’s really important for them to have the opportunity to participate early on. To do that, they need to be able to use a computer and the internet.”

Although Christian finds working as a subsea engineer and completing an MBA keeps him busy, he always wanted to volunteer and happened to be looking at the EWB website when the Connectivity Program was advertised in early 2016.

“Volunteering is a good opportunity to give back a little bit. I think education makes a huge difference to people’s lives. Technology is obviously important as well.”

The developing partnership between EWB and the MMRC led to a new approach for the 2016 pilot Connectivity Program. The new program focussed on teaching migrants and refugees skills to enable them to find jobs or use technology. The previous incarnation of the program had focussed on repairing personal computers.

For the pilot, the MMRC selected 12 individuals who were interested in improving their digital knowledge and EWB coordinated 13 volunteers. Each week the clients and volunteers met for a 90-minute session in the computer room at the local Mirrabooka Library.

Soroush matched the skill sets of the volunteer tutors with specific individuals. The tutors included students, recent graduates and a mixture of professionals including engineers, an architect and a psychology student.

“We had no idea what to expect from the participants, so we had a basic curriculum as a fall back, but we focussed on whatever they wanted to get out it. We asked each of the tutors to ask their students, ‘What are three things you’d really like to learn?’” says Christian.

The tutors found the clients’ goals were very varied. Some wanted to send photos back home to their family and friends. Others needed help finding a job, getting an ABN so they could work as a contractor, or using Google maps to catch the bus. For some, it was about using a mouse or learning how to touch type.

The MMRC has reported very positive feedback from clients throughout the program, and say the next Connectivity course has been oversubscribed and has a waiting list, simply from word of mouth recommendations from the initial participants.

Florence Muvandi, Manager Community and Business Development, for the MMRC says, “The Connectivity Program has been very beneficial for our clients. The one on one support is a fantastic model as it really tailors the classes to the needs and abilities of the clients and helps them to improve their skills at their own pace. We are really grateful for the support we have received from EWB as having computer skills has a huge impact on our clients’ lives and their ability to settle in Australia.”

Christian is keen to capture feedback from the pilot and is planning to have a brainstorming session with the tutors and participants to review how best to evolve the curriculum in the future. The EWB Connectivity Program Coordinators are also looking at running the program with other community groups or partnerships in Perth and plan to swap notes with EWB’s Sydney University Chapter who have been running a similar Connectivity Program with the Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC). The Sydney version involves student volunteers teaching ASC clients basic computer skills.

From a personal point of view, Christian says, “I realised it’s challenging to live without using technology on a daily basis. Being able to teach people useful skills and seeing them learning and having the opportunity to participate in the community was very rewarding.”

Contact your local EWB Chapter to find out how you can get involved in EWB programs or learn more about the WA Connectivity Program.

Written by Matilda Bowra.