Feature Story

Tech pioneers join forces to scale for good

by Liza Meak

The power of connection brings together Cisco workers and partners from all over the world  to find a solution to the refugee crisis.

The power of connection brings together Cisco workers and partners from all over the world to find a solution to the refugee crisis.

What started as one small team's mission in Germany to help fight the refugees' plight in Germany has turned into a global movement. Mirko Bass and Martin Kroeger, two Hamburg based Cisco employees, together with MLOVE, avodaq, SAVD Videodolmetschen and the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf  came up with an innovative idea to turn shipping containers into medical units for refugees, known as the Refugee First Response Center

With a budget approved from top Cisco leaders, the group's idea quickly became a reality. "It took us only six weeks from idea to execution to live implementation," said Bass.

Once the container was delivered to a refugee camp near Bass' and Kroeger's home, they joined a team of volunteers, including the German Red Cross, to give refugees much needed access to healthcare with medical translation services in 50 languages, available simply by pressing a button. 

See also: A simple idea and use of technology gives hope to refugees

"This is 5 minutes from our home, so we felt personally connected to that space," said Bass.

The container may not look like much from the outside, but inside, it looks like a medical office and an extended waiting room, complete with a space for doctors and nurses to meet with refugees and video translators a mouse click away via computer.

Last year, the idea mushroomed into more than the team could have ever imagined. What started with one container in Hamburg turned into ten containers after a one-million-dollar donation from the local foundation, Dorit and Alexander Otto. It proved to be such a success, resulting in more than 14,000 medical exams provided to refugees, the team began to think bigger.

See also: The power of connection

"Our dream was to bring 100 containers closer to the hot spots, along the routes of the refugees in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon, and other countries" said Harald Neidhardt, CEO and founder of MLOVE, one of the partners in the project. "But we knew it would only work if we found the same group of passionate people who would take ownership in a country or in a city like we did in Hamburg." 

Global effort to solve this humanitarian crisis

It didn't take long for the team's  vision to go global. In Lebanon, Cisco workers have a long history providing relief to the nearly 1.4 million displaced Syrians who currently live there.

Earlier this year, employees raised money to buy warm clothing and delivered it to a temporary settlement for Syrians who have fled their homes out of fear.  "Giving is part of our DNA at Cisco," said Hani Raad, Cisco's General Manager of Iraq and Lebanon. "I was amazed by the generosity and passion of Cisco's volunteer employees on the ground in Lebanon."

See also: Cisco employee volunteers make a difference in Lebanon

But they wanted to do more. Karim Kattouf, a Cisco Brand Protection Manager and many other local co-workers based out of Beirut, connected with Bass' team to localize what was done in Germany and build on it.

In November, with the support of MLOVE and beyond, a local NGO, the Refugee First Response Center arrived in Lebanon, at one of the largest temporary settlements in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, which 55,000 people currently call home, many of them children. 

Some of those children wrote heartfelt letters about what it's like to live in one of these camps. One little girl wrote in English, "They call me a refugee. Why? I am not a refugee. I am a Syrian child with a name and an identity." 

The container is expected to be up and running with full technology capabilities by the beginning of next year, and at some point the containers could be transformed and repurposed for other programs like family reunification, asylum application, and education.

"Knowing firsthand the impact of fleeing my country as a child, it was imperative for our Cisco team in Lebanon to continue to support the needs of people who have been displaced from their homes and who live under difficult conditions," said Kattouf.

With support from Cisco, MLOVE and StartupBoat, the other container headed to Greece. Nikos Lambrogeorgos, a Cisco Senior Account Manager based out of Athens made sure it safely arrived to the refugee camp on the small Island of Samos. Boatloads of up to one hundred people continue to arrive on this island every day from Turkey.

"The majority of the people who are staying in the hotspot are living in terrible situations for many months. Medical and interpretation services are just as necessary as food and shelter," said Lambrogeorgos.

See also: Refugee first response center honored with social innovation award

"A doctor will be in the container from 8 am to 10 pm. The doctor will be there to examine refugees and offer health services," said Lambrogeorgos. Right now, there's no translation services and the container is not connected to offer telemedicine, but Lambrogeorgos is working with the Greek Ministry of Health and several NGO's and hopes to have it up and running before the first of the year.

Heals on Wheels

Seeing the success of the shipping containers led other organizations to expand on that idea. Deutsche Bahn, the largest railway and bus operator in Germany has a huge fleet of decommissioned buses that are too old to keep in operation for transporting passengers around various German cities.

While they may be too old for traditional transportation, Deutsche Bahn partnered up with the Charité hospital in Berlin and created a prototype of a medical center on wheels. Cisco volunteered to network the bus and outfitted it with mobile, high speed connectivity to provide much needed translation services by SAVD in 50 languages and Wi-Fi in and around the bus.

This medical clinic on wheels shows how innovation can lead to a merging of automotive and healthcare, providing connectivity and IoT for the greater good.

From the outside, the bus looks like a bus you'd find in any city in the world, but after you take one step inside you can see it's a mobile version of a doctor's office.

The buses are portioned off into three different private sections. When refugees first step into the bus, they're welcomed into a check-in area. The second area is a lab, and the final section is an actual doctor's room.

The main goal of these mobile medical centers during the pilot phase is for mass vaccinations in Berlin, which the Charité hospital has developed. "The objective is to provide vaccination for a large number of refugees by the end of this calendar year, but directly at the refugee settlements, when and where it's needed," Bass said. Patients can also connect with WiFi using their smartphones outside the bus.

See also: Medibus animated video 

Germany's ministry of health signed off on the prototype buses once they determined they were in compliance. By the beginning of next year, it will be decided if the pilot program should be expanded. "This idea could potentially be used to provide medical care especially in the rural regions for everyone," Bass said.

Bass feels like these are all great steps in the right direction, but so much more can be done. "We need to passionately get up as a community and speak and turn challenges into opportunity in order to scale for good." 

We have plenty of resources to find out about the refugee relief efforts underway.