By Stacey Wedlake, Negin Dayha, Maria Garrido, and Katya Yefimova

Access to digital technology represents a foundational step in the refugee resettlement process. The Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School recently published a report that maps the 2019 landscape of technology-related services and programs available for refugee women and their communities in Seattle and King County in Washington State. In this research, we had an interest in understanding the services available to refugee women in the United States, where technology is socially and culturally dominated by men.

We found a complex network for organizations supporting digital inclusion for refugee women including resettlement agencies, nonprofits, public libraries, community-based organizations, public housing, and local government. In our interviews, we found that organizations integrate technology in a variety of program types. We categorized the most prominent of these programs into four categories:

  • Mobile phones, communication, and mobility for women
  • Employment-related services (including entrepreneurship)
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) training
  • Technology in family and community life

In this blog post for Welcoming Week, I’ll give a brief overview of these categories. Our full report goes more in-depth in these topics while also identifying the main challenges these organizations face, and outlining possibilities to designing better programs and services for refugee communities.

Mobile phones, communication, and mobility for women

Interviewees described that mobile phones, especially smartphones, represent the primary — and sometimes only — device through which program participants communicate and access the internet. Even though women have smartphones, several interviewees noted that women often rely on technology intermediaries, family members, or service providers for tech support. However, in some cases these intermediaries do not teach how to use the technology and instead try to simplify or streamline access to specific applications or processes without giving them a deeper understanding of how to use the phone overall. Most organizations did not have formal mobile-specific classes but much of the mobile literacy training also happened through other digital-skills training, or ad hoc as part of English language learning, sewing, or other women’s groups and classes where women share information, pictures, etc. using personal mobile phones. 

Technology education and employment-related services 

Refugee service organizations offer a variety of employment-related programs and services, many of which are integrated with technology education. The variety and availability of these programs depends greatly on the type of population targeted and the funding streams available to the organizations. For example, resettlement agencies working with newly arrived refugees and receiving federal funding have three months to prepare their clients for employment or economic self-sufficiency before the benefit for this support expires. During this brief period of time, basic digital technology training is the main priority of many organizations, focusing on job searches, how to apply for a job, building a resume, practicing job interviews, and professional communication. Other programs can support longer-term employment outcomes for populations from refugee backgrounds with professional training. Other programs support entrepreneurship efforts. We talked to two organizations that help women obtain their in-home daycare certifications, one serving communities from East Africa and another working primarily with Ukrainian and Russian communities. These programs also integrate technology skills such Web literacy skills and spreadsheet software so that women can better support their businesses. 

Technology education in ESL Training

English language proficiency is a major predictor of internet adoption and use in North America. Many organizations offer English as a Second Language (ESL, aka English Language Learning or ELL) classes that include elements of technology education. Classes range from enrollment-based, multi-week courses with a set curriculum to informal or drop-in opportunities to practice English. Programs that incorporate informal language instruction aim to create consistent opportunities for practice, as well as build community connections. The focus of these classes also varies; language learning may constitute the primary goal, or it may be a learning outcome in a larger project. For example, learning English vocabulary tied to the activity happens in community gardens and sewing groups, as well as in computer classes. Other service providers have integrated texting. Case managers saw two main benefits to this approach: another communication channel and more opportunities for participants to use written English. The connection between digital literacy and language proficiency is particularly noteworthy, and is both valuable and complex.  

Technology, family support, and community well-being

Multiple organizations have adopted family programming that attends to the needs of different family members, through educational and community-centered workshops, mother-child classes and other resources. This approach allows families with children to participate easily. We heard from many service providers that child care is one of the main barriers that prevent women from taking classes. Additionally, youth in immigrant and refugee families often are the first to learn English and serve as technology and cultural brokers. These young people act as a bridge between their communities and mainstream society. Intergenerational programs can open a space to renegotiate the role of youth in the family and community, and make visible young people’s work of navigating different sets of expectations. A workshop paired youth with their parents for lessons on financial literacy and the family budget, and discussions about the challenges and needs of each generation. Financial and budgeting workshops typically involve learning about banking systems and tools such as spreadsheets and organizing copies of digital files — all inherently technological in contemporary society. 

Final thoughts

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates dependency on technology and exacerbates refugee women’s language barriers, domestic  responsibilities, and isolation. Organizations that have established relationships with refugee communities or groups led by people from refugee backgrounds need increased financial and technological support. Local digital inclusion coalitions and government responses to digital equity also need to include these organizations.