Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than 3.7 million Syrian children have been born in Syria, and have either stayed in their country or fled as refugees. They’ve been raised in a region rife with conflict, forced to grow up in an environment where the only constant is instability. Military violence, paired with the constant threat of forced displacement, has made it increasingly difficult for parents to provide their children with healthy and consistent early education.
This lack of access to early education has caught the attention of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), who focus much of their work on child refugees.
To address the issue, the IRC has partnered with the tech start-up Vroom, a mobile-based platform whose goal is to deliver education tools, like tips and easy lesson plans, to refugee parents. The tools are specially designed for maximum accessibility via mobile devices, and they utilize everyday household items for educational lessons. `
Vroom was initially launched to provide support for low income families in the US, but the IRC was quick to see its potential abroad. Through videos, interactive lessons, and social media platforms, Vroom turns everyday moments into learning opportunities. In a refugee’s life, where each day brings new and unpredictable challenges, the importance of being able to teach on the go cannot be overstated.
The lessons range in complexity. For example, one lesson asks parents to go through their pockets at the end of the day with their children and describe the contents. Another lesson utilizes laundry day as a time to talk to children about shapes and colors. A more complicated lesson has children spell out items at the market.
Although they may seem basic, Vroom emphasizes the importance of these types of activities, especially at a young, developmental age. “New science tells us that our children’s first five years are when they develop the foundation for all future learning” says the Vroom website. “Every time we connect with them, it’s not just their eyes that light up—it’s their brains too.”
The IRC played a pivotal role in adapting Vroom’s lessons for Syrian parents. Not only did they translate the lessons to Arabic, but they also reimagined the messages and the ways those messages were being delivered to better fit Syrian communities. They did this through widespread field testing, which was especially effective in determining the best platforms to reach refugee families (Facebook and Whatsapp). “Nearly every family knows about WhatsApp, and uses it as a way to communicate with family members throughout the region,” Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the IRC, told Mashable. “WhatsApp was not just powerful because it reaches all kinds of families and the most vulnerable families, but also because there is community around it.”
To ensure Vroom’s adaptability to the lives of Syrian refugees, the designers were forced to overcome several obstacles. For example, Vroom initially distributed digital lessons featuring Syrians as well as Kurdish Syrians. The designers found that the Syrian users were far less engaged when those in the video did not look like them. Vroom also found that Syrian parents resisted the idea of playing games with their children because of the distinct hierarchy between children and adults. The creators therefore decided to incorporate more science lessons to teach parents about the cognitive benefits of games.
The spread of mobile devices has been instrumental for many humanitarian groups who have found ground operations to be logistically complex. The IRC has been sure to not only distribute the technology, but also analyze results and readapt approaches when necessary. Vroom will soon be releasing an updated round of lessons based on testing results and refugee feedback. The company wants to continue to develop more games, conduct more research, and even add activities for parents to de stress.
Vroom and the IRC are hoping to not only assist in early childhood development, but also encourage and support parents in continuing to build a life, even when their surroundings are unpredictable. By using mobile technology as their platform, these groups are reaching more families at more effective rates.