How Big Tech is coming together to support refugees

Maya Kosoff - Apr 2, 2024
Image credit: Welcome.US / Celia D. Luna

After the fall of Kabul in 2021, Americans — watching the news, seeing Afghans fleeing and families being torn apart — took to Google. They wanted to know: How can I help? 

Kelsey Ford, senior manager at (Google’s philanthropic arm), realized that the company was in a unique position to turn those queries into “tangible support for Afghans.” Through donated search and YouTube ads, Google began to drive people toward the website of a nonprofit: Welcome.US

Traditionally, refugee resettlement in the U.S. has predominantly been the purview of government agencies or large nonprofits. Welcome.US, started by veterans of the Bush and Obama administrations in 2021, seeks to mobilize individuals and community groups across the country to sponsor newcomers, helping them find housing and work and better integrate into their new communities (the organization is also a partner of Lyft’s). Google’s efforts resulted in “more than 23,000 donations [to Welcome.US], 11,000 information requests to sponsor newcomers, and 221 million views on YouTube,” says Ford. 

Seeing the impact, Welcome.US CEO Nazanin Ash approached Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, who then connected her to Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. She pitched them both the idea of creating a collective of companies: the Welcome.US CEO Council. Each CEO would leverage their business’s unique resources to help those seeking refuge in the U.S. Over time, they recruited 38 executives, including the leaders of tech companies like Airbnb, Amazon, and Lyft.

Since 2022, the Council has dedicated millions of dollars, technological products and services, and human hours toward supporting refugees. While the private sector certainly can’t replace the public funds needed to solve the crisis, these companies are helping to fill the gaps when it comes to helping refugees make a living — and a life — in the U.S.

Transportation Access

For new arrivals to the U.S., transportation can be a major barrier: Private car ownership is often out of reach, and public transportation “can be extremely time-intensive and challenging to navigate, depending on the client’s origin and destination,” says Alexandra Caudill, the director of Resettlement & Integration at Commonpoint Queens, a social services organization. Laura Casaseca Fillette, an operations manager at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), agrees, adding that “public transportation can be particularly difficult for those with mobility concerns or when mothers need to travel with multiple young children.”

Lyft has long worked with nonprofit organizations to provide rideshare credits for people who need help getting to job interviews, grocery stores, and voting centers. After the crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, it worked with the Welcome.US Council to extend the program to provide hundreds of thousands of ride credits to refugees. “When we think about where we can have the most impact, it’s around transportation access,” says Lyft social impact manager Celia Moreno.

Digital Equity

But accessing technology services can be a challenge for refugees, who may not have a smartphone or other internet-connected device at all. That’s why Welcome.US opened the Welcome Exchange, which matches businesses that can offer needed products with not-for-profits and resettlement groups that can distribute them. Through this platform, the Council has given 26,000 refugees $18 million in donated goods, 45,000 phones and laptops, and 200,000 phone plans.

Meanwhile, companies on the council have taken steps to help newcomers use their products. “Digital equity requires far more than access to a PC,” says Michele Malejki, who is the global head of social impact for HP Inc. and the director of the HP Foundation. HP has donated 5,000 HP Chromebooks to the program and also partners with community-based organizations to ensure those laptops can be effectively used. In addition, as part of the HP Turn to Learn program, it’s provided 10,000 learning packets for migrant children, published in their mother tongues. Similarly, Lyft has partnered with organizations that provide hands-on help to refugees who wish to use the Lyft app. 

Moreover, Lyft has developed two features that make its app user-friendly to refugees. For riders who might not have a checking account or a credit or debit card, Lyft Cash allows them to add money to their account at one of more than 35,000 participating locations. And Rides for Others allows existing Lyft customers to order rides for friends, loved ones, or clients — of particular use to caseworkers. Both the person requesting the ride and the rider have full access to real-time trip details. Mariko Gennaria, a monitoring specialist at HIAS, a Jewish organization that supports refugees, explains: “When there is a language barrier or the client is still working through our digital literacy curriculum, this can be a more comfortable way to orient clients to a service like Lyft.”

Making Connections 

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration streamlined the process for displaced Ukrainians to seek safety in the United States; however, to apply, refugees had to have a sponsor in mind. The Welcome.US team saw an opportunity. 

A team of engineers at Goldman Sachs — whose CEO, David Solomon, is a councilmember — volunteered to build a digital platform, Welcome Connect, that would match refugees and sponsors based on their preferences and needs. “The problem the platform was trying to solve was: How can we connect the right people together?” says Luc Teboul, a partner at Goldman Sachs.

Goldman partnered with technology providers Service Now and Infosys to create a user-friendly platform in just a few weeks. “It’s amazing to see what you can do when people don’t have to do something, but want to,” remarks Teboul.  

Since launching, Welcome Connect has matched 2,400 refugees with sponsors. That includes Katelyn Pace in Kentucky who signed up on the platform and bonded with two Ukrainian refugees, Vita Shevchemko and Tatiana Shpak, over their love of watercolors, digital marketing, and yoga. In 2023, Katelyn and her husband sponsored the pair, who have since become a part of the Pace family of four — or, with Vita and Tatiana, now six. 

Those kinds of success stories are exactly why Teboul got involved in the first place. “Thousands of people were able to come here, were safe, and I don’t know what would have happened to them otherwise. We’re only scratching the surface of how technology can help.”

Or, as Welcome.US CEO Ash puts it: “If we’re able to unleash Americans’ willingness, capacity, and commitment, we can welcome many more people in need.”