About two years ago, I got a phone call that changed my life.
"Hey, this is your cousin Hassen."
I froze. You see, I have well over 30 first cousins, but I didn't know anybody named Hassen.
It turned out that Hassen was actually my mom's cousin and had just arrived in Montreal as a refugee. And over the next few months, I would have three more relatives coming to Canada to apply for asylum with little more than the clothes on their back. And in the two years since that phone call, my life has completely changed. I left academia and now lead a diverse team of technologists, researchers and refugees that is developing customized self-help resources for newcomers. We want to help them overcome language, cultural and other barriers that make them feel like they've lost control over their own lives. And we feel that AI can help restore the rights and the dignity that many people lose when seeking help.
My family's refugee experience is not unique. According to the UNHCR, every minute, 20 people are newly displaced by climate change, economic crisis and social and political instability. And it was while volunteering at a local YMCA shelter that my cousin Hassen and other relatives were sent to that we saw and learned to appreciate how much effort and coordination resettlement requires.
When you first arrive, you need to find a lawyer and fill out legal documents within two weeks. You also need to schedule a medical exam with a pre-authorized physician, just so that you can apply for a work permit. And you need to start looking for a place to live before you receive any sort of social assistance.
With thousands fleeing the United States to seek asylum in Canada over the past few years, we quickly saw what it looks like when there are more people who need help than there are resources to help them. Social services doesn't scale quickly, and even if communities do their best to help more people with limited resources, newcomers end up spending more time waiting in limbo, not knowing where to turn.
In Montreal, for example, despite millions of dollars being spent to support resettlement efforts, nearly 50 percent of newcomers still don't know that there are free resources that exist to help them with everything from filling out paperwork to finding a job. The challenge is not that this information doesn't exist. On the contrary, those in need are often bombarded with so much information that it's difficult to make sense of it all. "Don't give me more information, just tell me what to do," was a sentiment we heard over and over again. And it reflects how insanely difficult it could be to get your bearings when you first arrive in a new country. Hell, I struggled with the same issues when I got to Montreal, and I have a PhD.
As another member of our team, himself also a refugee, put it: "In Canada, a SIM card is more important than food, because we will not die from hunger." But getting access to the right resources and information can be the difference between life and death. Let me say that again: getting access to the right resources and information can be the difference between life and death.
In order to address these issues, we built Atar, the first-ever AI-powered virtual advocate that guides you step-by-step through your first week of arriving in a new city. Just tell Atar what you need help with. Atar will then ask you some basic questions to understand your unique circumstances and determine your eligibility for resources. For example: Do you have a place to stay tonight? If not, would you prefer an all-women's shelter? Do you have children? Atar will then generate a custom, step-by-step to-do list that tells you everything that you need to know, from where to go, how to get there, what to bring with you and what to expect. You can ask a question at any time, and if Atar doesn't have an answer, you'll be connected with a real person who does.
But what's most exciting is that we help humanitarian and service organizations collect the data and the analytics that's necessary to understand the changing needs of newcomers in real time. That's a game changer. We've already partnered with the UNHCR to provide this technology in Canada, and in our work have conducted campaigns in Arabic, English, French, Creole and Spanish.
When we talk about the issue of refugees, we often focus on the official statistic of 65.8 million forcibly displaced worldwide. But the reality is much greater than that. By 2050, there will be an additional 140 million people who are at risk of being displaced due to environmental degradation. And today — that is today — there are nearly one billion people who already live in illegal settlements and slums. Resettlement and integration is one of the greatest challenges of our time. and our hope is that Atar can provide every single newcomer an advocate. Our hope is that Atar can amplify existing efforts and alleviate pressure on a social safety net that's already stretched beyond imagination. But what's most important to us is that our work helps restore the rights and the dignity that refugees lose throughout resettlement and integration by giving them the resources that they need in order to help themselves.