Category: Blog

Sonia Ben Ali, URBAN REFUGEES co-founder :

I recall a discussion with URBAN REFUGEES co-founder, David Delvallé, three years ago: he said, “You’ll see, one day you will be talking about our mission in a TED talk.” I did not believe it then… but 3 years later, it became reality!
My talk at TEDx Champs Elysées was a tremendous step for our organization, which is still small in structure but with a beautiful breadth of vision.
Our dream is to make the invisible, visible in the eyes of the world. How better to achieve this than with a TED talk?
I am deeply grateful to the organizers for providing us this opportunity, and I hope with all my heart that it represents a great stride forward in bringing awareness to the challenges of urban refugees. We invite you to watch and share the talk with your friends, neighbors, and networks, and look forward to sharing more good news with you soon!

If you wish to support the URBAN REFUGEES’ team, please click here.

The URBAN REFUGEES team has continued working on its latest project to support urban refugee populations: SMS Up, a group messaging service that enables users to send SMS Messages to multiple recipients using a single mobile phone number. This project will provide a platform for refugee community leaders to share time-sensitive and valuable information with community members via SMS. This group chat functionality was formerly only accessible via applications like WhatsApp and Viber; SMS Up makes group messaging possible for urban refugees without smartphones or internet access on their cell phones, by using SMS technology instead of wifi.

Behind this new project are three new team members, who are working very hard to make it a success.

  • VIDYA RAMKUMAR, SMS Up Senior Project Manager in Kuala Lumpur

vidya1Vidya met Sonia Ben Ali, URBAN REFUGEES’ co-founder, six months ago, and happened to mention her background and interest in finding related work. Now, she is implementing SMS Up end-to-end.

She has brought a great deal of energy and passion to the URBAN REFUGEES team, is inspired by our work.  “Working towards a higher philanthropic goal brings out the best in us,” said Vidya.  “The team is full of energy and enthusiasm, and I like our organisation’s cause – urban refugee community development, to help strengthen their capacities and raise their voice.”

Vidya is committed to the success of the project and excited to collaborate with refugees in developing the application to make SMS Up useful for them to make sharing and receiving information more accessible. “Despite the harsh challenges refugees have faced and are continually faced with, they are incredibly determined, kind and positive beyond belief,” said Vidya. “I have learnt what it means to be relentlessly positive, and I feel thankful to have my eyes opened up to this.”

  • DUNCAN WALKER, SMS Up Web Developer in London

Duncan2Duncan was inspired by the media coverage in 2015 about the unbelievable journeys refugees were undertaking to escape conflict in Syria and North Africa. He wanted to help and found a group called Techfugees on Facebook, which was putting technologists in contact with organizations working with refugees. “Among all the tech projects, SMS Up and URBAN REFUGEES jumped out as being really strongly focused on the user—making simple tactical intervention that has a practical real-world impact,” he said.

Since October 2016, he has been leading the programming for SMS Up at URBAN REFUGEES. “I picked up some work that was done on a prototype at a Hackathon about a year ago and I’ve been working to make it work in the Malaysian context and for our target groups of refugees,” said Duncan.

He really enjoys working with Vidya and Ate, URBAN REFUGEES’ translator. “They are both thorough, friendly, and reflective—what more can you ask for in a team?” says Duncan. “It’s been fun doing our catch-up meetings from opposite sides of the world over Skype—you just have to remember to say ‘good evening’ despite it being 8am.”

Working with URBAN REFUGEES has taught Duncan the value of working in the open for the public good; all his code and even the project management tickets are free source. “I’m hoping that if SMS Up takes off, this will make it easier for other developers to get involved,” he said.

  • ATEFEH MALAKMOHAMADI (also called ATE), SMS Up Translator in Kuala Lumpur

ate4One of the Afghan community leaders is Ate’s family friend, so he introduced her to URBAN REFUGEES four months ago when we were in search of a translator to join the team. “I thought it would be a perfect job for me if I can help at the same time. As I am a refugee too, I can touch and feel their status perfectly, hence they accepted me and since then I got involved with URBAN REFUGEES,” she said.

Ate is currently working closely with Vidya as translator for the SMS Up project, and really gives priority to our team work: “as long as I am keen on giving a hand to people, I’m happy to work with URBAN REFUGEES team. Although I am part of those people who need help, by this job, I feel I am also receiving blessing from another side as I believe that what goes around comes around.”

She explains, “the SMS Up project allows me to learn something new every day.  I am earning a great experience at the age of 20 which boosts my knowledge.” This is the first time she is working as a member of a team and really enjoys it. She does her best hoping that we all can get to the aims that we have for the Afghan community.

We are very grateful to work with such wonderful team members, and especially grateful to the HIF (Humanitarian Inovation Fund) for their support of our SMS Up project.

If you wish to support us, here is the way !

After working with the Afghan Community Center (ACC) for 6 months, we are impressed with the leaders’ accomplishments!

"SMILE FOR REFUGEES" Charity Concert with the Afghan Community


Our fundraising and partnership trainings have really paid off, because on March 15th, the ACC co-organized a concert of 300 people with Smile for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur.

The ACC managed the arrival of musicians to Malaysia, rented a concert hall and organized dance sessions for children who performed during the concert. In addition, the Ambassador of Afghanistan and local authorities attended to the charity event.


"SMILE FOR REFUGEES" Charity Concert with the Afghan Community


The purpose of the “Smile for Refugees” concert was to highlight the plight of refugees in Malaysia.

Music helps to alleviate certain traumas, because it has the power to encourage, comfort and inspire the audience,” says Zia Sahil, singer and musician at the concert.

Mr. Hazara, founder of Smile for Refugees says that “refugees have very few occupations and feel that nobody cares about them, so we hope to bring them some joy with this concert.”


Want to get a glimpse of the concert? Watch the video of the concert here:

To support us, click here !

Already this year, the URBAN REFUGEES team has begun working with two new communities in Kuala Lumpur: the Rohingya and Somali communities have already begun to benefit from our incubation program.

After six months of close collaboration with the Afghan Community Center (ACC), our pilot incubation program came to an end with a steady stream of success, and confidence that the ACC had reached a level of autonomy that would enable their team to continue serving the needs of Kuala Lumpur’s Afghan refugee community.

Our pilot project was a success by every measure, and as the URBAN REFUGEES team concluded that collaboration, we answered the requests of Malaysia’s Somali and Rohingya communities to benefit from our incubation program, and have already begun work with both.

Our goals with these new projects include: supporting the communities’ existing leaders, who are straining to respond to the pressing needs of their community.  This support will enable community leaders to increase the quantity and quality of services they are able to offer community members, and help both communities thrive.

  • Who are the Rohingya people, and why have they been forced to flee Myanmar ?

Rohingya Migration map

The Rohingya people are Myanmar’s Muslim minority, residing in the country’s Rakhine state (also known as Arakan state). They have been fleeing persecution for decades and are known as one the most persecuted populations in the world; they have been driven from their homes by force since 1970, such violent and shocking fashion that it has been referenced by many as tantamount to ethnic cleansing.  The Rohingya people have been deprived of all basic human rights in their home country, including citizenship, voting rights, marriage rights, and freedom of movement.

Due to multiples exoduses, approximately 1.5 million Rohingya people have settled in different parts of the world, and are now living in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Malaysia hosts an estimated 53,000 Rohingya people, currently registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but an additional 30,000 live in the country, undocumented.

Refugees from MyanmarSince Malaysia is a Muslim majority country, the Rohingya people can exercise their religion in consonance with the country’s population, but they are still considered as illegal migrants. Without access to the labor market, education, or healthcare, Rohingya refugees live in precarious conditions in cities, including in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

Because of these overwhelming obstacles, a group of Rohingya refugees created the Rohingya Society in Malaysia (RSM), an organization dedicated to serving Rohingya refugees, by partnering with the UNHCR and other local and international NGOs. Their objectives include: eradicating illiteracy, helping women gain employment, providing healthcare support, and assisting youth to achieve higher education and gain professional skills through basic training programs.


  • Read more about the crisis in Somalia and the context of Somali refugees :

Food insecurity in SomaliaSince the outbreak of civil war in 1991, Somalia has been plunged into deep political, social, and economic chaos, a result of numerous clashes, multiple famines, numerous deprivations (food, medical care, etc.), fragmentation of the country, and so on. In three decades, the conflict has caused thousands of deaths and the displacement of over one million Somali people from their home country. These Somali refugees have fled primarily to Kenya and Ethiopia, but also to Malaysia.

About 2,000 Somali refugees currently live in Malaysia, where refugees are considered illegal migrants. The Somali community is particularly vulnerable, because many of them are single mothers and children who are unable to communicate in either English or Malay. In addition, because of their illegal status, adults are not allowed to work, young children cannot attend local schools, and young people between the ages of 18 and 35 are unable to attend vocational or technical training.

Somali refugees live in precarious conditions in cities, especially in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur, and persistently face racism from potential employers and landlords, which makes even finding a safe place to live, difficult. The cost of healthcare and language barriers pose overwhelming challenges for refugees to receive healthcare in Malaysia. In addition, refugees also face a persistent risk of arrest and deportation.

This is why Somali refugees created the Somali Refugee Community Malaysia (SRC), to support members of their own community: to teach English and Math, basic computer skills, to organize sports events, community gatherings…

Refugees Migration route

We have already begun working with both of these organizations and look forward to sharing more with you soon. Please keep an eye out for continued updates!

If you wish to support the URBAN REFUGEES’ team, and our continued work with these refugee communities, please click here.


In today’s age of technology, SMS messages are hardly cutting-edge.  But for one group, they are changing (and potentially saving) lives.  In the developing world, where over 80% of refugees live, for many, access to smartphones and internet connectivity can be a challenge.  As we are learning, the grassroots, refugee-led community centers we work with utilize common communication channels like WhatsApp and Viber to share information with their community members, including information about available services, job opportunities, travel routes, or other crucial tips, including updates from UN agencies and relief organizations.

Those without smartphones or internet access are cut off from these critical dialogues.  For them, SMS text messaging is a lifeline, also enabling them to maintain contact with family, friends, and community members.  URBAN REFUGEES has been committed to supporting the most vulnerable within the urban refugee population, and our latest project is no exception.  SMS Up is a group messaging service that enables users to send SMS Messages to multiple recipients using a single mobile phone number.  In other words, it provides a platform for community leaders to share time-sensitive and valuable information via text.

SMS Up projectSMS Up project

The SMS Up Project will proceed in three stages, and the URBAN REFUGEES team is currently working on the first stage, which consists of interviews with members of the Afghan and Somali refugee community in Kuala Lumpur to assess their communication habits, challenges, and needs.  (In the next phase, we will incorporate what we’ve learned to develop the SMS App in a way that will serve as the most effective communication platform for urban refugees, and then in the final stage, we will provide training to community members on the use of the app and begin rolling it out.)

Vidya carrying out testingSMS Up application is being developed by Volunteer Developer Duncan Walker, based in London. URBAN REFUGEES is working with 2 different CBOs on this project : the Afghan Community Center and the Somali Refugee Committee, both in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Vidya Ramkumar, URBAN REFUGEES’ SMS Up Project Lead has been leading the interview process with community members, and her preliminary research has found that feature phones are less prevalent than we expected, as many community members prioritize smartphone purchases to keep in touch with long-distance family and friends.  Many, however, have limited access to internet connectivity, since data plans can be cost-prohibitive for many community members to purchase and maintain.  Others only have wifi at home, which means their access to messages is limited to morning and evening, and time-sensitive information is often lost.

Testing Farsi script in an SMS Up messageVidya also reports that community members’ information priorities revolve around updates from UNHCR as well as persistent concern about whereabouts and intentions of local police.  It is important to note that Malaysia does not recognize the refugee status, so fear of police is a daily reality.  Additionally, job and housing opportunities are critical for the refugee community, and updates about friendly employers and housing options comprise important threads of conversation traffic on both communities’ group message boards.

Our team has also found that communication of this kind of information tends to be top-down.  Community leaders have the closest connection to UNHCR and other for information sources, and then pass updates on to their community.  The Afghan Community Center primarily uses Viber to communicate, and has 192 people and counting in their main communications group.  According to our interviews, ACC leaders are keen to integrate SMS Up in their communications to ensure they’re reaching everyone in their community.

The Somali Refugee Commitee currently uses Facebook as their primary means of communication, but faces many challenges including difficulty determining read receipts, etc. and limited visibility in members’ timeline feeds.  One Somali leader told Vidya: “Even if it costs money, I would use SMS Up because it Checking how SMS Up messages display across both feature and smart phoneswould give me the satisfaction of knowing it reached our entire audience.”  The app would also facilitate two-way communication between community members and leaders—something the Somali community currently does not have access to.

SMS Up is part of our Urban Refugee Incubation Program (URIP), which aims to strengthen the capacities of urban refugee community based organizations (CBOs) that often struggle to share information with their community and to self-organize.  This impedes them from acting as reliable relays with the humanitarian community. By facilitating the work of CBOs, SMS Up will also indirectly facilitate the work of the humanitarian community with refugees.  We look forward to sharing updates as the program continues to unfold.

If you wish to support us, here is the way !

Our first pilot project with the Afghan Community Center (ACC) has flown by—and the bittersweet moment of our final meeting has arrived.

The URBAN REFUGEES team meets with the Afghan Community Center for One Final SessionDuring the past six months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we’ve been working closely with the ACC’s leaders in a series of trainings to amplify their organizational capacity. We’ve seen a tremendous evolution in this organization within the few months we’ve worked together.  It’s safe to say that the results have exceeded our expectations!
(To read more about our results, click here)

The URBAN REFUGEES team has worked hard with this resourceful community, and we thought the best way to gauge the success of our program was to ask the leaders directly.

In this final meeting, we asked them,In which area do you think the ACC improved since the beginning of the incubator program?”


Razia• Razia:

Thanks to URBAN REFUGEES, we now have a website.
Also, at the beginning, we had very few programs, and now we have many programs for our community.


Madhi• Mahdi:

The first thing we learned was how to create rules for the organization.  Now we understand how to get information and how to share it to reach our goals.
This is really the guidance we needed. Thanks for your assistance and help, we will never forget it.


Taher• Taher:

We learned how to request support from donors and now we know how to create a strong proposal. This is very important, because we didn’t know anything about how to approach a donor.
Before we wanted to reach our goals as individuals, now we want to achieve our goals as a team. People trust us because we manage projects for the community.



• Ahmed:

We realized how much we can achieve in a short time.


Ali• Ali Akbar:

Now we have more experience, we know how to write emails.
We are stronger because we are united and work as a team. This is thanks to URBAN REFUGEES.


Haji• Haji:

Now we know how to conduct programs and we have the confidence to communicate with the external world. Before, we were trying to create programs, but didn’t know how to do it.
Confidence and trust from the community is key and now people trust us.


Sacharifi• Sharifi:

Now we know what the needs of our community are.
Before you came, we thought we were doing everything right. Now we know what our pitfalls and areas of improvements are and how to work on them.



We met so many wonderful people in the Afghan Community; working with them was the best way to get to know them and their stories.  There are so many skills and so much promise and passion within the community.  We are delighted to have been part of the journey with them.
Finally, as any end implies a new beginning, in January we will launch two new programs in Kuala Lumpur with the Burmese and Somali communities!

Please keep an eye out for continued updates!

Finally, if you are inspired by this grassroots work in urban refugee communities and wish to support us, please click here.

The URBAN REFUGEES team with the ACC (Afghan Community Center)The URBAN REFUGEES team with the ACC (Afghan Community Center)

The 6th Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR6) :The 6th Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR6) took place in Bangkok end 2016, on the theme of “Building on Positive Practices.”

URBAN REFUGEES had the opportunity to attend this unique event, which drew together 150 members of national and international NGOs, community-based refugee organisations, and researchers from 24 countries across the globe.


The 6th Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR6) :

Participants shared best practices throughout the event, and leaders from community-based organisations were especially active during those 3 days, with many opportunities to participate and share stories from their communities during workshops and discussions.

During the event, another theme emerged vividly : the growing need for a platform identifying NGOs’ best practices.


The 6th Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR6) :

For URBAN REFUGEES, this concretely confirms the utility and significance of our Good Practices platform, designed expressly for this purpose : for NGOs who support urban refugees to share best practices.

You can learn more about this platform by accessing it here:


The 6th Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR6) :The 6th Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights (APCRR6) :

Please click here to view the full report of the APCRR6

It’s hard to believe we launched our pilot project with the Afghan Community Center (ACC) six months ago!  As the project comes to a close, we are delighted to share with you the results of our collaboration.

The ACC has already submitted two funding requests to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—which were both accepted and fully funded!  This means the Afghan community will now benefit from sewing and cooking classes for women, which will enable them to find work and provide a means of support for their families.

Numerous successes within the ACCMotivated by the success of their first two submissions, the leaders have submitted two additional funding requests to the UNHCR. The first is for baking classes, so that women can learn to bake at home and sell bread to their community. The other proposal is for IT classes, which would teach valuable skills to community members, including building and editing resumes, searching the internet for employment opportunities, finding housing, and other online services.

In addition to amplified program offerings, the ACC has also greatly improved its capacity to collaborate with partners. The leaders of the community have recently been visited by potential partners coming from South Korea and have held the meeting very professionally.

Numerous successes within the ACCCommunication within the community has also vastly improved, streamlining their program offerings enabling greater access to the center, and increasing trust and transparency with community members.  New communication initiatives include: monthly newsletters, and clear communication about the selection process of leaders, giving them more legitimacy. As a result of these communication efforts, ACC members are now more inclined to get involved in their community. For instance, volunteers come regularly to help clean the office or fix things, and some even contribute financially to the office (water, electricity) by contributions via a donation box.

Additionally, ACC leaders have created a database which lists all community members. They can therefore immediately know the identity of someone who has been arrested by the police and contact their partner organizations right away so that they can intervene on the community member’s behalf.  Refugees are still considered illegal in Malaysia, and fear of interference with law enforcement is a persistent reality of life for ACC community members.

p1040854One of the most rewarding results of our work is a less tangible effect that has become clear through our close collaboration with the ACC team : we can see that our program has had a positive psychological impact.  The community leaders are highly committed, and we can see that their confidence, optimism, and sense of peace had greatly increased as our program comes to a close.  They regularly have new ideas to improve the lives of their community members, and we are confident in their continued success moving forward.

A powerful shift has taken place within the Afghan community since the start of the URBAN REFUGEES pilot project—and the community continues to thrive and grow ! Every day, we see this success as validation of our grassroots model : collaborating with urban refugees in supporting their own communities.

Numerous successes within the ACC

For its first pilot project currently taking place in Malaysia, the URBAN REFUGEES team has been working on creating an interactive website template, which we can use and adapt to each of the subsequent refugee communities we work with. The website allows the community centre to organize their program offerings in a central way, along with community resources and other information and updates about their centre. The website framework we’ve created can of course be tailored to the specific offerings of each group, and can be customised easily by internet beginners.

Training on How to Create a WebsiteThanks to this model, the leaders of the Afghan community have created a website that matches their needs, outlines their community’s goals, and reflects the life of their community while also presenting a polished online presence and contact opportunities that will be key for future fundraising and networking outreach.

Those ACC members who participated in the website workshop were all motivated to realize this project. They selected their favourite pictures, created the content they wanted to share, and finally started the most challenging part : writing the text in English.

Training on How to Create a WebsiteThe workshop was highly animated and effective, and every member felt invested in the project. Each of the participants voiced their priorities and concerns by telling their stories, their dreams, and the problems they face every day. In the end, they were able to create the ideal website for their purposes, with the guidance and support of the URBAN REFUGEES team.

This new site will amplify the ACC’s visibility, allowing them to explain to the world who they are, the mission of their organization, which activities they offer, andTraining on How to Create a Website it will also allow them to collect donations directly through the site.

The training on how to create a website was the most successful training so far with the ACC members ! The URBAN REFUGEES team is very proud of this new achievement and looks forward to re-creating the experience with future community groups.

>> To see the ACC’s new website, please visit:

Training on How to Create a Website

As you know, consistent sources of sustainable funding are critical for the survival of refugee communities around the world. So when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently put out a call for proposals, the Afghan Community Center (ACC) was very interested in the opportunity.

But the call was for refugee organizations to access courses on plumbing and air conditioning repair, which simply aren’t viable job markets for refugees here in Malaysia.

Instead, read between the lines of UNHCR’s call for proposals and saw that the intention was to allocate funds to support the most cohesive and well-planned projects that would provide tangible positive change and sustainability to refugee communities.

sewing classThe ACC was eager to use this as an opportunity to learn the skill of proposal-writing, and invited us to collaborate with them to plan two projects for their community.

We began by consulting the community to see what they needed most, and quickly learned that some women already had strong skills, especially in cooking and sewing—and decided to build a program more closely tailored to the members of their community.

The group then described its vision for the project and defined its goals, identified potential problems, planned tasks, and estimated costs—eventually submitting two full project proposals to UNHCR that represented very different courses from what the original call proposed. The group decided to build on the skills that existed within their community, and requested support for cooking lessons and sewing lessons.

sewing classIn the end, both projects were approved and fully funded by UNHCR !

Now, 20 Afghan women will follow a 6-month course in the field they choose, which will be taught by Madhi, one of the ACC’s leaders and a refugee himself. Soon, the course participants will be able to use their newfound skills to secure a source of income, thus assuring the financial safety of their family.

Thanks to our collaboration, the ACC is now equipped to navigate the often-tricky opportunities for funding through organizations like UNHCR. This is an absolutely critical skill that will ensure the sustainability of the ACC far into the future.

It also represented a major step for URBAN REFUGEES, illustrating in a very tangible way that our incubator is working. By finding sources of funding, the ACC can open its doors to an increasing number of people with an enhanced offering of courses and resources, thus improving the lives of urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur.

If you wish to support us, here is the way!

sewing class          sewing class

As seen in :

They support us :