Meeting refugees in Turkey with the SDGia: What We Learnt.

Talking directly to refugees in Turkey who have been to hell and back was an extremely emotional experience for us. 

Being able to put ourselves in the shoes of people affected by displacement and identity-related problems is key in our journey to craft a solution inclusive for all.

For the past two months, Tykn’s co-founders, Jimmy J. P. Snoek and Khalid Maliki, along with consultant Evan Yap-Peraza, have been traveling throughout the country  for the SDG Impact Accelerator.

This accelerator, led by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UNDP, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Eczacıbaşı Holding, Limak Holding and the World Food Programme, is looking for Digital Identity solutions that allow refugees to access basic services and means of livelihood.

The importance of having boots on the ground

What frequently happens, when innovating, is that innovators talk about problems they have never seen before. Most people have never seen the problems they are trying to solve up close. The reason why it’s so important to have boots on the ground is because there is a difference between “knowing” and “understanding”. We tend to use these words interchangeably. We watch the news and say “I understand what happened in Syria”. But we don’t. We know about it. 

This is a big misconception. We think we understand and we try to create a solution, drawn from expectations and assumptions. But it all changes the moment we set our boots on the ground. Because all of a sudden we are talking with people who suffer from it. It’s real. It’s not a story on the news. To truly understand what’s going on, we have to go and experience the problem second hand. On the ground there’s no filter.

Zooming in on the problem

Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world. Almost 4 million people. And 97% of those refugees live in the cities among the local people, not in refugee camps. Imagine, all of a sudden, incorporating 4 million people in your civil infrastructure and the tremendous implications of that. Those people need services, products and healthcare. And they don’t speak the local language. The system needs to adapt too.

Blockchain Consultant, Evan Yap-Peraza

Sitting in a focus group with 12 refugees is an emotional experience. The first thing all of them ask is “what are you going to do for me now?”. We were looking people in the eye who have been to hell and back. Living in Aleppo. Buildings collapsed with their family members in it. Who have lost everything. People who cannot work and their children ages 9 and 10 have to work in a factory full-time for just $60 a month. 

Truly understanding the problem is realising that the biggest challenges these people face have nothing to do with technology. It’s about surviving. 

Solving the problem is not about changing the entire system because the current state of their identity management is weak. It’s about delivering value that positively affects one aspect of these people’s lives. And that could be even in the simplest of things.

These refugees are holding paper-based identities issued by the Turkish government. The papers are in Turkish and the refugees speak Arabic. Refugees don’t understand the language so they can’t read the papers. There’s a lot of bureaucratic processes and all of them go through the administrative offices. They speak Turkish, the refugees don’t. 

If we zoom in on their problem we realise that the biggest change we can make is the simplest change we can make: a digital version of their identities in Arabic language. An identity protected from loss, theft or fraud but also one that provides them with access to information in another language.

Tykn co-founder, Jimmy J. P. Snoek

This problem in accessing information was one of the major insights we brought from our experience in SDGia.

We also learnt that innovation in this field is achieved best with small operational change that provokes large social impact. It’s not about going to the system and saying “whatever you are doing now is wrong”. Yes it’s wrong because a lot of people are suffering from it but we can’t change it overnight. We need to take incremental steps. Being also aware that it is a coordination game. We need the refugees on our side, the government on our side and the institutions too. Having a perfect idea is not enough. It’s the ability to coordinate effectively between all these parties that will determine the success of our implementation.

Khalid Maliki (Tykn co-founder), Jimmy J. P. Snoek and Evan Yap-Peraza

We would like to thank the SDG Impact Accelerator and all our fellow participating digital identity start-ups Gravity Earth, Sertifier, and ZAKA.


If you’re keen on reading more about how blockchain technology can bring privacy and security to digital identity, here’s an in-depth guide on Identity Management with Blockchain.

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