Chris – Denmark / US
Posted: Oct 21 2014
We recently sat down with Chris, co-founder of Refunite, to learn about the amazing work this NGO is doing across the world.
Where are you from?
I’m Danish, but I now spread my time over Copenhagen, San Francisco and Nairobi, as those are the main offices of my organization. My daughter is half-French, so I spend about half of my time in Southern France.
And you’ve lived in Bangkok before?
Yes, between 1999-2004. I did some writing, some traveling and a few other projects.
What’s your favorite thing about Bangkok?
All the street stalls for food. That’s the best thing. I like going down the river, just getting on any boat and seeing the riverside float by. One thing I think people miss out on everywhere is walking. Just leaving the main areas, go to a random station and walk along. That’s how you really see a city. What I like the most about Bangkok is that it’s so multilayered. You have these different layers for tourists, high-class people, working class etc. Get out there and explore.
Tell us about your organization Refunite.
I founded it with my brother eight years ago. We help reunite separated refugee families. Families often get separated in the wake of war. A father might run with two children in one direction, while a mother with three children runs in another. They end up in different camps, sometimes in different countries and there was previously no technology infrastructure to collect, curate and distribute information on these families. We provide a mobile platform to collect information and eventually reconnect people.
We partner with humanitarian organizations to spread the network and with mobile operators to get in touch with people. We send out text messages to millions of subscribers and people can use it for free. A lot have mobile phones, so we made our technology accessible by SMS. As people use our platform themselves, searching and adding information, it gives a strong sense of empowerment.
Worldwide we’re currently helping about 350,000 people, making us the world’s largest missing persons network. We’re mostly active in East Africa, but we’re increasingly moving into the Middle East to deal with refugees from Syria.
The organization is very technology focused, with engineers hired from major tech companies and run as a tech startup. We are funded by philanthropists and work in close partnership with tech firms who provide platforms, equipment and local knowledge.
We do massive data crunching. Everyone gives information about birthplace, clan, tribe and last seen location, but we keep the personal details confidential. Then we match people up through our database and make the contact. It’s almost like a social media network giving friend suggestions. The thing is, these people don’t know what ‘online’ is. So we’re building a bridge to the online world, helping them connect.
How did you end up starting Refunite?
In 2005, my brother and me met Mansour, a 12-year-old boy from Afghanistan. He escaped war and became separated from his five siblings and parents. He’d gone through Eastern Europe and eventually ended up in Denmark. We figured we could find his family. We worked with established organizations, but none of them had any IT infrastructure. No collaboration, no sharing of information across borders or even between camps. To make a long story short, in the end we managed to find Mansour’s brother who had also been separated. He was living as a stateless person in Russia, essentially a slave. We smuggled him to Moscow where he hid in a mafia-controlled Afghan bazaar. We went there in November 2005 and finally the brothers were reunited. That moment was so powerful and would prove pivotal to us founding REFUNITE.
My brother had been filming the process for a documentary and when we came home we sat down and looked at all the problems. Us, two Western Europeans, with every opportunity when it comes to access to information, education and good connections to authorities, could barely find one missing boy. How would others be able to do it? Where was the Google for refugees?
We started Refunite thinking it would be a six month project, and now we’ve been at it for eight years. Neither my brother nor me had any tech or humanitarian background. We just came with a personal perspective, went out and knocked on companies’ doors, asking them to help. And it’s really grown. We’ve already helped 10,000s of families. We hope to work ourselves out of a job as soon as possible.
And how to make the biggest impact in this transformational work? Wearing a Tailor On Ten black Dormeuil or charcoal VBC Super 120s suit of course! Getting through the Scandinavian winter is a (ice cold) breeze in an angora/wool overcoat. Not to be namedropping, but Chris recently wore a Tailor On Ten suit during a major presentation at The Clinton Foundation, with the big man himself. “Well, nice to meet you too, Mr. President!” (Perhaps we should ask Chris to drop Bill our card, looks like he could use a good tailor too…).
Find out more about Refunite here.