Campaign: Global Citizen News

Why Refugees Need Phone Chargers - These Women Came Up With An Idea to Help

More than 11 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, and another 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian aid within Syria. Families that flee their homes have difficulty keeping in contact with loved ones, and finding a safe way forward. Disrupted families are therefore turning to mobile phones to stay safe and connected. Refugees often depend use them to access maps, translate unfamiliar languages, and even finding lost family members. Mobile phones also carry photos and memories--important links to a life left behind.

In numerous cases, a charged mobile phone has been shown to save lives. Refugees on sinking boats have helped coast guards find them by sending GPS signals from their mobile phones. Refugees also mobile devices to access maps and local information--even to send out warnings to reduce dependence on human traffickers.

The link mobile phones provide is not just important to refugees. They also provide an important link to the global community, allowing refugees to contact reporters and provide first-hand testimony about what is happening on the ground. A poignant example is Bana Alabed, the young Syrian girl who tweeted about life in war-torn Aleppo and bravely brought awareness to living conditions there; she could only do so with access to a well-charged device.

Mobile phone use is more common among refugees than expected. One study in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, which houses nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees, found that 86% of refugees interviewed owned a mobile phone. Charging these devices has become a growing need among refugees navigating precarious circumstances. Refugees report that finding outlets and internet hot spots are often the first things they search for when they get to safety, usually to let family members know they’re safe.

However, displaced people are most vulnerable to limited energy access. Without a way to keep these mobile phones charged, this lifeline for refugees becomes useless. Families searching for safety are unlikely to find an outlet to charge their phone or even a safe way to light a temporary shelter. Off-grid energy that fits the needs of the most vulnerable is needed more than ever.

Two inventors have designed a new product to respond to these evolving needs of refugees. Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta, founders of the solar start-up LuminAID, have developed a portable phone charger that doubles as a collapsible solar lantern. The PackLite Max 2-in-1 Phone Charger contains a high efficiency solar panel that can recharge phones and power the integrated lantern. A collapsible frame diffuses light and folds down to about the size of a paperback book -- and weighs even less.

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Through their company LuminAID, Anna and Andrea have been working to provide lights to refugees fleeing violence in Syria for the past two years, with pack-flat inflatable solar lanterns they first developed as a solution for victims of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. They grew their business to develop lightweight solar lighting for disaster relief and camping, and phone charging capability has been a frequent request from nonprofit partners.

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"When we were students first creating our technology in 2010, we designed it with the needs of disaster victims in mind. We wanted to provide comfort and safety after dark to those who had lost everything," says LuminAID co-founder Anna Stork. "It's 2017 now, and we live in an increasingly connected world -- there are actually more more mobile phones than people on the planet! With this campaign, we're expanding our mission beyond light to connection: making sure that people all around the world have not just light to read by, but a sustainable source of power to charge their devices and stay connected to loved ones and educational opportunities."

The new PackLite Max Phone Charger will allow refugees to charge their mobile phones to stay connected with loved ones, and can be inflated into a full-sized lantern that can output up to 150 lumens of light -- enough to light a refugee family's home or tent. The PackLite Max Phone Charger can run for up to 50 hours on the low lantern setting, so it will hold enough charge from a single sunny day to provide light over the course of a week for a family.

Their PackLite Max Phone Charger is also designed for rough use. Made of durable and eco-friendly TPU material, the solar charger is waterproof, dust-proof, has an emergency flashing feature, and even floats on water when inflated. LuminAID supplies pack-flat lanterns to international NGO’s like Shelterbox and Doctors without Borders, where the lights are stocked with supplies for disaster relief and humanitarian aid efforts. Last year, they worked with the United Nations Population Fund Nepal (UNFPA Nepal) to provide over 1,000 lights to women and girls after the Nepal Earthquake, through UNFPA Nepal's "Female-Friendly Spaces" program, which provided safe spaces for women, who were left particularly vulnerable without light after dark after the earthquake.

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In particular, the inventors expressed hope for the benefits that access to such a device could provide for refugee children. “We want to make sure that people all around the world have not just light to read by, but a sustainable source of power to charge their devices and stay connected to loved ones and educational opportunities," said co-founder Andrea Sreshta. Previous initiatives through LuminAID’s Give Light Get Light program (which allows customers to buy a light for themselves and sponsor one for families in need) have shown that safe light is an important step in access to education. Safe light lets children study in school houses with electrical access, or after dark without fire hazards or toxic fumes produced by other common light sources. The charging feature of the LuminAID solar light could also increase access to educational resources. According to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), over half of the world’s refugees are children.

The PackLite Max Solar Charger is available on Kickstarter until March 5th. The project was fully funded within hours on the first day, and has now raised over $100,000. A pledge of $35 or more gets you the solar charger for yourself, while a pledge of $75 or more is a “Get 1, Give 1” option to send a matching light to refugees. LuminAID is aiming to raise 1,000 lights for refugees through the campaign.

The solar lanterns raised during the Kickstarter campaign will be distributed through two of LuminAID’s nonprofit partners: SCM Medical Missions and the Karam Foundation. SCM Medical Missions provide medical aid, food, and relief supplies to refugees fleeing Syria to Greece and Jordan. They will be shipping a container of relief aid supplies to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan at the end of March, which will include the first shipment of lights raised through LuminAID’s campaign. SCM Medical Missions have already sent over 300,000 lbs of relief supplies and medical aid to Jordan alone, and have sent over 1,000 LuminAID lights to refugees in Greece previously.

"SCM is so pleased to be working with LuminAID to get solar lanterns into the hands of refugees in Greece and Jordan who don’t have a reliable and safe source of lighting." said Rita Zawaideh, CEO of SCM Medical Missions, "Not only are the lanterns addressing a safety issue (fires from gas lanterns) but as more children are getting enrolled in schools, the more they need to be able to study in the evenings after the sun has gone down. It’s so important to support the children as they get back to their studies as they truly are the future of Syria."

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Phone chargers raised through the campaign will be distributed by the Karam Foundation through their education projects this summer. The Karam Foundation works to support Syrian refugees through sustainable development and innovative education. They have already rebuilt and sponsored 30 schools, and supported the education of 8,000 refugee children.

LuminAID anticipates that the PackLite Max 2-in-1 Phone Charger will be available for retail sale in the coming months, but the Kickstarter campaign is active through March 5th. You can send a light to refugees or preorder one for yourself here.


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