By Kristin Kalning
Leila Toplic spent many years working in technology, first at Adobe Systems in Seattle, which she joined after graduating from Wellesley College, and then at Microsoft, where she spent 11 years. But Leila got her first taste of computers in a rather unexpected place: A refugee camp in southern Hungary, where she and her family lived for a year after escaping the war in Bosnia in the mid-90’s.
With her unique background, Leila was a natural fit to manage NetHope’s program for refugee children and youth. Leila currently heads up the No Lost Generation (NLG) Tech Task Force, an initiative aimed at using technology to support the needs of refugee children and youth. In the edited excerpt of an interview conducted earlier this month, Leila describes the work of the Task Force, how she moved from a student to a teacher, and why she thinks NetHope is uniquely positioned to enact change in refugee education.
A. The NLG initiative was launched in 2013 to address the needs of the children and youth that were affected by Syria and Iraq crises. It focuses on three pillars: education, youth and adolescents, and child protection. Earlier this year, NetHope and NLG came together to set up a task force to connect tech solutions and resources with the needs of refugee children and youth. We do that by facilitating cross-sector, project-based collaborations with NGOs like DRC and private sector companies like Microsoft, HP, and Coursera.
Q: After being born and raised in Bosnia and enduring the subsequent war, what finally prompted you and your family to flee the country when you were 18?
A. The war in Bosnia started when I was 14, and it was a really bloody ethnic conflict. We stayed until I turned 18, because we were hoping that the war would end and that we wouldn’t need to leave our home. Nobody wakes up one day and says they want to flee everything they love and know and want to become refugees. People who become refugees see no other choice.
It became clear in the summer of 1995, given all the terrible things that were happening in Bosnia, that we needed to find a way out to save our lives. We fled on buses through the humanitarian corridor that was set up in the battle zone, and ended up in Hungary, where UNHCR took us to a refugee camp in Southern Hungary. It was former military barracks set up for refugees coming from the former Yugoslavia.
Q: How important was education in your plans for yourself?
A. During the war, I found refuge and hope in education. Seeing that everything else could be taken away from you except for what you know, I invested all my energy and time in education. It also provided an escape from the realities of a horrific ethnic conflict around me. Education became my single purpose.
When I came to the refugee camp, I knew how fortunate I was to be safe and have my family with me. There I saw firsthand how displacement of children and youth and exposure to conflict can have a devastating effect on their well-being. I knew then that I had to do something to help them find a sense of purpose and a path to a better future. Education seemed like the right way to start. I found it incredibly rewarding to be able to go from focusing on my own education for four years as a way of preserving my own sanity to now having the opportunity to do something for others.
Q. How has education in refugee camps changed since then?
A. What’s interesting is that refugee children and youth today are facing some of the same challenges we were facing in the mid-90’s. A traditional education approach often doesn’t work in the refugee setting -- schools cannot be built fast enough, teachers aren’t always available where you need them, and kids cannot commit to years of formal education when they don’t know where they’re going to be the next day.
Fortunately, technology is one of the things that has evolved over time. I am optimistic that tech can play an important role in making education and skills-training available to millions of people, but also I know that tech alone can’t address refugee needs as it relates to education and livelihoods. We still need teachers, safe learning spaces like classrooms, and all the support that refugee children and youth need to learn effectively.
Another change is a growing engagement from the private sector. Companies - large and small, established and startups - are coming together to support the cause of refugees with their resources, expertise, business practices, and innovations. I saw that firsthand when I was at Microsoft, supporting our work on Community Technology Access centers in places like Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya (shown in picture above), and I see that even more now through my work at NetHope and many of our private sector partners.
Q. How can technology make access to that education easier and better?
A. The scale of the refugee problem is much larger today than it was in the mid-90s, and the average amount of time that people spend as refugees has increased to 17 years. The complexity of meeting the needs of each refugee is high, and the traditional humanitarian model can no longer cope with that.
There is no one sector or single solution that can solve the refugee crisis -- it requires a collaborative, cross-sector approach. And, this is exactly what NetHope has done really well over the past 15 years – evaluating what place technology has in a humanitarian context, and then engaging in cross-sector collaboration to ensure that all stakeholders are represented (including refugees!). Working together, we can address the humanitarian challenges and build the capacity to scale and sustain the programs over time.
If this story inspires you and you would like to invest in NetHope’s work supporting refugees, we welcome your donation.