Yasmin Morais (CAS’19), Ensuring Education for Refugee Children

When she’s not busy being a BU student or writing poetry, Yasmin Morais (CAS’19) (middle) serves as Executive Director of RefEd, an education platform for refugee children. She and her team developed the idea in BU’s “Human Trafficking and Forced Migration” class. Their goal? To reduce this gap and ensure that every child has access to education, even while they migrate.

 

How do you create innovation?

I create innovation by using my privileges, skills, time and energy to respond to social problems around me in a creative, engaging and different way.  I am currently leading RefEd, an educational application that myself and my friends Albert and Khadija have developed to ensure access to education among children refugees. We did so with the help of amazing developers at BU. Using technology to reach migrants is innovative because it goes beyond the traditional classroom setting, it helps them feel connected to the rest of the world and it helps ensure their right to education.

In order to develop this idea, we had to think out of the box, learn new skills and connect with other innovators at BU and beyond. I believe innovation entails co-creation and creativity, and that’s what I look for every time I lead a project.

Who or what inspires you to create impact? 

I’m inspired by the lives of people I’m working with. Social impact needs to be co-created, not imposed or forced. In all past initiatives I have led, as well as current ones, I have sought to understand the needs, context, frustrations, and expectations of the people who will benefit from it. Their stories, testimonies, and criticisms are what keep me going.

How did RefEd get started? 

RefEd started in a classroom. My teammates and I were attending a class at BU called “Human Trafficking and Forced Migration”. At the class, we were split into different groups to tackle different aspects of the current refugee crisis. Our theme was education.

After researching, talking to specialists in the field, brainstorming and idealizing, we had an idea: to create an app with educational content for refugees, to close the gap of access to education they face as migrants. It didn’t take us much time to decide we wanted to take this idea beyond the class. We spoke to our professor, who became one of our mentors and we received a lot of support from BU to do so!

What problem are you hoping to solve with RefEd? 

In 2016, approximately 3.5 million children have not had access to education. According to a new report from the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, this number increased by half a million in one year. When compared to non-refugees, refugees have much fewer opportunities to continue their studies. For instance, only 1 in 4 refugees in secondary school have access to education. We are working to reduce this gap and ensure that every child has access to education, even while they migrate. By doing so, we want to give them a sense of security, normality and hope for a better future.

The RefEd team pitching at BU Spark! Demo Day.

What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle you had to overcome in your role or for your new venture? How did you do it? What did you learn from the experience?

We are still facing several obstacles. I think the main one is learning how to navigate bureaucracies to reach refugees who are out of school, including refugee camps and urban environments. We are overcoming it by getting in touch with friends and professionals in our international network, in order to obtain all the information we need.

Who do you turn to for mentorship and advice? 

I mainly turn to my mentors at BU and to my family. My mentors help me understand all steps of the innovation process, provide me awesome connections and research material. My family gives me encouragement to keep motivated, celebrates every small achievement with me and believes in me more than anyone.

Is there one major accomplishment you’re most proud of?

One of the most amazing things about creating a new venture is that every small step is a big accomplishment! I think my favorite one in this whole process was to see our pilot version ready, with our name, logo and characters on it. It was one of the moments of greatest joy I have felt in my entire life!

In addition, I was selected to participate at the Global Youth Summit, in Zurich, Switerzland, where I received mentorship, attended several workshops and shared knowledge with other young people from all over the world, who were also working on social impact. I started applying what I learned right way, got connected to an amazing international network and received a lot of encouragement. The summit only lasted for one week, but I am sure it is an experience I will never forget.

What advice would you give to someone starting their own innovation journey right now?

I would tell them my favorite quote: “If your dreams do not scare you, they’re are not big enough”. The person who said it is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female African president. I think of this quote every time I stay up at night, thinking about what RefEd could be in the future and every time I’m working on it. Do not be afraid to dream big!

Two years from now, what do you hope your venture has become? What keeps you motivated to get there?

I hope RefEd is available in every major application store (for free, or course), being used by refugees in several countries. I also hope we go from one to at least five full educational modules, that we can add professional educators and animators to our team, that we are able to raise awareness for the cause on social media and that we have a group of monthly donors to help us achieve those goals.

What’s next?

We are working on testing our pilot version in a refugee setting, probably a refugee camp. In order to do so, we need to work on authorization documents, raise funds and recruit volunteers to help us with a few tasks. This is going to be our major focus this semester.

When you’re not working on RefEd, what do you like to do for fun?

I love writing poems! My love for poetry started when I was about 12 years old. At 16, I published a poetry book through a Brazilian university. Poetry is my favorite way to express myself, my opinions and what fascinates me. I have written a second book, during my first year living in Boston. I haven’t published it, but maybe I will!