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This U of T PhD student wants to help Syrian refugees – with technology designed for them

Computer science PhD student Dina Sabie is a refugee interpreter and sponsor. She is designing technologies to help Syrian refugees integrate into their Canadian communities (photo by Ryan Perez).

University of Toronto PhD student Dina Sabie is interested in designing technology to help Syrian refugees navigate their new lives in Canada. The first step, she says, is recognizing the barriers they face.

When we say there are cultural differences, it's not only the traditions or customs, but also the way they use technology,” says Sabie, a researcher in human-computer interaction in the department of computer science’s Dynamic Graphics Project lab.

“They don’t use their phones the same way we do. They use it for communicating with their family and friends. When I tell them there’s an app to find public transit, they’ve never used it.”

Sabie and Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, an assistant professor of computer science, have co-authored a study, Understanding Access beyond Information and Commodities: A Case Study of Refugees in Canada. The findings will be presented at the Association of Computing Machinery’s international conference on human factors in computing systems (ACM CHI) beginning Saturday in Montreal.

Sabie, who also works with refugees, cites the example of families who moved to Toronto where their sponsors lived. When they relocated to the suburbs, they had to figure out their new surroundings – including the challenge of using public transit.

In their home country, Sabie says, they walked or travelled by taxi. Public transit, if available, was mostly used by men, so it was unlikely women would immediately use transit here.

“A lot of them stayed within a two-kilometre radius of their apartment, or they just know one bus, one way, that will take them to the mall,” Sabie says. "If you're in Mississauga you can visit Oakville. You can visit Scarborough. But they don't know how to navigate. They just stick within their comfort zone. If you don’t teach them from the beginning, it's like they're scared of it.”

Sabie knows first-hand the struggles of integrating into Canadian life. She is Iraqi and immigrated to Canada with her family from the United Arab Emirates. Over the past two years, she has acted as a refugee immigration adviser and interpreter for both Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Helping her cousin and his wife, who were in Jordan, with their refugee application inspired her to obtain two certificates in refugee sponsorship from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.  

“In the Middle East, they’re used to having lawyers, or litigators, who do everything for you. But here in Canada, you can just fill out the forms yourself as the Government of Canada offers detailed instructions. You don't have to go to a lawyer. So they didn't believe me when I told them, 'I will do it for you.'”

Sabie studied architecture at U of T – both her parents teach architectural technology at Humber College – and she picked up computer science when she needed another subject to finish her undergraduate degree.

“I didn’t know what to take. My sister [Samar Sabie] was at U of T in architecture and computer science. She said, ‘Why don't you try this? It's fun.’ Honestly, I’d never heard of computer science at that time. But I started, and I really liked it.”

Both Sabie sisters pursued a master of architecture at U of T’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. Their thesis was an analysis of old refugee camps, current camps, and a design for the future. She researched the past, while her sister looked forward.

“The oldest refugee camps in the Middle East, in Palestine, were established in the late 1940s. Refugee camps are thought of as temporary, but in reality they are never temporary. Especially if they house thousands of thousands of people. They’re usually not allowed to leave. They have children. And so the city grows and grows.”

Sabie says the skills she learned in computer science applied to her architecture studies, such as designing algorithms for smart buildings. After graduating and disliking the 9-to-5 routine at an architectural firm, she decided to return to research, but this time in computer science.

“I’m doing my PhD in computer science because I think there are more possibilities and more resources to help me do what I want to do,” she says. Her sister is also pursuing a PhD at Cornell University.

Ahmed, Sabie's graduate supervisor, is excited about the potential of the research to generate innovative technologies.

Sabie says that over the past five years studies have shown what should be done, which services are lacking and what funding is needed.Technological solutions so far have been limited to the health sector.

Differences in customs are a key factor in finding ways for refugees to integrate into their new community.

“We need not only translation of words. You want something that can translate some gestures and behaviours.”

She gives the example of a three-year-old boy who kissed the hand of his sponsor. The sponsor was shocked and the child’s mother worried the family had given offence. But they could not communicate this, so Sabie was asked to help clarify that it was quite normal. The young boy felt the sponsor was like a mother to him.

Among the technologies Sabie is hoping to design is a storytelling website where refugees can anonymously share – and let go – of their personal stories, and an application to help them navigate the resources to further their education.

“Most refugees stopped their education after middle school. You can't just give them a brochure for a college and tell them – pick whichever subject you want. They look at the brochure like, ‘What is this?’ We have to simplify it for them.”

“We could always write brochures in Arabic. And we think that might help. But that's not enough. Just a really simple app they can even have fun with – what are you interested in?”

For Sabie, this work is very personal.

“When we came to Canada, we found help and we would not be here without the people who helped us,” she says.