Using the Web to Reunite Refugees

That dream, though, can only become a reality if enough people learn about the site and begin to use it. Refugees United has existed as an organization since 2005. During the first few years, the Mikkelsens dedicated their resources to building the Web platform -- done mostly with volunteer help -- and raising seed money to launch the site, a project helped immensely by two Danish foundations. Volunteers have translated the platform into 23 different languages, with an initial emphasis on African languages. The next language will be Bhutanese, prompted by the current wave of ethnic Nepalis arriving in the United States from the Himalayan country. The Bhutanese government stripped them of their citizenship in the early 1990s and they have lived in refugee camps ever since. Recently, Washington agreed to resettle 60,000 of them.

Getting the Word Out

Since the Web site's November, 2008 launch, though, the brothers have focused their attention on generating awareness about the site. A partnership with the public relations firm Ketchum PR has helped. Meanwhile, FedEx delivers flyers and posters to all corners of the world and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) provides the Mikkelsen brothers with free airfare. The idea is to raise awareness among NGOs already working with refugees so that they can get the word out.

"If we had actually sat down beforehand and made a list of all the things we had to do, we probably never would have done it," says Christopher.

The pair's dedication to helping refugees, however, belies that claim. David began working with refugees earlier this decade, teaching Danish to new arrivals and making a video to help them adjust to life in Copenhagen. During the filming, he met Mansour, a 17 year old who had fled Afghanistan. Five years earlier, Mansour's family had paid a trafficker to evacuate them from Kabul to Peshawar, located across the border in Pakistan.

The night before the family was scheduled to leave, a spot opened up on another vehicle. The trafficker asked Mansour's family to fill it and as the oldest son, Mansour, then 12, jumped aboard.

Nicknames, Pets and Birthmarks

By the time he met the Mikkelsen brothers, Mansour hadn't heard a thing from his family for over five years. Together, though, they began to search, eventually learning that Mansour's brother had been sold into slavery and was living without identity papers in the southwestern Russian city of Stavropol. Mansour is now in touch with his brother, but he still hasn't been able to track down the rest of his family.

Cases like that and the difficult searches they entail will persist despite Refugees United's arrival on the Web. But the Mikkelsens are hoping that, because the site protects the anonymity of its registered users -- particularly important for those who have crossed borders illegally -- many displaced people will begin using it. Instead of having to fill out forms full of personal information, those joining fill their profiles with details that only those close to them might be able to recognize -- things like childhood nicknames, names of pets and birthmarks.

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