How a small group of geeks led the Syrian refugee surge

In September 2015, President Obama raised the ceiling of refugees, many of them Syrian, who would be welcomed to the United States in the coming year from 70,000 to 85,000. While a wonderful humanitarian move, it also posed huge problems for the already-overwhelmed, byzantine systems in place to process refugee applications admissions. That's when the White House's crack tech team, the United States Digital Service, stepped in to help. The US Digital Service was born out of the disaster of Healthcare.gov, when the White House called in top-notch geeks from Silicon Valley and elsewhere to fix the disastrous Obamacare website. This year, they focused on how to get more refugees through the door. For a Webby Awards exclusive feature, I commissioned the talented journalist Lauren Smiley to tell the story of the US Digital Service and their sprint to bring in 85,000 refugees. From Lauren's feature:


When the photo of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkey beach appeared in his newsfeed, Jason Wu was getting restless. It was September of last year, and he’d just left his job as a product manager at Facebook’s Silicon Valley HQ—in some ways, exactly the kind of job he’d wanted back as a UC Berkeley computer science student. But at 29, having been ensconced in cush startup culture of T-shirt swag and free meals surrounding the challenging technical work, he was starting to mull a new question: “To what end?” Considering the options, he didn’t want to join one of the many mobile app companies proliferating in the valley that solved the problems of the same wealthy young people who make them. “I wanted something that was pretty different than what was being offered over there.”


He says “over there,” because he’s sitting in a conference room in Washington, D.C., where he works at the startup created by the White House: the United States Digital Service. Once Wu applied and was accepted, he signed up for its refugee project. “If I were one more person at Uber, how much of an impact would I make?” Wu says. “Versus one more person on a refugee program?”


"HOW A SMALL TROOP OF TECHIES LED THE U.S. SYRIAN REFUGEE SURGE" (Webbys)


(Image above from Brandon Stanton's incredible Humans of New York photos of Syrian refugees)

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