An Interview with Refugee Challenge Jury Sonia Ben Ali

‘A winning idea is one that integrates the voice of urban refugees themselves’

Published in Refugee Challenge by

Sonia Ben Ali is the force of nature behind the organisation URBAN REFUGEES, and a Jury member of the WDCD Refugee Challenge. In this interview we spoke about her take on most important issue designers should tackle in this crisis and what it is she’s looking for in a winning idea.

In less than a month’s time (May 20, 2016), the call for submissions in the WDCD Refugee challenge will close, and the Feedback & Nomination phases of the competition will begin. During this time, we’ll be asking for the your help & input to vote for the proposals you consider the best. Based on the outcome, a shortlist of 20-30 entries will be established, and then put before our international jury of renowned designers and experts.

Enter Sonia Ben Ali. In the following excerpt from our conversation, she shares with us her insights and expectations on the refugee crisis & the Challenge alike.

Q: What made you decide to join this challenge as a jury member?
I find the What Design Can Do challenge particularly innovative in its approach, as designers and developers are not usually integrated into discussions related to refugee crisis. I think they have skills that can greatly help not only the refugees but also the humanitarian community who is often struggling to develop programs outside camps. Because they are ‘outsiders’, their vision is fresh and they can bring a new light to certain challenges, which is particularly interesting in such a context.

I wanted to join the challenge as a member of the jury because I think it is essential that these ideas match the realities of urban refugees and of NGOs working on the ground. I am very much looking forward to seeing all the ideas that this challenge brings about and to guide the participants in their work!

Q: What are you looking for in a winning idea?
A winning idea is one that matches a real need of urban refugees and / or of NGOs working to support them. Many solutions are being developed in the Tech world and beyond to help solve the refugee crisis but not all of them are aligned with actual needs.

A winning idea is also one that integrates the voice and concerns of urban refugees themselves. It is essential to enable urban refugees to have a place at the table and to make sure that they are active contributors to the solution, not only the beneficiaries.

Q: What do you consider to be the most challenging issue design should solve for refugees?
There are so many issues to solve! One of the most important one where design could make a difference is integration. Finding solutions to foster the integration of refugees within their host community is key, particularly when they live in cities. Refugees, on average, stay 17 years in exile, according to the UNHCR. Think about all the things you have done in your life these past 17 years and imagine you spent them in exile, in a foreign country, far from your homeland, culture and people. You would feel a very strong need to integrate within your host society. And I think this is where design can help: by creating, for example, long lasting spaces where refugees can meet, discuss with and build community projects with their host community and where social cohesion can be reinforced.

Q: Any story in relation to refugees you want to share?
Refugees I met in countries where I worked are people of an extraordinary resilience, who should be consulted much more in the design of solutions. One advice I would make to participants: seek feedback from refugees themselves!

Sonia Ben Ali started working with refugees and internally displaced persons in 2007. In 2012, Ben Ali co-founded URBAN REFUGEES in France together with designer David Delvalle to tackle the invisibility of urban refugees. The start-up NGO has become a force of advocacy for refugees around the world, and has recently launched its first field program focused on developing innovative digital solutions to support refugee self-help groups. More at

Submit your ideas by 20 May and see all the Jury Profiles at

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