Hi-tech hope for refugees in Russia, thanks to UNHCR, Red Cross and Microsoft initiative

The world's first community technology centre for refugees and local disabled people opened today in the historic Russian City of St. Petersburg. A joint initiative by UNHCR, the Red Cross and Microsoft, the centre will provide an invaluable opportunity for refugees to fulfil their potential through access to technology and IT skills.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, April 15 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency, Red Cross and Microsoft launched a community technology learning centre in the historic city of St. Petersburg on Thursday. The first such centre of its kind, it will provide information technology (IT) access, skills training and education for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as local citizens with disabilities.

"This is a unique and important initiative," said Dennis Blair, UNHCR Deputy Representative in the Russian Federation, at the opening ceremony, attended by all three organizations, as well as local officials and some of the centre's first beneficiaries.

"As the world's first such community learning centre for refugees," Blair said, "it is a defining moment on the road to a truly inclusive information society, and in our five-year partnership with Microsoft. Working with committed, passionate and innovative people from the business community is enabling UNHCR to really solve problems and provide modern, lasting solutions."

The President of St. Petersburg Regional Branch of the Russian Red Cross Tatiana Lineva also attended the ceremony. "For local citizens with disabilities the Internet is a vital window to new skills and employment opportunities, and for refugees it is often the only link with their homeland," she said. "Initiatives like this IT laboratory will help to build the confidence of both groups and give them the chance to contribute socially and economically to a more inclusive and cohesive St. Petersburg."

The facility is located in the Professional-Rehabilitation Centre of the Labour and Social Security Committee of St. Petersburg, and is one of more than 300 Community Technology Learning Centres (CTLCs) across Europe, the Middle East and Africa that Microsoft has set up with over 200 local partners as part of its Unlimited Potential (UP) global community investment programme. However, the St. Petersburg Centre is the first one specifically earmarked for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as local people. The company has committed $1 billion in cash, software and employee time over the next five years to UP and other community and humanitarian initiatives.

The St. Petersburg CTLC is equipped with personal computers (PCs), a server, donated software and community staff trained by Microsoft employees to deliver an IT curriculum designed to provide students at the Centre with basic and advanced IT skills, as well as provide support for self-study and other community-building activities.

"The UNHCR and Red Cross do vital work and make a real difference to the lives of millions of people in need," said Jean-Philippe Courtois, Chief Executive Officer Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa. "The St. Petersburg Learning Centre marks another significant milestone in our long-term partnership with UNHCR, and the start of an exciting new partnership with the Red Cross. Our employees have a genuine passion and commitment for putting information technology to work to overcome big challenges and we are proud and honored to support them and our partners, here in St. Petersburg and around the world."

Cheenar Gul Khalil, head of the local Afghan Cultural Centre, said the facility is a "big gift" to Afghan refugees in St. Petersburg. "This is an excellent opportunity and I hope my children will also finish these courses which will provide us with the most sophisticated knowledge that is available these days."

Microsoft's partnership with UNHCR began in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis when a group of around 100 employees volunteered their time and knowledge to help UNHCR develop a portable refugee registration system, in partnership with

HP, Compaq, Canon, Mitsubishi, Screen Check BV and Security UK Ltd., to register more than half a million refugees and provide replacement identification papers.

Since then Microsoft employees have assisted UNHCR with several projects in the field, including development of Project PROFILE, a standard platform for refugee registration data at UNHCR field operations. In December 2003, UNHCR and Microsoft signed a long-term partnership agreement to extend their cooperation, including joint development of pilot learning centres in refugee camps.

Currently UNHCR and Microsoft are also conducting a feasibility study to establish three community technology learning centres in the cluster of three refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya. The centres would present an unprecedented and exciting opportunity for the 135,000 mostly Somali refugees, many of whom have been languishing in this remote and arid corner of eastern Kenya for more than a decade.

One major benefit of the skills learned in such community technology centres is that they are highly mobile, and refugees can make use of them either in their countries of asylum or when they return home.