When 12-year-old Hamse Warfa arrived in a Kenyan refugee camp, he received a piece of paper with a number, which he used to get food rations and other services. For him and his parents — former business owners in Mogadishu — the papers came to symbolize a lost identity.
Now a doctoral candidate and Bush Foundation fellow in the Twin Cities, Warfa has developed software that he hopes will allow refugees and others to create a digital "economic identity," helping them track financial transactions and build credit. Along with the likes of Google, MasterCard and Microsoft, Warfa's company, BanQu Inc., is taking part in an initiative the Obama administration announced this week to get the private sector more involved in helping refugees.
"When you own your data, you become a dignified human being," he said.
Earlier this month, Obama announced a goal of resettling 110,000 refugees in the United States in the coming fiscal year — a 30 percent increase that drew sharp criticism from congressional Republicans and others. The Obama administration is also making a push to get other countries and businesses to pitch in more to help the world's 21 million refugees, more than at any time since World War II.
At a summit in New York on Tuesday, the administration announced commitments from 50 U.S. companies, including BanQu. The company's co-founder, Ashish Gadnis, an immigrant from India, attended the event.
Warfa says shared experiences with extreme poverty and displacement brought the men together to launch the company.
"In the camp, we became statistical figures," said Warfa. "We lost our identity and our dignity."
Warfa, who is completing a doctorate in public administration at Hamline University, left a job with Margaret A. Cargill Foundation to start BanQu. The effort won a $350,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Warfa says there are now more than 2.5 billion "unbanked" people worldwide who leave no digital trace when they earn or spend money and thus remain largely excluded from the global economy. A refugee in Kenya would be able to access the tool Warfa and his team envisioned using a cellphone, a bit like logging on to Facebook. Then they could connect with family members in the United States, building "networks of trust."
BanQu would record remittances and other financial transactions, creating a digital footprint that could eventually allow that refugee to take out a loan and start a small business. One day, Warfa hopes, that refugee will be readier to ease into life outside refugee camps.
Warfa traveled to Kenya twice this year to prepare for a pilot project. He is also reaching out to Twin Cities resettlement agencies about the possibility of making BanQu available to arriving refugees; he thinks the software can help better track services they receive and speed up building a credit history. He's also making other allies.
At Twin Cities nonprofit Prepare + Prosper, which provides low-income residents free tax assistance and other services, Warfa offered input on a new initiative to help clients save and build credit. He spoke with the nonprofit's executive director, Tracy Fischman, about the importance of trusting relationships in new immigrant communities.
"Hamse is somebody who's really rooted in community as a thought leader and innovator," Fischman said.
To learn more about BanQu, visit www.banquapp.com.
Mila Koumpilova 612-673-4781.