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Life-saving rescue station for migrants among ideas showcased at Toronto conference

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star, Sept. 25, 2017.

Regina Catrambone’s life was forever changed in 2013 after she spotted a winter jacket floating in the water while vacationing in the Mediterranean with her family.

“That jacket was the most tangible sign of a humanitarian phenomenon, in a very bad way,” recalled the businesswoman from southern Italy, referring to the treacherous voyage by many African and Middle Eastern migrants across the Mediterranean Sea to continental Europe.

From running a family business conglomerate, Catrambone and her husband, Christopher, turned to founding the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) to save migrants’ lives at sea. They converted a Canadian fishing boat into a search-and-rescue vessel off Italian shores. To date, it has saved and assisted over 40,000 people.

The Catrambone’s humanitarian work is one of many examples of civic engagement that will be showcased at the annual 6 Degrees Citizen Space conference in Toronto. Hosted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, the event promotes strong citizenship and inclusion.

The three-day conference, starting Monday, features discussions about democracy in the “Age of Trump,” the new walls now resurrected between peoples and nations, and building a sense of belonging amid global migration. The event will be wrapped up with a gala to present the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship to renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

Montreal-based social entrepreneur Fabrice Vil, one of the conference speakers, said platforms such as 6 Degrees are important for sharing experiences, brainstorming ideas and building communities.

At a time when anti-immigrant nationalist sentiments are on the rise, grassroots efforts to build stronger citizenship and an inclusive society is more important than ever, said Vil, a trained lawyer and founder of Pour 3 Points, which trains sports coaches to double-up and be life coaches to disadvantaged youth.

“These conversations are very important. Mixing with people from different shapes, forms, socio-economic backgrounds and geography is very important,” said Vil, whose parents came to Canada from Haiti in the late 1970s. “Our society is shaped by having groups in touch with each other. We can learn so much by being open and inclusive.”

Josephine Goube’s own activism began when she launched a startup while studying at the London School of Economics to use artificial intelligence to help migrants apply for visas.

She believes xenophobia stems from the fear of economic impacts and the uncertainty of change. For the French native, technology offers unlimited opportunities for empowerment.

“Technology can create new solutions. A smartphone in hand can connect people with information from other locations in real time,” said Goube, CEO of London-based Techfugees, which connects refugees with the tech world and creates a database of initiatives that supports the creation of tech innovation for refugees and non-government organizations.

An app in Norway, for example, that offers a tool for newcomers and locals to connect for dinner and interact socially by texts on mobile devices helps foster a more connected community, she said.

“We have to meet halfway. It’s not just us doing all the work. We need to empower people to help themselves, too,” said Goube, whose organization is hosting its global summit in Paris in October.

Ramzi Jaber, another conference speaker, also relies on information technology for social change by “visualizing data” to expose human rights violations and institutionalized discrimination.

In 2012, the McGill University civil engineering grad launched Visualizing Palestine, a startup that demonstrates injustices by creating visual stories based on data and statistics produced by human rights groups and international organizations.

One illustration, based on studies and research, shows what happens to the body physiologically when a person is on hunger strike.

The group, co-founded by Jumana Al Jabri and Jessica Anderson, does data journalism and partners with civil society organizations.

“Our work lies in the intersection between technology, data and social justice. We use them as tools to raise awareness about a topic,” said Jaber, a Palestinian immigrant now based in Toronto. “Fake news divides us. We want people to understand issues factually.”