Connect Everything: A Tech Company Rises to the Refugee Challenge

Cisco Systems pulls down somewhere between $40 billion and $50 billion in revenue annually and with a market capitalization of around $135 billion, there’s no doubt this company is a titan. And it’s not unusual for corporate giants to give generously, especially for a company such as Cisco, which has been repeatedly named as one of the best global companies to work for by Fortune Magazine. What’s surprising about Cisco’s CSR is that it often flies under the radar.

How far under the radar? Cisco was recently awarded the Golden Peacock Award for Corporate Social Responsibility. This marks the second time Cisco has received the award and the first time it’s been recognized for its global philanthropy. And one of the areas of global philanthropy in which Cisco has increased its engagement is its work with refugees, a critical area that many funders have avoided. 

Related: Cisco Systems Foundation: Grants for Disasters and Refugees

Cisco has a corporate manifesto called People Deal. The main tenet of this platform is “Connect everything, innovate everywhere, benefit everyone.” And it’s applying this belief system to the global refugee crisis.

Last year, when refugees began taking to European waterways to escape violence and persecution in their home countries, Cisco staff quickly organized clothing drives in Germany, Greece and Hungary. They also volunteered in refugee camps and launched a fundraising campaign that encouraged staff members to donate one day’s salary toward refugee assistance efforts. Employees raised $14,000.

Next, came the Be the Bridge campaign, which was the company’s response to its employees' refugee efforts. Be the Bridge expanded the scope of the employees' initial refugee work to include more than 40 organizations lending assistance. Cisco employees donated nearly $380,000 to the campaign, which the Cisco Foundation matched, for a total of $743,000 to refugee-related causes. Additionally, Be The Bridge supports over 400 NGOs around the world, zeroing in on malnutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene, and housing.

Of course, Cisco is a tech company, and brought this expertise to the global refugee crisis. Cisco employees developed “cutting edge, technology-based solutions for some key challenges faced by refugees.” Namely, its Refugee First Response Center (RFRC), developed and implemented by employees in Hamburg, Germany.

The company helped out, equipping a repurposed shipping container with Cisco technology, and leveraging its business relationships with the City of Hamburg, University Hospital Hamburg Eppendorf, and a number of other tech partners to bring the RFRC from concept to life. The first pilot RFRC unit is now being operated by the University Medical Center of Hamburg-Eppendorf on location at the refugee reception center in Germany.

Finally, Cisco deployed its Tactical Operations Team, or TacOps, which is well known for its disaster and crisis response work around the world. The TacOps Disaster Response Team, or DRT, comprises employee volunteers who deploy to disaster-riddled regions of the world to establish tech-based communications and emergency networks for first responders and humanitarian relief organizations.

Over the past couple of months, the TacOps team has made two such deployments to install Wi-Fi networks and device charging stations at nearly 20 sites along the refugee migration route in Southern and Central Europe. Cisco has, of course, paid for all of TacOps equipment needs and also provided $200,000 in grant funding to Mercy Corps and NetHope to help both organizations provide information services to refugees arriving and living at area camps.  

The global refugee crisis has dragged on for years and will likely continue. This is an incredibly complex humanitarian challenge and efforts to alleviate human suffering on such a large scale are at times met with criticism. Perhaps that’s why Cisco continues to keep its related efforts on the serious down-low.

The bottom line is this: Refugees have innumerable needs ranging from the basics of food, water, and shelter to the more complex, such starting new lives and finding jobs in a new country—and there are going to be shortfalls on all fronts. An often overlooked need is information—on loved ones, on applying for asylum, on learning a new language, on how to get medical care. The list goes on. And there aren’t many groups out there like Cisco addressing those needs.