Imagine you have to leave your home immediately, and you have little time to grab anything to take with you. You don’t know where you are going—you just know you have to flee for your life. Many people face a similar situation—one in every 113 people on the earth, in fact. There are 65 million people living in a state of limbo, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them, but they do know they can’t go home. After losing their homes, often their loved ones, and sometimes their identity, they desperately hope for safety and a new home. This episode is where data science meets refugees.


Hadidja Nyiransekuye: “It wasn’t until I started having as a teacher and a principal of a school when people come in the middle of the night to come attack my house. That’s when I decided I think I need to run again.”

Ginette Methot-Seare: “I’m Ginette Methot-Seare, and you are listening to Data Crunch, a Vault Analytics production.”

Hadidja: “Just think about something threatening you. Your first reaction would be to duck away from the noise or from whatever is threatening you. Now think about somebody coming with a gun or with a machete, threatening not only your life but the life of your loved ones. You run, you run. Everybody does.”

Ginette: “And that’s exactly what Hadidja Nyiransekuye did twice.”

Hadidja: “The first time I run, I run because I needed to run.”

Ginette: “She was fleeing from bombs.”

Hadidja: “It was a mass exodus. Everybody was running, so we run like everybody else.”

Ginette: “Hadidja had to flee in her PJs with four children. One of them, a baby on her back.”

Hadidja: “My little girl, Lydia, was eight at the time, and I had two of my nieces.”

Ginette: “Her husband, who was imminent danger, fled first. And her boys also ran before her.”

Hadidja: “It was hot. We were thirsty and hungry. And these young people were perched on . . .”

Ginette: “pickup trucks”

Hadidja: “And they would say, ‘Keep moving, keep moving! There’s a nice place called Mugunga; that’s where you’ll get food and you’ll get water and you’ll get shelter. And I remember saying to myself, ‘People are dying of Cholera, and I’m going to Mugunga on foot—like 50 miles?’ I just didn’t think I was going to make it.”

Ginette: “As a child, Hadidja had polio. Everyone one in 200 polio cases leaves its victims permanently paralyzed. For Hadidja, while her virus didn’t paralyze her, it left her disabled. She walks with a cane and a leg brace.”

Hadidja: “At the time, I actually ended up at the Center for People with Disability in the Congo because I had been treated there in my teens. And of course, you just wished people would just let you spread your mat or something you have on their door so you can spend the night there. But they were asking us to get out of the city, to go to that place where they were going to be building refugee camps, so in those conditions, you actually, you hear what other people are saying. Well you just follow because it’s not like you have a choice. Nobody knows where they are going when they are refugees. That’s why they’re called forced migrants.”

Ginette: “Let me go back and fill in some holes for you. Hadidja’s story starts . . . ”

Hadidja: “in the town of Gisenyi. That’s where I was born and raised.” 

Ginette: “Her town is right inside the border of Rwanda.”

Hadidja: “It’s at the border of former Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo.” 

Ginette: “As she grew, she gained an education, became involved in women’s movements, and taught modern languages with an emphasis in applied linguistics. During that time, she married her husband, and they had four children. But then in the 1990s things became precarious in her country.”

Hadidja: “People tend to think that the war in Rwanda started in ’94. Actually the war started on October 1, 1990.”

Ginette: “Hadidja is referencing an invasion of a group of mostly Tutsis, a minority group, that invaded Rwanda in 1990. What fueled this invasion was a history of ethnic tensions.

“The Tutsis had been in power during colonization. Eventually, they were ousted by the Hutus. Thirty years later, after the Hutus ousted the Tutsis, the Tutsi invasion that affected Hadidja took place.” 

“Then, the president agreed to a transitional government that would include the Tutsis. Hutu extremists were angry about this decision, and some people believe that they were the ones who shot down the president’s plane. Within an hour after the plane was shot down, extremist groups set up roadblocks and started threatening the lives of Tutsi and moderate Hutus.”

Ginette: “The first time Hadidja ran was around the time of the Rwandan genocide. Eventually, she returned home.

Hadidja: “After a month, I went back. I went home. I didn’t want to stay.”

Ginette: But after she returned home, things didn’t get better. This was post the Rwandan genocide where people in Rwanda were disappearing in the middle of the night—and even in broad daylight—never to be found again. The quote we shared with you at the beginning of the podcast fits in here. As people came to attack her house in the middle of the night, Hadidja ran for the second time.”

Hadidja: “My husband has run before because he was a Tutsi, so he wasn’t even going to stay. Me as a Hutu woman, I thought, ‘my people will protect me.’ Well they didn’t.”

Ginette: “It’s not that her people didn’t want to protect her. It was that her people couldn’t protect her. The killers were getting ruthless and were killing anyone who sided with or was related to a Tutsi.”

Hadidja: “In 1994, that option of going home was taken away from me. And I remember getting to the Congo because that’s where I was first. And the humiliation. The Congolese saying to us, Rwandans are stupid or they are barbaric. We just killed our president, and then we turned against each other, and people were dying of Cholera. And I remember them saying they didn’t want us to bury our dead people in the Congo. They said the Congo belonged to the Congolese. They wanted us to take our dead bodies back to Rwanda. Can you imagine how humiliating that is?

“Some of the people I know were teachers like I was. Some of them were doctors. Some of them were judges. Some of them were business people. But when you’re on the road with only the clothes that you’re wearing, nobody looks at you in those terms. Nobody, nobody thinks about you as a person who was once a pillar of his or her own society.

“I don’t know of any refugee that chooses to be a refugee. We are forced into it. We are forced to leave our countries. We are forced to leave our homes. Sometimes we are forced to leave our identity. And all we are asking for is a safe place.”

Ginette: “This is a subject Hadidja knows well, not only from her own experience, which you can read more about in her book The Lances Were Looking Down, but also from a professional perspective. After Hadidja came to the United States, she received her master’s degree in social work, went on to receive a Ph.D. in the same, and published her dissertation on refugee woman called At the Receiving End: A Phenomenological Study of Great Lakes Region African Women as Recipients of Refugee Services in the United States.”

Hadidja: “I remember interviewing refugee women for my dissertation, and I said, ‘So, what were you expecting when you were going to America? What were you think was going to happen?’ And all of them, unequivocally, all said, ‘We knew we were going to be resting. We knew that nobody was going to be knocking at our door to kill us.’ Very few think about becoming rich or taking advantage of a system or anything. They just want to be safe. And I can’t think of anybody else who doesn’t.”

Ginette: “Victor Hugo, who was a French refugee, wrote this about where he relocated, ‘I am in exile, and I am happy to be here . . . though it is always painful to tread on foreign soil.’

“Albert Einstein, also a refugee, wrote to the Belgian Queen, ‘I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton. In this small university town, the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer.’”

“There are 65 million refugees in the world, and the United States only accepts a small portion of them.”

Chris Kelley: “The United States handpicks less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees to resettle in the US.”

Ginette: “This is Chris Kelley of the Refugee Services of Texas, the largest refugee resettlement agency in the state. A state that in the past year resettled more than any other state except California, which resettled only 100 more.”

Chris: “To be a refugee, you have to prove that where you live is unsafe either due to war or persecution based on a number of factors, but mostly just safety. And after 18 months to two years of rigorous security vetting—these include things like biometric checks, forensic tests, medical screenings, in-person interviews—then you get to be resettled, but only after this thorough security vetting.”

Ginette: “Last year, I went to hear a refugee officer speak about the refugee vetting process, and I was surprised at its intensity, which I already figured was rigorous. We were told that if mothers or fathers paid a ransom to a terrorist organization for the return of their kidnapped child, it is considered monetarily supporting terrorists, and they would not be allowed to come to the United States.

“In my mind that particular situation seemed unfair, but that is the bar these refugees have to meet in order to come to the United States.”

Chris: “Primarily moms and dads with small kids are our clients.”

Ginette: “As a side note, being a recent transplant to Austin, Texas, I was curious about our state’s refugee involvement and learned that the governor recently pulled the state out of the refugee program, so I asked Chris about this.”

Chris: “The domestic terrorism threat has nothing to do with refugees. It’s fear, and fear mongering against refugees is dangerous.”

Ginette: “Since this is a charged subject, I wanted to explore the numbers. So I talked to someone who had gathered statistics.”

Matt Chaterdon: “I was looking for some statistics, because with the presidential election, and even before that with 31 or 32 governors of US states, said that they didn’t want specifically Syrian refugees coming to their states.”

Ginette: “This is Matt Chaterdon. He has twelve years of experience providing refugee services. He now coordinates work in several states for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

Matt: “I wanted to find what research was out there to address some of the fears that people have.”

Ginette: “He found several statistics that he shared with us, but one that struck me is from Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute.”

Matt: “The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed [on US soil] by a refugee is one in 3.4 billion a year.”

Ginette: “According to this statistic, your chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed on US soil by a refugee in any given year is less than dying from an ingrown nail, based on David Taylor’s work with the CDC’s Compressed Mortality File.

“Let’s compare this to other mortality odds. According to the Economist, your chance of death by asteroid impact in the US in any given year is about 1 in 75 million.

“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that your chance of being struck by lightning in the US is about 1 in a million.

“Let’s consider the magnitude of difference there: we’re talking millions versus billions.

“So the chance of this threat affecting you is virtually nonexistent.

“In this discussion, it’s important not to confuse refugee status with other forms of entry to the country, such as the B visa, which is the most common tourist visa. The statistics for these categories are very different. This is why Alex Nowrasteh spells out in one of his articles that governments must consider the wide range of visa categories when making policy decisions.

“The politically charged and inaccurately informed rhetoric enveloping this particular situation is a classic example of how humans poorly assess risk because of something called the availability heuristic.

“Our brains tend to put more weight on the probability of a particular situation happening when we hear more about it—such as instances of terrorism. Think about how often you’ve heard about terrorism in the news over the past year. Because the public is inundated with these messages, we associate a high risk with situations like refugees coming into the country, even though the risk of refugees killing people in acts of terrorism in the United States is virtually nonexistent. On the other hand, more mundane things that are more likely to harm you, such as getting into an accident on your way to work every day, are hardly noted. When people make policy decisions based on these emotional risk levels, it essentially means we give up the chance to help more refugees in need because of a false fear.

“Despite all of this, there are many people in the country who are working very hard to help refugees.

“So what happens after refugees arrive in the United States, and how successful is resettlement?”

Amy Crownover: “Well my name is Amy Crownover, and I am the Marketing and Communications director of New American Pathways. New American Pathways is a resettlement organization in Georgia that really serves refugees and other new Americans from time of arrival all the way through citizenship. Every resettlement organization in the nation, whether you have the benefit of being that one in Hawaii or Minnesota or Iowa or Georgia, the resettlement services we are required to provide are the same.

“We hear about refugee families when they finally get that word that they are going to be one of the lucky ones that get resettled about two weeks before arrival. That has traditionally been the case, and in the last few months, it’s actually been even shorter than that. It’s just a few days.

“In that time, we are tasked with finding an apartment . . .”

Ginette: “During a busy rental season in a saturated housing market, like the areas New American Pathways has traditionally been settling refugees, finding available apartments can be difficult.”

Amy: “ . . . getting it set up with furnishings all the basic furnishings—we actually have a contract exactly right down to the number of toothbrushes and forks that have to be in the house based on the number of people in the family. We set that up. We do have an allotment per refugee for covering those initial expenses in what we call the resettlement period, which is the first three months.

“The moment that they arrive, we actually meet them at the airport. We are the first smiling faces that they see after a very exhausting travel, usually more than a day or two.

“Our case managers are actually representatives of the refugee communities themselves. So we are often able to provide language, also culturally competent services, so the people that are receiving them at the airport are often from their own communities, and we take them to their new apartment and start to get them acclimated.”

Ginette: “The cooperative agreements mandate that families are financially self-sufficient within six months of arrival.”

Amy: “One of the first things that we teach our refugee families is how to use MARTA.”

Ginette: “This is Atlanta’s public bus and rail system.”

Amy: “As you can imagine, that where we place them is important that it has public transportation because they are not going to be able to typically drive for some time.”

Ginette: “Knowing how to use public transportation is critically important for refugees. They need it to get to work, school, and the New American Pathways office for English class.”

Amy: “When you think about those challenges, you know, language and transportation, and people are coming from war-torn countries. I mean, let’s be honest, there’s so much more that’s a factor. People are coming from severe trauma. And the fact that in our state, over it’s about 87 percent of our families are self-sufficient within 180 days of arrival, and we define that as they’re actually earning income and paying their own bills.”

Ginette: “That’s an impressive statistic. Eighty-seven percent of these refugees are paying their own bills within six months of arrival to the United States when they may not speak English when they step off the plane.

“This summer, one group of data scientists chose New American Pathways to be a recipient of a free data tool. The goal was to reduce the amount of time it takes the organization to find housing for new refugees.”

Bistra Dilkina: “My name is Bistra Dilkina. I am an assistant professor at Georgia Tech in the college of computing. I also participated first as a mentor and now as a codirector of a very special program that Georgia Tech has. It’s called Data Science for Social Good.

“The idea behind these programs is to work in groups with nonprofits and local organizations to solve problems that they have that require data science.

“This project was with New American Pathways.”

Amy: “Oh gosh, we are so lucky to have been chosen for that project. We actually met Bistra, I believe it was through a mutual nonprofit that suggested that we get in touch, and the first day, I remember going into her office and sitting down, and she showed me many of the projects that they had worked on in the past with other groups. And I was absolutely blown away. It was amazing to really sit down with her and explain to her what we do and what our challenges are, and she really helped us to come up with something that might be helpful. We had not idea what might even be possible.”

Ginette: “This is common. Often people don’t know what data science can do for them or for their organizations. Frequently, it only takes a conversation to clearly see how they can benefit.

“In the case of New American Pathways, during their conversation they found something that was . . .”

Bistra: “ . . . a big pain point for their organization because they would spend a lot of time counting manually, basically, potential apartment complexes.”

Amy: “And she really tasked us with coming up with our set of priorities that would help to shape the team and what they would need to do to shape this tool. So she basically looked at it and said, what if we had a map where we could put in some various factors that are really important to the success of a new resettlement site, and then you were able to hone in on those particular factors, really sliding in and out of what our priorities were, so that it would isolate different areas of the city.”

Bistra: “The team of students actually went back there, and we talked to them about what are the key things that they need to know in order to select appropriate apartments. Talking to the actual case worker, the actual person within New American Pathways that was doing most of the apartment scouting was really informative.”

Ginette: “This is a really good example of the soft skills needed in data science—talking to people and really understanding what they need from data to do their work better.”

Bistra: “And so from that, we identified which of the things are most important to them, and which of those things we can actually find available as open data.”

Amy: “The wonderful team, Unaiza and Sasha and Wes, They were so, so excited about the project; they really got into it, and they had each their own personal story for becoming involved.”

Bistra: “And so the things that we identified, the critical thing was affordability; they need to be close to public transit. Beyond that, they also mentioned a few other factors that were important: (1) vicinity of supermarkets, and especially if we could get information about whether they were international supermarkets so they can get the kind of food they are familiar with from home; (2) schools—a lot of the refugee families come with kids; and also (3) faith centers.

“And so we actually identified that all of these things we could find by using things like Google API. In fact Google API was our biggest workhorse for finding data. For the affordability and the job accessibility, we used census data, which is also publically available. This is government data. And finally for the schools, we used something called the GreatSchools API, where you can actually pull the locations of all the schools in an area, but additionally, you can have what percentage of kids in that school are participating in the free lunch program, which was also an important thing.

“What we did is we create a superimposed grid over the metro-Atlanta area, and then for every grid, we calculated a score for each of the individual assets. How close is that grid to a school? How close is that grid to a supermarket? How affordable is that particular grid? When they change the weights through these sliders that we have on our interactive tools, those individual scores were combined dynamically with the weights that the user would put in, and then the heat map would reconfigure itself, and they would be able to zoom into the areas that best match that prioritization.”

Amy: “They really looked at all of those things and were able to give us a training tool at the end that said, ‘We examined all of these different platforms, and we pulled the things that were the most economically viable.’ So at this point, we don’t have any costs associated with the housing tool, and they’ve given us a training document that will allow us to update the tool, they suggested monthly so that we have current complexes in there.

“They were very generous in saying, ‘Here’s the framework; let’s see how this works, and then if we can share it with other resettlement organizations, we would love to do that.’”

Bistra: “It can help any refugee resettlement agency in the area. In order to port this to another city, you would need to run the Google API scraping, kind of putting together, for that particular locale. So it would require some effort and some data science skills. The students basically put all of their code on Github, freely available, in order to exactly facilitate if anybody wants to reproduce this for another city.”

Ginette: “If you’re a data scientist and interested in helping refugees, we’ve listed in our show notes this Github link to the open source code, along with a link to refugee services by state.

“Also, be sure to sign up for our email list at for data science tips and tricks.

“Finally, we’ve discovered another data science podcast that we really like, and we think you should also check out called Especially Big Data.

“A special thanks to all the people that have participated and made this possible.”

Some Sources