Hamburg , Germany

Healthcare in a Box

Refugee First Responder Center

October 26, 2016

A shipping container is adapted to provide healthcare to a population in crisis,  refugees on the move

refugee-first-responder-centerYou arrive to find someone in crisis. They don’t speak your language. How can you help? Google Translate could help, but if you’re working with refugees, RefuChat wants to make your life easier.

Populated with common phrases, at the tap of a screen, an emergency responder can communicate quickly and safely with a refugee in crisis.

It’s one of a growing number of language and translation technology innovations trying to help make refugees’ lives easier.

RefuChat creator, Marco Nissen, liked the Refugee Phrasebook, but didn’t like the fact that it had to be printed out. He realized that many refugees have smartphones with them, so he decided to create a small app.

“A tool that provides basic useful vocabulary related to the most common immediate needs, the Refugee Phrasebook is an open collaborative project to provide important vocabulary to refugees. It assembles important phrases from various fields and encourages designers and experts in the field to improve on the material.”

Effective communication in health care is essential

An app like RefuChat can help when no other resources are available. It’s a crisis resource. What if you had access to more resources?

Mirko Bass, a Business Development Manager at Cisco based in Hamburg, Germany felt he had a personal and a professional duty to help: “Imagine if you’re fleeing out of a conflict situation, out of war- and you get sick? And you are in front of a doctor and you don’t speak the same language. How would you feel?”

The problem was real, on the ground. The city of Hamburg was struggling to provide good healthcare for 60,000 refugees in 40 refugee camps. Cisco had piloted a video translation project at a local hospital. He knew the idea of bringing translators into a health interaction was sound, and possible. Bass wondered, how can we bring this all together, to provide a translation solution in the refugee camps in Hamburg? Could the idea scale?

As consistently comes up with civic tech innovation, it started with a conversation among friends. They had to do something. Bass talked to MLOVE’s Harald Neidhardt. What was possible? Neighardt had done creative things with shipping containers in the past. A travelling medical clinic in a shipping container. Could it work?

Simple needs, complex innovation, simple solutions

They brought together a diverse team to workshop the idea and the pilot was born. The collaborative effort and incredible enthusiasm brought the project from idea to pilot in six weeks.

The Refugee First Responder Center has created a physical waiting room with built-in interpretation that can be taken and set up anywhere in the world. A high tech medical office in a shipping container. It’s an incredible example of innovation from inspiration.

The first four weeks were spent simply sourcing the shipping container! In two weeks, they transformed the metal box into a comfortable, functional medical facility. They delivered it to one of Hamburg’s 40 refugee camps and started a pilot.

It’s a 20-foot shipping container equipped it with systems allowing remote language interpretation during consultations through high-definition video. Medical staff have access to 750 interpreters who speak about 50 different languages. A side benefit is the WiFi in the container for the staff is shared with the refugees in the camp. transformed into an medical clinic.


The shipping container. An everyday, banal thing in the port city of Hamburg became transformed into an medical clinic. Magic.

The power of connection

Bass outlines how the European refugee crisis cried out for innovative solutions: “That was the high peak of the refugee crisis. You are working in a chaotic environment and usually you only work with proven solutions. And what we had proposed was something completely new.”

Their innovation clearly met a real, critical need. In fact, it imploded the notion of what medical care in a refugee camp could look like. According to Dr. Martin Scherer of University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf, “It’s supposed to be like bar food medicine. Very rudimental, very, very difficult. And what they presented helped me to have the hope that we could provide very good medical care here.”

Project leaders call their success the power of connection. There was the literal connections that put the containers and technology together. But, their was also the  network, individuals with expertise, who came together with the support of large organizations, like Cisco that funded the first pilot. The impact? “Now I can speak to somebody in my language, who also looks like me, and they can really explain my situation.”

MLove’s Harald Neidhardt, “This is such a perfect example where we say pull in the community, pull in different talents, apply technology to one of the biggest human challenges and if we can do something so cool, simple and beautiful, everybody can do it. You just have to think a little bit harder and say ‘well you know what, in my community this is my talent. This is what I can do.’ Can we bring in our connections, our networks and see if we can do something, even small, but meaningful?”

It’s a great example of what UNHCR is seeking in their strategic vision to better connect refugees to information, help and serve.


This is a worldwide first: the Refugee First Response Center (RFRC) is a medical emergency station with a unique combination of services.  In light of the current refugee crisis, this modern medical office was conceived and customized with just 6 weeks and with the cooperation of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) and the health department of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

The first pilot unit is operated by the University Medical Center of Hamburg-Eppendorf on location of a refugee reception center supervised by the Red Cross of Germany.

It’s not a cheap idea. But it’s already scaling. With a one million dollar donation, the Dorit and Alexander Otto Foundation have funded the deployment of 10 medical containers in camps across Hamburg.

However, the RFRC team realize they can do more. The containers are mobile. They can be used anywhere. Their vision is to bring 100 containers closer to refugee hot spots – Syria, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, where the need is greatest.


Making it Work for You:

  • Build on other successes you’ve had in seemingly unrelated projects.
  • Start the conversation. Wondering how you can help is important. Think outside the box of what is already happening and look at new ideas.
  • Connecting with others in your network who share your wonder, and have other skills, perspectives, experiences and areas of focus can ultimately create something magical.
  • Work with those already helping and bring new talent, ideas and energy to the table.
  • Think from the perspective of the end user. What would make their lives easier? What small change could have a huge impact on their well being?

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For this Good Idea contact:

Mirko Bass, Refugee First Responder Center

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