Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Penza Association of Refugees and Forced Migrants
by Oleg Sharipkov

Development of non-government organizations (NGOs) in Russian provinces is closely connected to development of TCP/IP networks and the Internet.  A vivid example of this phenomenon is what happened with the Penza "Svetoch" Association of Refugees and Forced Migrants.

After the disintegration of the USSR, entire Russian communities returned from the former republics.  The Svetoch Association began work in 1997 as a service organization to help refugees.  The largest need for migrants was and remains in legal support relating to establishing citizenship and with crossing of customs houses, gaining official status as a forced migrant, and rebuilding social privileges.

Before we began to use information technologies in this work, our help was ineffective.  For example, lawyers working on migration problems in Penza often had to go or call Moscow on the phone for advice about particular cases.  It was very difficult to learn about similar situations in other regions, and what was being done in other places to provide legal assistance to help migrants. This situation began to change when we were connected to the Internet at the end of 1997.

Svetoch became one of the first NGOs in Penza to actively use the Internet in our work.  We learned to use email, to search for necessary information, and to create web content for our first web site .  Employees completed training at several seminars on NGO use of the Internet and became actively engaged in self-education. We quickly understood that for a provincial NGO, the Internet and email are the eyes and ears of the organization. We began to share our activities with colleagues from other regions, information about our work began to emerge on the Internet, and our organization has been included in numerous non-commercial mailing lists.  In 1998 our work was recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center , and we were offered participation in the all-Russian Migration Rights Network.

At that time we chose to develop a legal case database using Lotus Notes technology, at that time a common platform for distributed group work. The development work both with Lotus and the Microsoft programs was challenging. The first network sessions used dial up phone lines to Moscow to replicate the Lotus databases between locations.   The sessions were very long and the phone connection often broke down.  Within a year, we made the transition so that our network operated across the Internet rather than through long distance telephone calls.

Data on all cases for the database was assembled and pleaded by the lawyers across the network.  The cases are described in detail with the writ and decisions of courts. Second in importance to this database is the "Log of reception and reports." Here data is assembled about migration issues and situations from various regions, as learned over the network.

By early 1999 the network consisted of ten agencies. First were organizations from Moscow, Penza, Voronezh, Saratov, Perm, and Krasnodar. The first stage of the network was financed by the Ford Foundation and United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) , and brought together organizations dealing with economic problems.  Eventually our association had a well-equipped computer class in which it was possible to simulate various working situations occurring in the Lotus Notes environment.  By 2001 the service totaled about 40 agencies, two servers, and an active site . Presently the network has 47 agencies with ten located where people especially require protection—Dagestan, Ingushetiya, Stavropol, and Krasnodar Territory as well as in Chechnya.  Over the last year the agencies in this network have compiled some ten thousand records and pleaded about one thousand cases.  The number of databases with which the lawyers of a network work has increased now to six.

Because Penza's NGOs can communicate with the colleagues from other regions, exchange experience, and locate partners, we have created and support a database on noncommercial organizations for the entire region .  We now advise NGOs and teach classes on information technologies including computer engineering, application development, and distribution of information in the mass media.  We serve as a resource center for NGO representatives who do not have computers or email and have helped many of our colleagues in the region get computers and connected to the Internet. Today, from 150 of the most active of Penza's NGOs, fifteen now have email, in a city of 500,000 where perhaps 3,000 have direct Internet access.

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