Refugee Open Ware: Teaching tech in conflict zones.
In a world more and more dehumanised by warfare and violence, it is simply moving to see how the other plate of the scale is yet full of people ready to heal every single wound that weapons and hatred have left open.
And while technology is frequently a symptom of the crisis of war-affected areas, in the hands of such people it can also become a respite from pain. This is the case of Refugee Open Ware (ROW), an organisation that teaches displaced humans how to take advantage of technology in order to digitally fabricate the things they need.
Out of the current world population, amounting to 7.6 billion, around 1.5 billion live in conflict areas. The instability of these regions often prevents essential materials and supplies from reaching citizens constantly threatened by war. This is where Refugee Open Ware intervenes. With a wide range of cutting edge technology, this mission of activists, corporations, academic institutions and nongovernmental organisations serving in some of the most-exposed-to-conflict areas of the world provides the tools, skills and training that locals need to face the challenges war constantly sets against them.
ROW works to catalyse investments in humanitarian technology for the reduction of suffering and the promotion of development in areas made fragile by warfare. Moreover, it offers conflict-affected countries a direct and active participation in the so-called “third industrial revolution”, brought about by globalisation and the Internet: the aim is to foster long-term economical improvements by helping distressed communities to familiarise, through training and research, with the technology that has marked the modern era, from robotics to 3D printing.
The project took its roots in Syria, where the ongoing civil war has forced 4.8 million people to flee the country. Among them is Asem Hasna, a former mathematics student in Damascus who quit his studies to save lives as a volunteering paramedic. Having lost his left leg in an attack on his ambulance in 2013, Asem struggled for a prolonged time without supplies and medical treatment to escape from Syria, finally managing to find refuge in Jordan (currently housing 360.000 Syrian refugees) and Germany later.
It was in this chaotic time that two Jordanian visionaries, Dave Levin and Loay Malahmeh, came up with a solution for conflict-created problems, which actualized in the foundation of Refugee Open Ware. The operation had (and still has) a twofold outline: for-profit investment funds and non-profit technical assistance to provide refugees with education, hardware and lab space in order to use technology profitably to assist themselves and others. Asem himself was introduced to ROW and given training to be a prosthetic technician, which resulted in his great expertise in 3D printing. The object of Asem’s care was to provide support for amputees as himself; that is why he started working at prosthetic adjustments, alongside an echolocation haptic device for a fellow refugee blinded in sniper fire in Syria, which allowed him to navigate using vibrations when walking.
It was the expertise Asem developed in bionic prosthetics and 3D printed parts of bodies in collaboration with Dave and Loay that led to the idea of going one step further in the project: instead of simply providing people affected by humanitarian crises with helpful supplies, the team decided also to teach them how to use technology autonomously for the production of their needs. One of the most impressive results of this is a 3D prosthetic hand, a reproduction of which is visible in the temporary exhibition The Future Starts Here at the V&A Museum. Such Hi-Tech device was co-developed by ROW with a six-year-old Yemeni refugee who was severely burned in a household fire and incorporates also an image of the boy’s favourite cartoon character ‘Ben Ten’.
The impact of the project is outstanding. New technological skills such this have the potential to reshape traditional manufacturing, and with it entire economies. Boys or girls grown up in conflict areas could be equipped with the necessary expertise and knowledge to help rebuild their community and create new industries and workplaces for a whole generation.
To give a final look at future planning, a priority in ROW’s agenda is the foundation of a fabrication lab (FabLab) in Amman, Jordan, supplied with all the necessary lab equipment to allow people to meet, brainstorm ideas and bring them to fruition. The construction of a research and development centre in Istanbul and a prostheses centre in a Jordanian medical facility are also in the pipeline. So far, ROW has harnessed $20 million of social investment into humanitarian technology, with a view to raising a further $20 million to help all those regions affected by conflict.
Refugee Open Ware gives any hatemonger a lesson impossible to forget, no matter if war persists to be an irresistible business: no gun or bomb will ever wipe away hope.
The above article by Caterina Domeneghini first published on goodnewsshared.com in Aug, 2018.