Are Refugee Camps Hotbeds of Innovation?



This article originally appeared on the Humanitarian Coalition’s Relief to Recovery blog, here.
za'atariSyrians flooding into the Za’atari refugee camp have made it Jordan’s fourth largest city, with over 83,000 displaced residents. They are victims of the worst humanitarian disaster of our time and face an uncertain future as the civil war continues to drive more people from their homeland.

While resources in the camp are often scarce, a new project from the Fab Foundation helps residents share experiences, learn new skills, and connect with a global network to tackle daily challenges.

Fab Labs are a network of innovative fabrication facilities in thirty countries. They use off-the-shelf tools like 3D printers, and open-source software developed by MIT. The Za’Atari lab connects to a network of over 450 other labs around the world with engineers, makers, and designers who help create solutions to design problems that are individualized, inexpensive, and effective.

The Fab Lab platform allows technical problems to be shared with the network to co-create solutions, and each new design becomes part of the collected knowledge base for future projects.

Open Access

grow-box-3The Za’atari lab is open to everyone and focuses on providing training, raw materials, and equipment for users to tackle problems they have identified as important. They can learn techniques from on-site instructors, via web links, and from other residents through informal knowledge and skill exchanges.
The project provides tools and training to increase the user’s ability to earn a living while in the camp, and to develop skills to help them build a career in the future.

The lab can be used to create nearly anything, like specialized tools, low-cost wheelchairs, or soil-less systems for growing food at home. Using a nearby facility, the lab can create inexpensive and custom prosthetics for amputees designed to be culturally appropriate. One resident, blinded by a bullet, designed a custom-made, open-source echolocation device that uses synaptic feedback to help him navigate on his own.

Local Needs


Bringing a Fab Lab to Za’atari resulted from an in-depth needs assessment that found that the majority of camp residents identified the lack of tools as a major concern. Nearly all of the respondents agreed that the lab would benefit the community. Its design is intentionally open and modular, allowing it to grow with the community’s needs. It is also non-permanent, meaning it can be disassembled and moved if the need arises.

Part of the initial assessment involved finding ways to make the lab as accessible and useful as possible to women. To this end, equipment and tools were purchased based on survey data to facilitate women to pursue new skills or continue the careers they practiced before coming to the camp.

Aside from objects, the network also provides a sense of community and connection with the larger world in a camp that can often feel isolated. Community-building initiatives help develop social networks, and interactive art applications help residents begin to overcome trauma.

The lab is being built by a consortium called Refugee Open Ware, which is dedicated to moon-shot humanitarian innovation using disruptive technology to improve human rights.

For more information, visit the Fab Foundation website, read more about the project here, or follow one of the many Fab Labs on Twitter.


Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson

Eric is an editor, writer, and community organizer based in Guelph, Canada.

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