UNHCR – MIT workshop teaches refugee children the joys of digital design Donate

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Syrian teenager Odai* holds a pair of glasses held together by tape. They belong to his friend Farshid*, who is leaving Athens in a few days to join his family in Austria.


“My teachers said maybe I could help fix them,” the 14-year-old told UNHCR.

He says he’s going to try making a new arm for his countryman’s glasses on a machine he helped build. It’s no ordinary contraption, and its teachers include highly skilled technicians working at one of the world’s top universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

Behind Odai, on a table full of laptops, others finish work on the device, which is made up of electronic components, plastic filament, a ceramic platform and a metal frame. Moments later, the machine, a 3D printer, comes to life and begins to create its first three-dimensional object, a logo disc.

That’s quite the feat for kids who knew next to nothing about electronics, computing, or design before participating in the digital design maker workshop, but what’s even more remarkable is how this two-week project supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, galvanized and transformed those who followed.

More than 20 asylum-seeking children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, aged 9 to 17, participated in the intensive course organized by MIT D-Lab and a local NGO, Faros, partner of the UNHCR. It included vulnerable unaccompanied children such as Odai and Farshid.

“You can see how creative they are.”

Dan Biswas, co-founder of Faros, says most had been deprived of an education because of the conflict and, after a slow start, they were hooked by classes and the idea of ​​creating something they could be proud of. . Most attended each session, morning and afternoon, hungry for knowledge. Lunch was an interruption.

“With a little nurturing and nurturing, we see they can really thrive and recognize their own worth and potential,” says Biswas, who held the training in a spacious, renovated building in the rundown neighborhood of Exarcheia, a hive of creativity. . Faros also runs a shelter for unaccompanied children nearby, where many participants lived. Others came from hosting sites.

  • A three-dimensional model produced during the digital design workshop for unaccompanied minors given by the D-Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and organized by the Greek NGO Faros with the support of UNHCR. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

  • Dan Biswas (left), co-founder of the NGO Faros, trainer Roy Ombatti (center) and Heewon Lee of D-Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology discuss plans for the 3D workshop.

    Dan Biswas (left), co-founder of the NGO Faros, trainer Roy Ombatti (center) and Heewon Lee of D-Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology discuss plans for the 3D workshop. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

  • An unaccompanied minor uses a 3D printer during the digital design fabrication workshop.

    An unaccompanied minor uses a 3D printer during the digital design fabrication workshop. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

  • Teenage asylum seekers attend the 3D building workshop.  Most attended each session, morning and afternoon, hungry for knowledge.

    Teenage asylum seekers attend the 3D building workshop. Most attended each session, morning and afternoon, hungry for knowledge. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

  • Odai*, 14, who fled war-torn Syria, takes part in the 3D printing workshop in Athens organized by the NGO Faros with the support of UNHCR.

    Odai*, 14, who fled war-torn Syria, takes part in the 3D printing workshop in Athens organized by the NGO Faros with the support of UNHCR. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

“I hope they will continue these programs. You can see how creative they are,” says Heewon Lee, designer at MIT D-Lab. The course also taught basic computer skills, programming and software, as well as the use of hand tools such as soldering irons, screwdrivers, wire cutters and files. “They did something cool.”

Roy Ombatti, trainer and founder of African Born 3D, a subsidiary of D-Lab, was also impressed. “It’s a change of mentality for them. It’s very stimulating. We’ve broken down something that seems so complex.

The participating boys formed friendships with the tutors as well as with their peers, despite having different backgrounds and languages. “They opened up and told us their stories,” Heewon says. “They didn’t want to go home at the end of the day.”

“It’s a very good feeling, and you share it with your friends.”

The project is based on a three-step approach – getting them in, keeping them (with projects like the 3D printer) and eventually sending them… to school, internships, jobs, etc. Using this formula, Faros also offers popular courses in carpentry and tailoring.

The 3D printer is a manufacturing tool that can be used to create anything, according to the tutors. For the boys who have lost so much, it’s an endless topic of discussion. A few days earlier, they had never heard of such a machine, which takes a design created on a computer and then, using plastic or organic material, builds layers to create an object.

Applications are as wide as the imagination and the technology is used in areas ranging from manufacturing, healthcare and chemistry to architecture, art and design. Some companies are even using 3D printers to create more 3D printers.

Odai, who fled violence in Damascus, feels much more confident after the experience. “It’s a very good feeling, and you share it with your friends,” the teenager said.

In the end, Odai didn’t have enough time to craft an arm for Farshid’s glasses, but he had made friends and acquired a thirst for knowledge that could help him in the future. His ambitions also grew. “Maybe I can become a teacher and build something much bigger,” he says.

* Names have been changed for protection reasons.

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