Refugee Open Ware
Barcelona-based freelance journalist Sam Mednick recently travelled to the Turkish/Syrian border to cover the humanitarian crisis and civil war and unexpectedly discovered a story that linked back to Barcelona.
In 2012, Abdul Mola was travelling from Damascus to Homs to visit his family, when he felt a piercing pain rush through his leg. The 15-year-old had been shot by a sniper, causing him to lose a limb; yet, it wasn’t until February 2013, when Mola crossed into Turkey, that he received the help he needed. Three kilometres from the Syrian border, on the edge of the tiny town of Reyhanli, sits a clinic that is trying to restore hope to more than 30,000 Syrians who have lost their limbs due to snipers and barrel bombs, in what is a seemingly endless civil war. As one of its many projects, Syria Relief, a UK and Turkish-based NGO, has developed clinics specialising in prosthetic limbs. “I found out about them on the internet, got a lift across the border and they gave me a new leg,” says Mola smiling. He now works at the clinic helping to fit other refugees with limbs.
It has been called the worst humanitarian crisis of our day, with seven and a half million internally displaced people in Syria and three million refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other nearby countries. In addition, there are an estimated one million injured people, with amputations rife.
“There is a lack of surgeons and there are very poor medical services within Syria,” says Dr. Mahrous Alsoud. “So if anyone injures their leg or their arm, it usually ends in amputation.” Six months before the Syrian uprising in 2011, the cardiologist defected from the Assad Regime and escaped to England. “The corruption was horrible and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” he explains. A few years later, however, he returned to Syria to spearhead the prosthetics clinics. Working together with a team of four international doctors, Alsoud and his colleagues train Syrian refugees on the ground, teaching them how to craft limbs and fit them. They now have three clinics in Turkey and Syria and are looking to establish more within the region.
“We try to bring back hope and put a smile on their faces,” says Alsoud, “but it’s hard and resources are limited.”
It’s this challenge of limited resources that has instigated a different approach on the other side of the Syrian border. Since November 2014, Syrian amputees in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp have been receiving another type of prosthetic limb—one that’s cheaper to make, faster to deliver, designed in Barcelona and digitally printed in Jordan.
28-year-old Lana Awad from Jordan is responsible for the creative direction of the Refugee Open Ware initiative (ROW), a humanitarian organisation that establishes digital fabrication laboratories and innovation centres specialising in prosthetics. Whilst most of their work is based in Jordan, Awad works here in Barcelona, where she tests prototype designs in collaboration with Fab Lab Barcelona. The product: printable 3D prosthetic hands for Jordan’s Syrian refugees.
For those unfamiliar with the buzzword, Fab Labs (short for Fabrication Laboratories) are paving the way for a remarkable new future. Incubators of digital innovation, Fab Labs support the concept of investigating new modes of production aross the globe, from industrial design and architecture, to creating 3D prosthetic limbs. Digital fabrication “puts a sense of digital craft into traditional making,” explains Awad.
And this is the advantage 3D prosthetics have over the traditional kind: the ability to customise them and make the limbs feel as ‘real’ as possible for the recipients.
“When we approach our patients, especially children, it’s always important to get answers about what their interests are,” says Awad. “We ask them about their favourite cartoons, their favourite colours, and what kind of toys they like to play with, in order to deduce if they prefer soft, plushy sensations, like stuffed animals, or hard plastic sensations. This helps us to create something as personalised as possible.”
And this ability to combine the physical world with the digital one is an area in which Barcelona is at the forefront. With the inception of the first Fab Lab in Europe in 2007, the city is now home to eight innovation incubators.
“Barcelona has a strong counterculture vibe,” says Awad. “There’s a huge push for innovation and a drive to create, and you feel like you’re always on the cutting edge of what’s possible.”
Possibilities such as the ability to create 3D hands for Syrian refugees in Jordan—something that has yet to be done anywhere else in the Syria region. “We have 3D printers in our Turkey labs,” explains Dr. Alsoud, “but we don’t have the technical training or support, so we can’t use them,” he laments.
Dr. Mahrous Alsoud
The hope is that what’s being done in Jordan will follow in other prosthetics clinics, and it will help them to advance their work and increase the types of limbs they’re able to provide. Awad and her team are at the helm of this crusade. After finishing her master’s degree in Digital Fabrication in Architecture at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalunya (IaaC), Awad decided to stay in Barcelona to write her thesis. For the past year and a half, together with Fab Lab Barcelona, she’s been exploring the use of digital fabrication methods to restore not just the physical or visual look of a human hand, but also the user’s sensations through embedded electronics.
“What we found to be universal,” explains Awad, “is that all of the refugees want something to look as human as possible. They want something organic, more skin-coloured and flesh-toned and something that feels like an extension of their arm. They’re coping with a huge loss and anything we can do to alleviate that is what we’re hoping to achieve.”
She recounts one particularly moving story of a design she’s currently creating for a six-year-old Syrian boy named Zain, who lost his left hand in a house fire.
“This case was so touching, and we wanted to do all that we could for him,” she says. “Zain was a huge fan of Ben 10, a popular Middle Eastern cartoon. So I designed a watch that allowed him to feel as though he were the main hero. In the show, Ben 10 wears a watch that lets him transform into various crime-fighting aliens, so the prosthesis was designed with a 3D printed ‘watch’ on the gauntlet that housed the electronics. The face of the watch has display buttons that allow Zain to toggle through the aliens, select his favourite and ‘transform’ through a small light show.” Awad’s currently putting the finishing touches on the design, and they’re planning to fit Zain’s hand before Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Although Awad says stories like this entice her to continue pushing forward in her work, she reveals that the biggest challenge is feeling disconnected from those receiving her designs.
“The hardest part is losing a sense of connection with the refugees. It would be nice to know more about them and understand their situations better. It’s easy to receive their files and get a feel for their likes and dislikes, but without seeing them, you can forget that these kids are enduring extremely traumatic experiences.”
Awad hopes to take her first trip to Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp this month to meet her team on the ground along with the recipients of her hands. The goal is to expand into printing entire arms and legs within the next year, and to then enable the Jordanians to take over and start designing and printing the limbs themselves.
“We want to make it sustainable, not just for Syrian refugees, but for refugees all over the world,” she explains.
In Turkey, Dr. Alsoud and his team echo Awad’s sentiments. As he looks at his 3D printers sitting idle on the shelves, he hopes that one day they can help refugees on the Turkish side of the border to create an easier solution to this increasing need, which doesn’t seem to have an end in sight.