Giving refugees design education - and newfound hope

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

They come by foot and by boat. Desperate, many bring nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They seek asylum and hope.

Since 2015, more than a million refugees have flooded into Greece. Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and Kurds, they've been uprooted from their home countries by violence and oppression. Political gridlock traps them in a country with longstanding economic woes and persistently high unemployment. The situation leaves them in overcrowded shelters, camps, slums - or unhoused entirely.

Among them are thousands of unaccompanied minors. Especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, minors can slip through the cracks of traditional support structures offered by nonprofits and international organizations.

In the summer of 2017, a group of students and instructors from MIT D-Lab partnered with the nonprofit organization Faros to offer a group of refugee boys a design thinking workshop. Almost immediately, the organizers noticed a change in the boys. Throughout the 10-day training, they stayed late in the teaching space and came in early. One boy designed an irrigation system for his father's farm in Afghanistan. Others built tools that could be useful in the camps they called home.

When they presented their work, the boys exhibited a confidence and pride that transcended language barriers.

"I remember the evaluations at the end of the project clearly," Faros co-founder Dan Biswas says. "A 16-year-old Afghan boy said he had always dreamed of becoming a mechanic or engineer, but after being on the move for so long he had let go of his dream. He said the workshop gave him hope. It was a powerful moment. This learning gives students a belief in themselves. They've faced so many hardships, but we've seen now time and time again if we can just give these students a reason to believe in themselves, they can be very resilient."

That first workshop has blossomed into a years-long collaboration between D-Lab and Faros that has seen the creation of a permanent school in Athens and the development of a curriculum that has given refugees of all genders and backgrounds a crash course on D-Lab's design process.

The collaboration has helped MIT students discover a passion for humanitarian projects and gain experience working with vulnerable populations. It has also equipped more than a thousand refugee youth with the confidence and skills to solve problems in their communities.

Tapping into potential

Following the 2017 workshop, Faros began exploring ways to integrate D-Lab's teachings into its other services, which include outreach to vulnerable populations, connecting minors with social workers, helping them navigate asylum processes, and working with them to find employment.

In 2018, D-Lab worked with Faros to create the Horizon Center, a school to formalize the trainings and replicate the promising early results.

"It's hard, when you're told that you're vulnerable all the time, to believe in yourself," D-Lab founding director Amy Smith says. "In conversations after [the early workshops] the kids talked about how it helped them restore their hope for their future and got them thinking about themselves differently."

Another early project tasked students with finding a problem in their community to solve. The students decided to build something for the city's homeless.

"It changed the narrative, because these youth are so used to being on the recipient side, but now they were in a position to help someone else," Biswas says. "It's powerful. We're working on changing mindsets."

Heewon Lee joined D-Lab's team in 2018 and introduced a workshop teaching students how to build and use 3D printers.

"When we explained it, some were excited, some thought there was no way it could work," Lee recalls. "But by day two or three, everyone was really hooked, and you could just see how fast they transformed. They went from 'I don't want to be here,' to 'I don't want you to leave, can this be open 24/7 so I can finish this?' It was a shocking moment for me. I'd done a lot of design workshops and I'd never seen such a dramatic transformation from participants in such a short period of time. The boys were soaking up all the knowledge like a sponge, from electronics to coding. It was amazing."

Faros soon expanded the design workshops to involve local women's shelters and other refugee camps. Lee also brought in students from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he teaches.

Students travel to Greece in the summers or during MIT's Independent Activities Period after taking the course EC.750 / EC.785 (D-Lab: Humanitarian Innovation), which doubles as a large D-Lab program that includes students from Harvard University and Wellesley College. The program also carries out design training in refugee camps in Uganda, to displaced communities in South Sudan, and is beginning a program in rural villages in Mali.

Some students travel to Greece already envisioning careers in humanitarian work. For others, the experience compels them to stay involved longer than expected. Several MIT students who graduated years ago are still helping out.

"There were many MIT students who said it changed their direction," says Martha Thompson, who teaches the Humanitarian Innovation class with Smith and has helped scale D-Lab's work in Greece. "It's very transformative for students because these are youth who are close to their own age but living in very different circumstances. They often form strong bonds with them, so I think it's life-changing for students."

Exporting the model

The Horizon Center recently relocated to a new, 2,300-square-foot building in the center of Athens.

"It's now a permanent center, and the dream is to see how this can be a hub for refugee learning and empowerment," Biswas says.

Through the Humanitarian Innovation program, Lee and another D-Lab instructor recently held a workshop with students in Turkey that they say also showed promise, and D-Lab is working to train more instructors in its methodology at organizations like the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration.

Meanwhile, the impact of the original Greece workshops continues to grow. Today there are refugees across Europe who have participated in the program. Many have gone on to careers in science and engineering. Some have reached back out to Horizon Center to get help teaching others in D-Lab's design methodology.

"Before we started this program it was hard to find a good pathway to direct these youth - not just telling them to go here or there, but actually giving them real experience within a supportive network where we can empower them," Biswas says. "These youth are learning about themselves, learning about others, and gaining invaluable life skills along the way."

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