Cover photo: A Syrian girl holds up a poster she drew “about how she recently helped someone using information or technology” during UW professor Karen Fisher’s workshop at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan in January 2015. Photo courtesy of Karen Fisher, University of Washington Information School.
“This is a magic road,” says Karen Fisher, a professor at the Information School (iSchool) at the University of Washington. “You can stand on it and it can take you anywhere you would need to go.”
Fisher, after returning from her second trip to the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, holds up a drawing by one of the teens in a workshop she opened at the camp in November 2015. The prompt driving the workshop was meant to unleash creativity: “If you could create anything you wanted — magical genius devices — what would you do?”
On March 4, Fisher will return to the camp to help the young people build the prototypes for their devices — and she’s hoping to bring some iSchool and Communication Leadership students with her in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Those organizations include the International Medical Corps, UNICEF, International Relief Development (IRD), Finn Church Aid and the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“When Karen mentioned the possibility of getting other students involved, I immediately thought of CommLead,” says CommLead alumna Katya Yefimova, now a PhD student at the iSchool and a research assistant for the Za’atari camp-based project. “I know that many people get into the program because they are looking for ways to use their skills and talents for social good,” she said. “This project is an opportunity to do just that.”
Imagining a magical genius device
Za’atari Refugee Camp, just 18 miles south of the Syrian border, is the second largest refugee camp in the world and home to at least 79,000 refugees — including around 30,000 youth, based on recent NGO estimates. Due to a lack of education resources and teachers, only about half of the camp youth attend school, Fisher says, citing recent estimates from local NGOs.
Yet amidst what Fisher and others have called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, are around 200 young people she worked with who inspired her with their tremendous resilience, creativity and optimism.
In a workshop facilitating the design of a “magical genius device,” the students chose team names such as Technology Giants, Youth of the Future, Springs of Dreams, The Dreams of the Girls Of Syria, The Mermaids of Paradise and Freedom’s Girls.
In three two-hour narrative storytelling sessions, Fisher asked around 48 youth to draw a picture of a time they were able to help someone through information or technology.
“It was extremely powerful,” she remembers.
Some drew themselves putting out a fire or helping someone injured cross the street in the immediate aftermath of Syria’s bombings — against a backdrop of tanks and bodies.
“The young people of Za’atari have been through so much,” says Yefimova. “This project helps uncover their perspectives and show their community in a new light.”
Keeping an eye on the future
Unsurprisingly, in a separate workshop, many of the 150 youth participating in her “Genius Magician” project chose to channel their imaginations and creativity into solutions for much more immediate needs. From magic glasses that can detect sickness in someone’s body, to a communications and social media device that is also a magic heater warming families through Jordan’s cold winter nights — caring for family and elders was a common theme, says Fisher.
Fisher, who has worked with immigrant and refugee youth from all over the world using STEM education and youth participants as “infomediary” experts of their cultural experience for her research, says library engagement and storytelling opportunities are especially important for girls and young women at the camp — many of whom are mothers.
“With sadness, I found dropping levels of literacy, and learning opportunities, particularly for girls due to their disrupted education, lack of schools… levels of domestic violence and other factors,” she says.
And with about 50 percent of young people not attending school, Fisher says there is “mega potential” to provide more resources, storytelling and educational opportunities.
During her last trip in November, she said she saw just a few underutilized library caravans throughout 12 districts of the camp. And many young women and girls Fisher encountered are in a position where they must help educate their families.
Fisher shows me another picture drawn by a teen who participated in the narrative storytelling intensive.
“Here she’s talking about helping her mother with her mobile, and here she’s explaining helping her sisters with her letters, learning how to read,” she explains.
In addition to helping some of the young people at the camp begin to build their device designs, Fisher is enlisting help from NGOs and industry experts to help supply and enhance the library caravans. She is hoping this will help boost connectivity and literacy among the camp’s residents, with an eye towards long-term local impact.
To get involved in the project or learn more, email Karen Fisher directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.