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iSchool professor, refugee youths work to aid others through technology

Syrian refugee youths design "magic genius devices" at the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan.iSchool Professor Karen Fisher has worked with immigrant and refugee youth from all over the world, including East Africa, Myanmar and Latin America, but something keeps drawing her back to the Za’atari Refugee Camp, just across the border from Syria in Jordan.

“Everywhere you look, there’s children,” Fisher said. “Their optimism and creativity is boundless.”Karen Fisher

In two visits to the Za’atari camp in 2015, Fisher found the conditions were dire and cramped, but young people were eager to help with her research, which focuses on how ethnic minority youth help others through information and technology. In early 2016, Fisher plans to return to Za’atari, this time to help build prototypes of devices the youth designed to improve the lives of their loved ones in the camp.

Many of those young people have seen unimaginable violence. When asked to create narrative-drawings of a time they helped someone through information or technology, some youths drew scenes from Syria that included bombings, tanks, and bodies.

The scenes are reminders of what drove them to Za’atari, which has grown from a handful of families three years ago to more than 93,000 people, making it the second-largest refugee camp in the world. While millions of Syrian refugees have sought new lives in Europe and around the world, thousands have stayed at Za’atari and in the Middle East hoping to return home when the fighting ends. As Fisher explains, 2015 has marked the most severe humanitarian crisis since World War II, with 60 million displaced people, about half of whom are minors.

During Fisher’s most recent visit to Za’atari, she asked more than 150 youths to take part in the “Genius Magician Project.” The young people created designs for technologies they could use to help others. The youths explained who the devices were for and how they would help, their features, and how the devices would protect against misinformation and disinformation, and then drew and named their devices.

Fisher, iSchool Ph.D. student Katya Yefimova and Syrian researcher Eiad Yafi of the University of Kuala Lumpur are analyzing the youth’s designs.  Among the ideas were glasses that would scan their elders to diagnose health problems; heaters that could both deal with the winter cold and serve as communications devices; and magic roads for transporting people, especially the aged and those with disabilities, around the camp. Their “magic genius devices” told researchers not only what they dreamed of, but what needs are not being met in the camp.

“You have to consider the stories and designs in the context of the people they’re helping,” Fisher said. “You see the gaps in society and how people need to be helped.”

Fisher said one teenager drew what looked like an ordinary smartphone, and she asked what was special about it. The teen explained that it would be a device with lots of memory, “because I have to look after all of the cultural memories of my father and grandfather back in Syria.”

A library at the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan.“Many have lost everything,” Fisher said. “Everything has been destroyed.”

Through all they’ve endured, the children remain a source of inspiration to Fisher. When she returns in early 2016, she hopes to take iSchool students with her to partner with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and non-governmental organizations to develop libraries that offer services such as story time and StoryCorps, a program through which people tell and archive their stories.

With the disruption in young people’s education, Fisher says there are opportunities for libraries to promote literacy at Za’atari. She is lining up assistance from industry, non-governmental organizations, and computer scientists. The team will work to build prototypes, to turn some of the kids’ “magic genius” ideas into reality, and to start creating library services.

“That is when the magic is really going to start.” Fisher said.

If you’d like to be involved, please contact Karen Fisher (fisher@uw.edu) and visit InfoMe.uw.edu. To support local and international humanitarian efforts in the Middle East, Fisher recommends the Salaam Cultural Museum.