Karen Fisher aims to work some 'magic' at camp for Syrian refugees

Information School Professor Karen Fisher is headed back to the Za’atari Refugee Camp to help make some magic.

During a visit to Jordan last year, Fisher asked young Syrian refugees at Za’atari for their ideas for “magic genius devices” – information-based solutions that could help make life easier at the camp. During her return trip in March, Fisher intends to bring one of their ideas to life.

A pilot program aims to help preserve the cultural heritage that refugees left behind in Syria. The worry is that the memory of what it was like before the Syrian civil war will disappear. Fisher’s team is taking 18 mobile phones that youths will use to create video interviews with their families and friends. They’ll upload the private videos to a YouTube channel and create an oral history. The desire to preserve memories and stories was a running theme in the magic genius devices, which inspired the project.  

Another activity Fisher is planning is an effort to promote early literacy through a storytime program. Fisher is taking a variety of materials to the camp’s libraries: books in Arabic and English, storytelling cubes, animal finger puppets, and blank booklets for kids to write and draw stories. Getting together for storytime sessions also will provide opportunities for young refugees and their parents to connect with each other and learn about resources at the camp.

“The idea of promoting reading, promoting education, promoting connectedness, particularly opportunities for girls, seemed like a really special one,” Fisher said. The work of Fisher’s team is part of a broad United Nations effort to use information to help improve conditions at Za’atari. Young people at the camp will be enlisted to contribute to a database of resources that are available and problems that need to be addressed. For example, water and sanitation issues could be identified; and people could be connected with employment opportunities.

“The ‘magic genius devices’ were a really clear indication to the U.N. about the valuable role that youth play as information guides,” Fisher said. “There’s capacity for helping spread information, being adept at using technology. Youth are going to be mobilized to help with all of this.

“There’s a lot of different types of needs, because the camp is the fourth-largest city in Jordan now,” Fisher said.

The camp, run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, is home to nearly 80,000 people who fled the civil war that has enveloped their Syrian homeland since 2011. It’s located in northern Jordan, a short distance from the Syrian border.

Accompanying Fisher on this trip will be Carleen Maitland, an associate professor at Penn State University; Ying Xu, a Penn State Ph.D. student; and Brian Tomaszewski, an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Research assistant Katya Yefimova, an iSchool Ph.D. student, is helping coordinate the Za’atari activities from Seattle.

“I set up these phones and in 24 hours, some Syrian boy or girl will be using them,” Yefimova said. “That’s kind of a fun thing to think about. It creates a human connection with someone I’ve never met and never will.”

Fisher hopes to return a few more times this year to check the progress of her projects and do more to help improve conditions at the camp. She has the support of project sponsors, including Google and Lego, and cooperation from the UNHCR and non-governmental organizations.

“The nice thing about it is our relationship with the NGOs, the fieldworkers, the U.N. officers – it’s really beautiful how it’s all developing,” she said. “You have the opportunity to really feel like you’re accomplishing something good.”

Learn more about the research at Za’atari on the project’s website.