Solar Lights the Way for a Refugee Community

In Jordan’s largest refugee camp, children play soccer just a few yards from a sleek, metal kiosk that looks remarkably like a hot dog stand with solar panels.

The peculiar structure is actually a “connected solar school,” a facility that its creators say is the first of its kind. Powered by the sun, the kiosk delivers a steady, reliable source of electricity to Relief International’s education center in Za’atari refugee camp. The kiosk also provides students and teachers with a huge bonus: their first ever Internet connection.

“The solar kiosk allows students to spend more time learning each day, and to use learning tools only available online,” says Relief International education program manager Danijel Cuturic. “It also provides an opportunity to teach students about issues such as renewable energy and sustainability.”

Relief International’s education center, funded by UNICEF, provides remedial learning programs for Syrian refugee children who have missed weeks, months and sometimes years of school. More than 28,000 children and young adults have completed the program, which also prepares refugees for Jordan’s college entrance exams. Relief International and UNICEF partnered earlier this year with Solarkiosk AG, a German company that uses solar to deliver electricity and Internet connectivity in off-the-grid areas. Partnerships like these are part of the RI Way, and allow RI to leverage diverse expertise to deliver innovative solutions to communities.   

Za’atari is home to more than 80,000 people, making it the fourth largest city in Jordan. But its only source of electricity comes from generators: dirty, noisy, unreliable, expensive and, most important, available only between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Theoretically.

More often, residents can access electricity for only some of those hours, making it difficult to carry on the stuff of life, such as cooking, cleaning, studying, and charging the laptops and cellphones that often provide refugees’ only connection to family left behind. 

Going to school is even more difficult. In the summer, the lack of air conditioning leaves classrooms blazing hot. In winter, they are freezing. In the winter months, the light disappears around 3 o’clock, leaving classrooms in total darkness. With no street lights, girls are forbidden to walk through the dark to or from lessons.

Now, with the installation of the connected solar school, portable lights are charged all day in the kiosk’s charging stations and then hung up in classrooms — extending the school day into the afternoon and giving children more time to learn. Teachers use the kiosk as an office, which uses solar power to run fans, a printer, charging stations and even a refrigerator. The solar kiosk has a direct satellite, bringing connectivity to the center and to Za’atari for the first time.

The introduction of connectivity opens the door to a variety of new teaching and learning methods. UNICEF donated 30 tablets to Relief International’s center. Teachers now have access to new materials and children are motivated to learn on their own by playing educational games on the tablets.

“Tablets have led to new ways of teaching and new ways of understanding for students,” said Rania Al-Hamad, a teacher at the RI education center. “The tablets allow students to find out information on their own, which teaches them how to teach themselves.”

Like many of Relief International’s programs, the connected solar school at Za’atari offers an example for other organizations and projects.

“Only through learning can children reach their full potential and play a positive and active role in rebuilding their lives and country,” UNICEF Jordan Representative Robert Jenkins told researchers for the Independent Power Producers Association of India. “The ‘Connected Solar School’ in Za’atari camp is an important case study for UNICEF to explore the viability of such solutions, for possible replication and expansion to other schools and learning centers for children.”