At RI, A “Lost” Generation Finds Themselves

Sixteen-year-old Haifa is a Syrian refugee at Jordan’s Azraq camp, where her parents were grooming her for a traditional woman’s life of cooking, cleaning, caring for children.

“I was raised to believe that my place was at home, that girls can’t participate in most of the things that boys can and that walls surround every move I make,” she says.

Haifa was determined to climb those walls. She found her opportunity at Relief International’s Social Innovation Labs (SILs).

Relief International’s SILs at Za’atari and Azraq camps offer Syrian refugees aged 14 to 18 a comprehensive curriculum of invention, skills training and community interaction. Students — both male and female — work alongside one another to solve pressing social issues that plague camp life. Driven by community-identified needs, the labs represent the first youth-led social interventions in the camps.

Haifa’s enthusiasm, and the outreach of RI staff, eventually convinced her parents to let her participate. Haifa and her team invented a solar-powered “light bell,” which rings and blinks when it’s rung, allowing hearing-impaired camp residents to know when someone is at the door.

Like Haifa’s parents, many camp families resist education on cultural grounds or because they view their situation as temporary. A recent report by Human Rights Watch also found that many families believe education is pointless because students have “limited hope for their future prospects.”

RI launched the 18-month SIL pilot in August 2016 to restore a sense of hope and power to this so-called “lost generation” by offering them real skills that solve real problems.

The 40 youth selected for each of RI’s nine labs spend 10 weeks investigating community needs and testing proposed solutions in schools, community groups and with other target audiences. Participants augment their skills with courses in practical and vocational subjects such as computer literacy, English language, hairdressing, sewing, mechanics and electricity, music and photography.

Each lab produces four to six initiatives, the most feasible and scalable of which are then presented to a jury of innovation specialists, NGOs and prominent technology firms on “Pitching Day.” The jury selects the most promising projects for seed funding and implementation.

Winning projects have included:

  • A robot made from recycled materials and powered by Bluetooth technology that welcomes students to school
  • A solar-powered oven
  • Low-cost movie projectors
  • Water filters
  • Electric generators powered by bicycles

Each new project helps participants, their families and the wider camp community envision life beyond the camp fences. “In RI SIL, our children gain self-awareness and play a significant role in helping their community by initiating creative simple solutions for community challenges,” says Azraq resident and father Abu Ahmad.

The Social Innovation Labs also create real opportunities for graduates. More than two-dozen SIL graduates have re-enrolled in formal education and 15 are pursing vocational training. Nearly a dozen have found work with non-profit organizations. Five SIL graduates work as Beta testers with the Internet company RuMi Technology. One SIL’s “Time Bank,” a skills exchange that allows residents to trade services instead of money, employs six SIL graduates. It also won UN Jordan’s World Humanitarian Day Award for ‘Innovation in Humanitarian Action.’

“My grandfather used to tell me ‘Life is full of rocks. Do not collide with them. Rather, gather them into a stairway that leads you to the top,’” says 16-year-old Abdel, who re-enrolled in school after his movie projector made of a box and a magnifying glass won Pitching Day at Azraq’s social innovation lab. “My advice for all children and youth in the camp is to never give up.”

Social Innovation Lab