Minor Fixing Offers Major Benefits

IRAQ — As the residents of Iraq’s Darashakran Camp sheltered from the heat in their tents, Suhaila Ahmed Muhammad stood outside one of the public latrines teaching a group of men how to install a water tap.

Ms. Muhammad is a graduate of Relief International’s Minor Fixing program, a 10-day training course that empowers residents of the refugee camp to tend their own plumbing needs. Launched in 2015 with support from UNICEF and the United States’ Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the program has turned out more than 200 volunteer plumbers, more than half of them women like Ms. Muhammad. After passing a final exam, each graduate is given a tool kit – and responsibility for 16 families in his or her neighborhood.

Since graduating from the program and being named a Minor Fixing trainer in 2015, Ms. Muhammad has spent most of her days moving through the camp, fixing faucets, installing valve floats and teaching new minor fixers how to do the same. She also manages a team of eight other volunteer plumbers to ensure that anyone who needs help, especially the most vulnerable residents, can get it.

When a widow and her five children were left with the heavy burden of fixing their home after a powerful storm hit the camp, Ms. Muhammad was there with her toolkit. Ms. Muhammad still sees the family during her rounds. “I saw her and she loved me,” she says.  

Relief International knows that the key to empowering people in dire circumstances is to make them participants in their own solutions. With nearly 11,000 residents, Darashakran houses thousands of once-middle class families – doctors, lawyers, teachers, cab drivers – who these days live as though they’re camping. Many of them have been living this way for more than two years. The facility was not built to accommodate such large numbers of people or such lengthy stays. And though each household has access to a toilet, a shower and a kitchen, the strain on infrastructure causes leaky pipes and other issues. Ms. Muhammad is familiar with the ongoing struggle to maintain the camp’s facilities: She fixes an average of 10 problems per day, and once installed a total of 90 water taps in a single afternoon.

RI developed the minor fixing program in response to requests from camp residents. Mohammed Selim, a Syrian refugee and an engineer by training, designed the program along with Relief International’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) team and became the project’s community leader.

Like many organic initiatives, this one is growing. UNICEF has called Minor Fixing a “good example of community involvement,” and commissioned a manual from Relief International so it could be replicated elsewhere. Three camps in Northern Iraq are slated to receive Minor Fixing in 2016.

A former bridal salon owner, Ms. Muhammad never dreamed she’d spend her days fixing taps and valves in the scorching desert heat. Still, she recognizes the impact of her work.

“The most important aspect of this job is the bond between refugees living here and Relief International,” she says. “People appreciate whatever we do for them here. People know us. People are depending on RI.”