Recognizing new ways to respond to refugees

At its second annual Innovate for Refugees competition in Amman in January, the MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) awarded a total of $100,000 to five teams of entrepreneurs that presented innovative solutions to problems encountered by displaced people.

 “There are people trying to find solutions to problems that we can’t think of and we want to reward them, shed light on them, and offer them all the support they need to either evolve from the idea stage to actual products,” said Farah Shamas, corporate engagement manager at MITEF Pan-Arab and the project lead of the Innovate for Refugees competition.

The purpose of the event is to provide a space for motivated entrepreneurs to find solutions that address challenges faced by refugees and their host communities such as access to clean water, integration within host communities, language barriers, and finding job opportunities through technology and innovation. The solutions designed by contestants are evaluated based on their level of innovation, scalability, team cooperation, long-term financial sustainability, and impact.

Over 1,000 teams applied to the competition from all over the world, with the refugee participation rate reaching 25 percent, but only 20 teams made it to the final ceremony. Among them was Naji Chamieh and his team, the masterminds behind Flowy, a stand-alone wash basin that continuously filters water utilizing solar energy.

After spending 25 years in the field of environmental science and visiting refugee camps in his home country of Lebanon, Chamieh was inspired to construct and launch Flowy nearly six months ago. “I saw there was a need to clean the water and saw how much water was wasted on the ground so I thought to come up with a better way to minimize water spoilage and purify the water they [refugees] are using,” he said.

He joined forces with four others who supported his vision, but differed in experience. People like Richard Nasr, who has over 15 years of experience in international finance, Souraya Eid, a computer engineer turned financial consultant, and two others who did not attend the event but specialize in mechanical and environmental engineering.

“In the field of water preservation, there isn’t much competition. Especially when it comes to recycling water using solar energy,” Chamieh said. “When you’re combining the two the competition is almost non-existent. Because of climate change, temperatures are increasing, places are becoming dryer and water is not available anymore. You can only solve this by using technology and renewable energy.”

Chamieh and his team members sat in the audience and patiently observed the event until it concluded alongside 19 other semi-finalist teams. Flowy was not selected as one of the five finalists to be awarded a 20,000-dollar investment but his team said they would continue to develop and market their solution in any case, confident that it has the capacity to improve the amount and quality of water consumed in refugee camps.

Of the five finalists was Hope in Sand and Pipes, a solution which provides a transitional shelter for refugees using locally available material with minimum maintenance requirements. Sara Masarani, teaching assistant at Beirut Arab University, took into account environmental considerations in the design to minimize the effects of the heat in the summer and cold in winter while constructing the project.

“The whole idea was about giving refugees a shelter which they can build themselves,” Masarani said. “The project is my masters project.”

The material used to construct the shelters is recyclable, and the whole design can be disassembled, transported and reassembled with no permanent fixation required, making it a convenient alternative for policies that do not encourage the creation of formal camps.

“What we did was starting to visit camps in Lebanon and what we saw there was just not acceptable. No human is supposed to live in these conditions under no circumstance for any amount of time,” Masarani said through a solemn tone and distressed expression. “We saw what their needs were and the idea behind Hope in Sand and Pipes revolved around using sand in the shelter so that it gives protection against extreme weather conditions that anyone can build.”

Other finalists include USA-based Paper Airplanes, an innovation that uses free, mobile-friendly video technology to meet the current gap in teen and adult education; Iraq and Lebanon-based Tech for Food, a digital skills training platform designed to make people employable in the international digital economy in 8 to 16 weeks and connect them to remote jobs; Jordan-based AKYAS, a personal single-use biodegradable toilet with a sanitizer kit; and Austria-based More Than One Perspective, an advanced training program that offers various workshops, training and mentoring to prepare highly qualified refugees to enter the labor market.