"It's OK, I do it again." A D-Lab student journey to Athens to work with refugee youth - and to her family's past

Jana Saadi '18 speaking at the MIT D-Lab 15th Anniversary Symposium.
Jana Saadi '18 speaking at the MIT D-Lab 15th Anniversary Symposium.

"The workshop not only allowed me to connect directly with refugees, it also the helped me connect with my parents and their past even more. It allowed me to put my engineering skills to good use and to impart useful knowledge to those who want to better their lives."

I have been involved in MIT D-Lab for three years now through research and classes.  But there was one D-Lab experience that most affected my life perspective–the trip to Greece I went on this past summer to implement a design workshop for unaccompanied refugee minors living in Athens. 

Raised by immigrant parents

To better understand how the trip affected me, you need to know more about my background. My father was born in Syria to a family of six kids. He left Syria when he was 20 years old because he did not want to serve the required two years in the army, and he saw little opportunity for his future under the oppressive Assad regime. He has been in America for over 30 years, and unfortunately has not had the chance to return back to Syria, even for a short visit. This means that he didn’t have the chance to see his parents again before they passed away, and he hasn’t seen his siblings for over 30 years.  

My mother was born in Lebanon and as a child and young adult, lived through the Lebanese civil war. Ask her now about childhood and she will tell you war stories, or stories of the crazy things she did with her brother when they were trapped indoors. She came to America to escape the war and to pursue her graduate studies. Like my father, my mother has never been back to the country of her birth; she says her family is here now and there is nothing left for her in Lebanon to draw her back there. 

And then there is me - born and raised in New Jersey. I have lived a very privileged life. Growing up, my parents taught me to always be aware of when people may need help, even if they do not ask for it.

As I grew older, and became more aware of the refugee crisis that only worsened every year, I wanted to make a difference, but nothing I did ever felt like enough. I knew I had a unique set of skills and opportunities as a mechanical engineer at MIT, so I wanted to find a way to provide support that few others can. After all the classes I took at D-Lab, I knew that would be a good place to explore the options. I emailed D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith, asking her if she could guide me. Before I knew it, Amy was recruiting me to travel with D-Lab to Greece to implement a design workshop for unaccompanied minors. For me it was like a dream come true to work directly with refugees, and teach them design, which is my concentration at MIT and a field I have become so passionate about. 

Creative Capacity Building with unacompanied minor refugees in Athens

Over the summer, I worked from home to help prepare for the D-Lab Creative Capacity Building (CCB) workshop This was  different than all the other CCB trainings that D-Lab had done.  A lot of preparation was needed including adapting the curriculum to be more relevant to youth living in an urban setting. Finally, in the beginning of August, I traveled with Amy, Martha Thompsan and Asif Obaidee from D-lab, as well as Zoe and Molly from the D-Lab: Humanitarian Innovation class to Greece. In Greece we worked with Dan and Costas from Faros, a shelter for unaccompanied minors and Maria and Stavros from The Cube, an incubator and maker space where we held the workshop. I have to say, I could not ask for a better team to work with in Greece. They were the most helpful, and enthusiastic people, and sacrificed so much for these humanitarian causes. They were all instrumental in the success of the workshop.

 The workshop itself was six days with the first three days focused on learning the design process and introducing useful hands-on skills. After making hot-wire foam cutters, the youth cut out Styrofoam designs used as molds to cast into aluminum. Through making lockable boxes out of cardboard and then wood, the youth learned the value of prototyping and were introduced to woodworking techniques. The next three days were spent implementing the design process and skills that they learned through their own projects. The participants identified problems that they wanted to solve, and then worked in teams to make products that could address those problems. The projects included a solar powered water pump to use for irrigation, a water cooler, and solar powered fans, which, I realized, after sitting in the hot summer heat in Athens, were an attractive idea. 

Comparing stories

One day, after a long day of work, one of the Syrian boys, Aaed, sat on the chair like so many of the youth, he was reluctant to leave. I sat by him with a few other instructors and little by little we began to learn his story. He told us that he came to this workshop because he loves to learn. Back in Syria, he would study every day by candlelight, and was at the top of his class in every subject except English. When I asked him why not English he said, “It's just so hard. Half of the letters you write aren’t even pronounced, it makes no sense.” Honestly, I could not argue with that logic. He described the constant fear that they lived in, not sure if their simple walk to school would turn fatal after the explosion of one of the many hidden road bombs, or whether they would have enough food the next day. He told us that he was forced to quit school because the army was coercing the boys to join, and he did not want any part of it. The inability to continue his education is what caused him to leave Syria. He hoped for better prospects that would enable him to help his family remaining in Syria.

I told him my father’s story. I told him that  just like him, my father left Syria because he too did not want to join the army, and was looking for better opportunity. He said to me words that I will never forget. He said “That is my fear, to end up like your father, stuck outside of my country for 30 years, never to see my family again.”  

My father’s reality was this boy’s nightmare. That struck me. I never thought much of the journey my parents took in the earlier stages of their lives. Aaed’s story made me feel for my parents and their past in ways I could not before. My mother, who has survived all the atrocities of war. And my father, who has been through so many experiences that I could not even imagine going through them on my own. 

But there is one key difference between Aaed’s story and that of my parents. My parents voluntarily left their countries as immigrants, whereas Aaed escaped as a refugee at a time when his status and religion put him at a disadvantage in the world of fear that we currently live in. His story has also made me determined in my resolve to help the thousands of refugees like him to the best of my abilities.  

Resilience and perseverence in the face of educations cut short, separation from family and home

Once you hear their stories like these, and get to know all that the youth have been through, so many things that they did in the workshop start to make sense. It made sense that those who spent months on foreign soil painted the flag of their homeland on their boxes and carved out the word ‘mom’ on the case. It made sense that the boy whose family was killed in Iraq found great solace in coming to the workshop and making three boxes a day–just sawing and drilling all day. It made sense that for all these youth, whose educations were cut short, the sight of a certificate with their name on it would have them smiling from ear to ear, excitedly starting a photoshoot with their certificates, and FaceTiming their moms to proudly boast of their achievements.

But the entire time, what struck me the most was their resilience and perseverance. At first glance you could never imagine all the hardships the youth went through. On the outside they seemed like all other soccer-loving boys their age. But then you learn of their backgrounds, like that of Odai, the Palestinian refugee turned Syrian refugee who spent four years living in the Yarmouk refugee camp, and you see that these youth can handle so much of what is thrown their way. 

When we were making the boxes, I somehow got dragged with Molly into helping Ebrahim make his triangle box, which required a bunch of angled cuts. Imagine telling a person who has never sawed before to make angled cuts with nothing but a handsaw, and no other tool to help guide him. It was not easy, but he persisted. One time the angle was way off and the pieces wouldn’t fit. His words: “It’s OK, no problem, I do it again.” Then the wood breaks halfway through sawing. “It’s OK, no problem, I do it again.” He cuts along the wrong line. “It’s OK, no problem, I do it again.” A full day later, after many attempts, we thankfully had three pieces of wood, each cut at an angle such that they fit well enough together. In the end he was the only person from the group who made a box with angled cuts. This was a great learning experience for Ebrahim, as it showed him that in engineering, things can and will fail, but if you keep a positive attitude, you can end up with a unique product.

Refugee youth turned innovators and designers 

On the final day of the workshop, we handed out certificates to all the youth that attended. I will never forget the look on the boys’ faces when they heard they were getting certificates. Their excitement could not be contained. Later, Amy asked us to pick the one moment from the workshop that immediately came to mind when we thought of the workshop. The smiling faces as they got their certificates is what I see. That happiness on their faces represents all that this workshop accomplished. It was a place where they could come in and make good use of their time and learn useful skills that could benefit them. It was a place where they were not treated as refugees but as innovators and designers. It was a place where new friendships were being formed every single day. To me, that moment represents all that I set out to do—watch people grow, and help make a tangible difference in their lives.

Looking forward: graduate work in international development

Honestly, I can never thank the people from D-Lab enough for this experience. The workshop not only allowed me to connect directly with refugees, it also the helped me connect with my parents and their past even more. It allowed me to put my engineering skills to good use and to impart useful knowledge to those who want to better their lives. It definitely has influenced the decisions I have made since, from the classes I am taking this semester, to choosing to pursue a master’s degree so that I can continue learning about development work. It has left me craving for more opportunities like it, where I can use the knowledge that I gained through my years at MIT, to directly benefit others. 

So, hopefully, life can bring me around to continue doing this fulfilling humanitarian work, and who knows? Maybe I will end up in Greece. As Ebrahim, my friend with the triangle box, said many times, “It’s ok, no problem, I can do it again”