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The remarkable way 3D printers are saving lives in refugee camps

Refugee camps are usually seen as scenes of crisis. But a team of innovators wants to change that.

The remarkable way 3D printers are saving lives in refugee camps
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Ahmad's world went dark at age 22 when he was shot across the eyes during the Syrian civil war.

But two years later, a Syrian refugee named Asem came across a startup called Refugee Open Ware, where he learned to build Ahmad a customized echolocation device that fit over his hand.

The device uses vibrations to indicate how close objects are in his environment, and it's helping Ahmad walk on his own again.


"For two years, I haven't felt this feeling — where I walk and know what's in front of me," Ahmad said.

Ahmad's new echolocation device was built by a fellow refugee, all because of a startup called Refugee Open Ware. Photo from Refugee Open Ware.

The founders of Refugee Open Ware look at refugee camps and see more than devastation — they see possibility.

Asem, the man who built Ahmad's new device, is among the first of many refugees who are learning to 3D-print and code at Refugee Open Ware, a series of fabrication labs, or "fab labs," located in crisis areas. The company was founded by Dave Levin and Loay Malahmeh.

“We want to take the most advanced technology and put it in the hands of those who need it the most," Levin said.

Refugee Open Ware gives refugees access to digital manufacturing technologies.

The idea is to stock each Refugee Open Ware fab lab with laser cutters, vinyl cutters, milling machines, 3D printers, and scanners.

They'll also be packed with the kinds of things you'd find in any good woodworking or metal shop, like welding equipment, table saws, band saws, lathes, and handcrafting tools.

With 3D printers similar to these ones, trained individuals might print 3D prosthetics and supplies for their fellow refugees. Photo by Ultimaker.

While seemingly simple, this equipment opens up new possibilities for many displaced people, encouraging everything from creative play and learning for kids to simple repairs and skills training for adults.

The first Refugee Open Ware pilot program is now up and running in Amman, Jordan.

There have been more success stories like Ahmad's, too.

One comes from Asem himself, formerly a health care worker who lost a leg during a bombing before he ended up at Refugee Open Ware's facility in Amman. While in Amman, he made his own prosthetic leg with a 3D printer.

Another success story comes from a 6-year-old Yemeni boy.

After losing his hand in a house fire, the boy received a customized, 3D-printed hand from Refugee Open Ware team members, designed to emulate his favorite cartoon superhero, Ben 10. The hand, built with local tools and supplies, costs only $75.

The 6-year-old Yemeni boy sits next to Asem, a Syrian refugee who lost his leg as a paramedic in the war at age 19 and later became a prosthetic technician in Jordan. This photo was taken by Manar Bilal, the man who saved Asem's life. The two are now best friends. Photo by Manar Bilal, courtesy of Refugee Open Ware.

Up next for the program: setting up shop in Turkey and Kurdistan.

Right now, Levin and Malahmeh are also awaiting the necessary permit to build their first maker space at the Za'atari refugee camp on the Jordan-Syria border, staffed entirely by refugees.

It shouldn't be long, since they've already gotten the thumbs-up from King Abdullah II and Queen Rania.

The Za'atari refugee camp in northern Jordan is home to more than 81,000 Syrians. Photo by U.S. Government Works/Flickr.

There's no shortage of crises to attend to. But by providing new technology and tools, Refugee Open Ware might make refugee camps a space where those at the epicenter of a crisis can send out shock waves of good.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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Dr. David McPhee offers advice for talking to someone living in a different time in their head.

Few things are more difficult than watching a loved one's grip on reality slipping away. Dementia can be brutal for families and caregivers, and knowing how to handle the various stages can be tricky to figure out.

The Alzheimer's Association offers tips for communicating in the early, middle and late stages of the disease, as dementia manifests differently as the disease progresses. The Family Caregiver Alliance also offers advice for talking to someone with various forms and phases of dementia. Some communication tips deal with confusion, agitation and other challenging behaviors that can come along with losing one's memory, and those tips are incredibly important. But what about when the person is seemingly living in a different time, immersed in their memories of the past, unaware of what has happened since then?

Psychologist David McPhee shared some advice with a person on Quora who asked, "How do I answer my dad with dementia when he talks about his mom and dad being alive? Do I go along with it or tell him they have passed away?"

McPhee wrote:

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