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.

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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In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

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Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

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Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

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Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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