Students from Boston University Experience AUB's School of Humanitarian Engineering

An informal Syrian refugee camp in the Beqaa Valley has become something of a classroom for American students from Boston University (BU) looking to hone their engineering and problem-solving skills at AUB’s School on Humanitarian Engineering, a three-week course that the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture run in coordination with Johns Hopkins and Boston Universities. Students learn about the current refugee crisis in the context of Lebanon’s long history as a waystation of migratory people. They travel to the camp to speak to refugees, learn about their problems such as access to water, healthcare, and education, then break up into teams and try to devise solutions 

The students from BU who sat down with AUB NYO made clear that they were keenly aware of their “privilege.” They spoke of guilt at being so well-off compared to the refugees, but also of great personal and intellectual growth, an appreciation for the humanity and inventiveness of those living in camps, and their experience trying to solve the problems of a humanitarian crisis.  

Anna Bottrell, a philosophy major, blogged about the experience: “Going to the settlements, I saw the invisible powers that lay my life’s foundation. I also realized that not only is this system set up for me, but that it is set up for me because I am a part of the system. It is maintaining itself. I am yet another privileged consumer.” 

Shelia Philips, a rising junior in biology, wrote: I have learned not only the tools and techniques it takes to properly come to solutions in almost any humanitarian issue, but now also know how important it is to act on these issues.”  

Anna Rose Helfrich, who just graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering, focused on access to healthcare information. “There was a lot of inconsistency in terms of what people believed they were entitled to. We were overwhelmed by the inconsistent answers we got when it came to people understanding what health information they should be guaranteed access to.”  

She and her team questioned the refugees then returned to campus and came up with a prototype device for disseminating information about healthcare rights. “We came up with a box with an audio recording in it. It has a simple interface. Someone just has to press a button, then a message plays telling refugees what rights they have.” 

AUB NYO asked Ashray Mohan, a rising senior in biomedical engineering, to consider the meaning of the term humanitarian engineering. “I think it means trying to train engineers to be socially conscious. I was familiar with the concept because they have it at BU.”  

He spoke of his experience traveling from Beirut to the camps. “Heading into the Beqaa Valley, the dynamics changed. There’s an intensity about the whole place. I imagined the camps would be more restricted than they were.” Staff from NGO Beyond, which serves the refugee community, greeted Mohan and his cohort and guided them around the camp. He says the refugees “knew why we were there. They asked about what we were going to do. We were very clear that we were there for observational purposes.”  

“We focused on water. The wells in the camp were contaminated. We came up with an innovative filter design. We were thinking of a design that you can fit into the piping system. We sketched it up. We brought water samples back. Our prototype worked. We got significantly better water quality from it, but it hasn’t yet been implemented. The school wants us to take an active approach to raise funds to get the project implemented.”  

Hiva Hosseini, who just graduated with a biomedical engineering degree, says she problem-solved in Lebanon alongside students from a variety of academic backgrounds. “We had psych majors, philosophy majors.” She came, she says, to step out of her comfort zone. 

“We stayed at the AUB dorms and attended lectures about the refugee situation.” Over a three-week period, she traveled to the camp four times. “After interviewing the refugees, we decided to focus on health and chronic illnesses.”  

“We thought about how air quality can obviously affect their health.” She and her team designed an air filter. “There was a box, on the right side of it a fan, and in the middle a filter made of activated charcoal.” She says people could put it in their tents to improve air quality and thus health. She hasn’t yet been able to find funding for the project but believes it could scale. She sees the program as one with great potential. Yet the problems facing the refugees, she says, “are large and complicated. They need time.”