• Fri. Dec 1st, 2023

The plight of the 21st Century refugee

ByAlexander Baekelandt

Nov 4, 2014

A five hour flight from Heathrow to Amman, two hours drive from Amman to Mafraq, and you are in Za’atari, the largest Syrian Refugee camp in the world. With just under 100,000 inhabitants, this is the centrepiece of the human struggle that is happening in not-so-distant Syria.

I arrived there with an idea of teaching the children the basic science they will need to get by in the camp; how to use siphons to pump out water, levers to help them lift heavy objects, sand filters to make the water they wash with clear. With an English science manual and little knowledge of Arabic, I quickly set up a meeting to find myself a translator. I was introduced to Ahmed, and he was the first refugee I came in contact with. With Oakley shades and a nice leather jacket, he was not what I expected from a refugee. As I asked for his phone number, he pulled out his new iPhone, and added me on Whatsapp.

courtesy of Alexander Baekelandt
courtesy of Alexander Baekelandt

Ahmed’s English was perfect. He’d learnt it on the job as a technical officer for Oracle, and had a degree in Computer Science from the University of Damascus. This is the 21st century refugee. Displaced people are found all over the world, and not just in the poorest parts. Ukraine and Syria are perfect examples that show that the modern advancements in technology and living standards are not precursors for political stability on their own.

Higher living standards and global connectivity leads to a huge contrast between what the refugee is expecting from life and their reality. A click away from having a glimpse into the luxurious lives of those in the developed world, it can be hard to accept the harsh conditions they are being put through. This is leading to riots in camps that are considered luxurious by normal humanitarian standards. The realisation is starting to hit aid workers that these global citizens are not content with just sustaining their survival.

courtesy of Alexander Baekelandt
courtesy of Alexander Baekelandt

The crisis in Syria is changing the way we think about how to help people in times of conflict, as a standardised response is no longer working. Humanitarian assistance is going to have to become more multi-disciplinary, engaged, and innovative if it wants to properly cater for the displaced of the 21st century.

Syria Awareness Week has been set up in Edinburgh by Engineers Without Borders, to alert the student body to exactly this kind of issue. Students, with a personal set of skills and experiences, can help in ways that others cannot. That is why I want to engage the student body as a whole about the issues in Syria, because how do we know what sort of assistance will be needed in future conflicts when we don’t know what the refugees will look like?


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