Future's Butterflies Empowering Syrian Youth through Participatory Design

Mural in Za'aatari Refugee Camp

Background: Za'atari Refugee Camp and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The brutal civil war in Syria has contributed to the worst global refugee crisis since World War II. As of January 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees registered almost 4.6 million Syrian refugees and reported that the number continues to rise.

Jordan, one of the refugee host countries, has taken more than 635,00 registered Syrian refugees. An estimated 80,000 people are currently residing in the Za'atari refugee camp near the desert town of Mafraq, Jordan. The camp, built in summer of 2012 for about 100 families fleeing the war in Syria, has now grown to become the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Za'atari operates as a city, complete with hospitals, schools, and an informal economy of shops and businesses.

Za'atari Youth

  • More than 58% of Za'atari residents are under age 17
  • Only 15,500 of the 28,000 school-aged children are currently enrolled in one of the camp's 5 schools
  • Child marriage, child labor, and vast distances between schools and residences are among the many hurdles youth face in continuing formal education
  • A majority of the young people own a mobile phone and use them to help others, serving as information brokers or ICT wayfarers in the camp.

In January 2015 we set out to explore how young people in Za'atari serve as information and technology guides; asking them to think about times when they've helped someone in their community or family and draw those experiences. The illustrations ranged from moments when youth taught elders how to use mobile devices to devastating images of violence and destruction. Eighty percent of refugees residing in Za'atari are from Dara'a -- a predominately rural, low income province ravaged by the war.

I helped my mum with using the mobile and send messages after that she can use the mobile and also she helped her sister to learn about alphabet letters.
One day I was walking in the street. I saw a very old man with disability. I helped him to cross the street.
The people go out Friday to pray then a shell hit the mosque which killed a little girl.

Magical Devices

Inspired by the youth of our first trip, we returned to Za'atari In 2015. This time we asked them to design and draw paper prototypes of visionary devices that could help their families and solve problems in their community. The designs conveyed remarkable creativity, innovation, and hope for the future. Beyond illuminating camp life from their unique perspective, the designs also shed light on how nonprofits and social service providers may better meet community needs, potentially even informing future humanitarian responses.


Our mantra is simply "Youth First." That's why we developed in situ, participatory design workshops, where young people are active partners in the design process. We asked the participants to work in pairs to fuel creativity and help ease literacy barriers. They used LEGO Mini-Figures and Bricks, art supplies, color pens, and FUJI Instamax Cameras to create the devices.

We aim to amplify young voices, spark imaginations and uncover perspectives that would otherwise remain hidden. We believe in connected learning, an approach for the digital age, where people learn from peers and mentors, and where learning is connected to everyday life.

Let's take a look at some of their incredible designs!

Magical devices often depict means of transportation such as this supernatural car that flies to drop off friends at school. Mobility is a challenge in Za'atari for different reasons--many people have physical disabilities, exasperated by war trauma, and there is no public transport to assist with lack of roads.

....or this magic road which can transport anyone in the camp anywhere in an instant. Kids often miss school and people with disabilities cannot get around in the rainy weather for fear of muddying their feet and clothes on Za'atari's dirt roads.

This team used LEGOs to design robots that interpret for children or look after babies when mothers are away from them.

Teams also designed devices similar to existing technology, such as Google glass, but that address particular needs in the camps. One team, who called themselves "Future's Butterflies," designed glasses that help discover and cure diseases.

One of the Magic Features of my Device is to Restore Nice Memories For those who have Lost them.

-Participant, age 14, whose grandfather is suffering from memory loss

What's Next?

Our next step is to bring many of these designs to life!

Inspired by the prototype for collecting memories, for instance, we are adapting StoryCorps, a storytelling app from GooglePlay for a new project in 2016. Our hope is this actualized Magic Genius Device will enable youth to interview their community, strengthen memories and bonds, while also archiving oral histories on YouTube.

You can check out other initiatives we're working to empower Syrian youth on our project's website.

Shukran | Thank You

Many thanks to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), Google, the LEGO Foundation the Norwegian Refugee Council, the American School, the International Medical Corps, Finn Church, International Relief & Development, Salaam Cultural Museum, Libraries Without Borders, and StoryCorps for their ongoing support.

We express our deep gratitude to the young people of Za'atari and the humanitarian aid workers who inspire us everyday with their resilience and spirit.


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