How, exactly, can a FabLab help youth?

It was my first day at Tdh. I was sitting at a pretty desk in Switzerland with hot water, electricity and a box of chocolates. Tdh had given me millions of documents to read. I had a clear task – figure out how to use FabLabs to help young people in situations of conflict.

Everything about my life – the internet speed, the clarity of my task, the chocolate – was significantly better compared to Afghanistan. Or Somalia. I was happy.

There was only one problem. I had no idea how digital fabrication tools could help youth in conflict situations. Why would a Somali teenager go to FabLab rather than Al Shabaab? Why would a 20-something-year-old Afghan go to a FabLab rather than grow opium?

In short – what, exactly, would a FabLab bring to underprivileged youth?

I looked around. I looked at my organic salad, my specialty coffee, my ergonomically correct chair. I looked at the trappings of my new life … and I couldn’t answer the question.

So I went to Greece. Tdh established its first humanitarian FabLab in Greece in 2017. The FabLab was set up in Ioannina with the aim of providing support to young migrants arriving in Europe. It is located in a community centre together with language classes, legal services and child protection support.

Greece demonstrated pretty clearly that migrants are interested in digital fabrication – on average, 27 people per day visited the FabLab. Once people came, they were hooked. They invested. The average FabLab visitor made 20 visits to the lab over a one year period.

Who were these people? Why did they come to the FabLab?

As expected, the majority of FabLab visitors (58%) were youth/teenagers. 51% of visitors were women – which is a real surprise, given that there are huge challenges associated with getting women involved in IT and new technology. Most of the visitors to the FabLab were refugees and migrants – people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan.

The projects at the FabLab were not revolutionary. No one developed the cure to cancer, or a robotic device to clear bombs, or a solar powered car. Girls made jewellery, boys made toy planes and cars, teenagers drew digital art for their sweethearts. Maybe all of these things could have been done without digital fabrication tools – but people came to the centre for the FabLab.

And the community at the FabLab is nothing short of amazing. Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Congolese, Iranian all come to the lab. Some parts of life in the FabLab are direct parallels to life back home – there are groups of people that don’t mix, there is discrimination. But sometimes everything is simply different. When the Ethiopians are in charge of the music, Syrian girls in headscarves bop their heads to African pop. Big Iraqi men with tattoos help thirteen-year-old Iranians with craft projects. People bring food to the centre and cook big communal mixed-up dinners.

This community – the capacity of digital fabrication tools to bring people together – is, for me, the key to Humanitarian FabLabs. I am not expecting to produce the next iPhone – but I am expecting to bring people together and to empower people.

What can youth do when they are empowered?

  • They are in a safe space. Tdh works with young people who are at risk – of human trafficking, of forced labour, of child labour. Often, their families do not have the resources to keep these youth safe. A FabLab may not eliminate all problems – but it provides a safe and secure space for youth to learn more about the world and their communities.
  • They can learn. At a FabLab, youth can learn digital skills ranging from the very basic – how to right click, and why to right click – to the (at least seemingly) advanced – how to design a toy plane for a 3d printer. Once youth have these skills, they can start to ask questions about high school, technical school, university. They can start to work themselves for educational qualifications or to create things and solutions for people within their communities.
  • They are more entrepreneurial and employable. Young people learn valuable skills at FabLabs – and these skills can help them in a marketplace where it is hard to get a job. Youth also experiment in FabLabs, learning to be creative and explore their own ideas. This can generate entrepreneurship opportunities.

Have we missed opportunities? Are we aiming in the right direction?

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