A Fab lab in Gaza

Getting into Gaza is an experience in itself. Basically you have to cross 3 borders.. bag scanners, little cabins with people who want to see your passport and ask questions, turnstiles and camera’s – Israeli border, Fatah border, Hamas border.

Between them you take a little bus, and a taxi (2 shekels), because if you’d walk they might shoot you (I asked, I like walking).

What most people don’t realise, is that Gaza was quite modern well before the blockade, and is home to many universities and scores of very smart people. But these very smart people are stuck on a small strip of land, and often scared. Who wouldn’t be, after repeated bombings, and young people getting shot every Friday when they all go throw stones at the fences.

So what does it mean to put a fab lab in such a place? Will those young people stop throwing stones and educate themselves? Start businesses? Well, some will. And that’s the point. It might be a light in the darkness, it’s certainly an opening to the world. 1600 labs (Fab Foundation’s last count) around the globe share a common idea – let’s make stuff that’s useful to us, and looks good, and that can be shared (the digital version of it, that is.) with anyone who want’s it, as long as it doesn’t hurt people.

So even if you (for now) are ‘stuck’ on a small strip of land, or an island, or wherever, you can take part in the fab lab network. A group of people who will not tell you what to do, but who will happily share their knowledge with you, as long as you will use it to help people, and not hurt them.

Yousef and Sally run our little lab in Gaza, and they are amazing. The whole team is, for that matter. They took us for a dinner, where we had the most amazing fresh fish, spicy salad (“you sure you like spicy food?” said Sally) and mint and lime drinks I can remember. Lot’s of laughs, and such a wonderful lively group. And in the lab, they run workshops, and teach the kids, in situations most people would complain about. I remember being in a lab I set up long ago, and listening to people complaining – “we don’t have a lot of space, we don’t have enough tools, we don’t have enough machines…”

Sally and Yousef have little, but do a lot. Which I wish I could say of all the people I meet.

So what can you do, in a location where it’s hard to get tools, machines, materials, ideas, peace and quiet? You get creative. Yousef used Inkstitch (an Inkscape plugin) to make the kids designs on the embroidery machine, and the pen plotter (he build himself) with slicer for fusion 360 to make objects from 3D shapes, because we cannot get a laser cutter.

I asked them to run a workshop when I was there, because I wanted to see what it was like for the kids. When we started the workshop there where 6 kids. When I left (taxi arrived) I had a hard time leaving the space.. I hugged Yousef, to say goodbye (I lived in the US, so that’s natural) and consequently got a +20 kid hug. Then my colleagues offered me local sweets (which I still regret I did not take) and I left.

And getting out of Gaza is another experience in itself. Hamas border, Fatah border, Israeli border. The first two can be long, and full of questions and showing of passports and documents. The last one is like and airport, but everything is oversized, extra long and less optional. Say goodbye to your passport (and everything you are not wearing) until they put it back into a large plastic bin, and it gets back to you. Then hand your passport to a person in a little cabin (note, the Israeli army employs as many woman as men, and has options for handicapped people), answer a bunch of questions, and you are back in Israel.

I hope there will be a positive change for the whole of Gaza soon, but in the mean time we can learn and laugh together, even at a distance, while we build things together.

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Jean-michel worked as a senior consultant for the Fab Foundation, as a professor of the practice at Tufts University, and manages Fab Connections - teaching about digitally controlled tools, creating and developing fab labs, and making connections between old and new spaces and communities. He lives in France with his wife and 3 kids.

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