This Refugee Is 3D-Printing Lost Limbs for Syrian War Survivors

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A Palestinian engineering major is working to bring affordable prosthetic limb technology—and hope—to injured Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

As a teenager, Ibrahim Mohammad helped distribute food and clothing in the early years of Syria’s war to refugees in the Bekaa Valley, a region in Lebanon that now holds over 360,000 refugees. Many were missing legs due to bombings, rockets, and artillery fire; many more were missing arms. The camp’s inhabitants had access to few basic resources—let alone prosthetic limbs, or advanced technology that could mitigate their suffering.

While doling out rice to refugees, Mohammad could see firsthand how bad their living conditions were, and he could also relate to their feelings of hopelessness. A refugee from the Palestinian village of Beit’ Anan, he grew up in a camp just outside Beirut. Electricity was largely unavailable—when he wanted to read after dark, he’d stand beneath a streetlight—as was fresh water.

Today, Mohammad studies mechanical engineering at the University of Rochester and works in a lab researching large-scale energy grid solutions. The opportunity came through AMIDEAST, an American nonprofit that works to help refugees and other youth from the Middle East obtain US scholarships and take part in cultural exchange.

The organization is one of many that could now face significant challenges in light of President Trump’s executive order to temporarily suspend entry for all refugees and individuals from seven Muslim countries. Following a federal appeals court ruling that blocked key parts of the ban, Trump has said he is considering measures to restore it, including drafting a "brand new" order.

After the initial cost of the printer—approximately $1,300—each hand costs just $50 to produce. Not only are they inexpensive, but recyclable and environmentally friendly.

The chance to study at a Research 1 university equipped Mohammad with the resources needed to match previously unavailable technologies with humanitarian aid. As a refugee, his own experience has given him a keen awareness of the level of need and suffering in the camps, as well as a drive to help meet and alleviate it.

Palestinian refugees comprise approximately ten percent of Lebanon’s population, yet they are officially without citizenship. "Palestine sees me as Lebanese and Lebanon sees me as Palestinian," Mohammad said when we first spoke in July, "which I guess means I’m stateless." They have virtually no political or social rights, and little economic opportunity—there’s a 90-percent unemployment rate in the camps, and refugees are banned from over 20 professions, including law, medicine, and journalism. As a refugee, Mohammad was expected to sell drugs, join a militia, end up in jail. Sometimes, while helping his father sell orange juice from a street cart, he was harassed by the police. They’d try and take his daily earnings, as selling juice in the street is technically "illegal." He was once fined $100; at the hearing he asked the judge, "Would you rather I steal instead? I’m trying to earn an honest living, and you’re punishing me." That time, the judge ruled him not guilty—but over the years, he and his father incurred over $1,000 in fines for similar charges.

Mohammad kept hoping that someone would come along to make life better for him and others in the camp, but no one ever came. Rather than let anger consume him, he decided that even if bigotry towards refugees existed, he wouldn’t let it exist in his mind. He refused to believe that he was less than anyone, and that mentality sometimes helped to change the attitudes of those around him who thought otherwise. While working as a mechanic, he’d say good morning to a Lebanese client who came in daily; every morning, the client responded by spitting at him. He kept saying it, though, day after day. After a month, the client stopped spitting. And after six weeks, the client said good morning back.

During his junior year, advisors from AMIDEAST visited his UNRWA-run high school. Mohammad filled out an application for their Hope Fund program, which specifically secures US scholarships and cultural exchange opportunities for Palestinian refugees from camps scattered throughout the Middle East. That summer, while out buying cups for his father’s juice cart, he got a call from AMIDEAST’s educational advisors requesting an interview.

Mohammad initially assumed his father would say no—Mohammad was helping to support their family, so they’d need him to stay in Lebanon—but instead, he skipped work to take him to the appointment. With this new, tangible opportunity in sight, he decided that he would become the person who never came to help him.

Nancy Qubain, one of the founders of the Hope Fund, suggested that he consider the University of Rochester. He went to the school’s website and was confounded by the pictures of students throwing water balloons at one another. It all felt too good to be true—almost artificial. "You don’t see people throwing things at each other and being happy about it in the camp where I grew up," Mohammad said. He kept browsing the site and learned about their energetics lab’s omega laser, the strongest in the US after Berkeley’s. He was inspired by the school’s motto, Meliora, which translates from Latin to "ever better." As someone who was personally invested in improving the way people live, it spoke to him.

Ibrahim in the lab. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Mohammad

Mohammad had never been outside Lebanon when he arrived for his freshman year. Things in the States seemed incredibly hectic to him: his peers had different backgrounds, and he was reluctant to share a lot about his own. "It’s hard to connect with someone who’s never had to worry about being able to afford food, or whose parents came to help them set up their dorm room, or who doesn’t have to work and still gets an allowance." But as he began to open up and make friends, he realized they didn’t need to be from similar backgrounds to connect.

Mohammad was at work in the lab at Rochester when we last spoke in early January, despite the fact that it was winter break. He’d just come from the gym and was wearing a black sleeveless shirt, his shoulder-length dark hair pulled back in a bun. Now a senior, he took a class in his sophomore year with Douglas Kelley, a professor who specializes in fluid dynamics; he taught Mohammad the implications of liquid metal batteries. "They have enough capacity and enough electricity to power a city," he told me. "They can play a huge role in making renewable energy more efficient."

Mohammad also met Omar Soufan during his sophomore year while working on a water-related project in the Dominican Republic with Engineers Without Borders. Soufan grew up on the outskirts of Damascus; his family is still in Syria despite the fact that so many others around them have fled. They were both engineering majors, and both committed to putting the skills and resources they were gaining at school towards aid work. Recalling the suffering he’d witnessed while volunteering in the Bekaa Valley, he wanted to do something to help Syrian refugees in that region who’d been mutilated by the war.

Seeing so many of his friends get killed or end up in prison has pushed him to do as much as he can as soon as possible. "When you give someone like me an opportunity to study at a university in the US," he said, "you shouldn’t expect anything less."

They contacted Soufan’s uncle at the Syrian-American Medical Society, who connected them with the Syrian Medical Relief Office (SMRO) in Majdal Anjar, a village in the Bekaa located along the road that links Beirut and Damascus. They then spoke with SMRO’s coordinators and asked what their facility needed most urgently.

While SMRO’s facility had ample leg prosthetics for amputees, the clinic lacked upper limb prosthetics, which, as Ibrahim came to learn, can be much more complicated to produce. "With legs, you basically need something to stand on," Mohammad said. "But with arms you need hands, ones that match, and that allow you to at least grip." The problem was the price: Prosthetic arms cost a few thousand dollars a piece, and given the number of amputees, many of whom were children who would outgrow their prosthetics, such a high cost was infeasible.

Mohammad spoke with Professor Kelley about this dilemma. Through his cycling club, Kelley had met a professor at RIT named John Schull who researches 3D-printed prosthetics and participates in e-NABLE, a global network that provides free, open source designs for printable prosthetic hands and arms. e-NABLE’s technology involves 3D-printed lower arms made out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic that use a tension mechanism in order to clamp the hands on and off. After the initial cost of the printer—approximately $1,300—each hand costs just $50 to produce. Not only are they inexpensive, but recyclable and environmentally friendly.

After connecting with Professor Schull, Mohammad and Soufan set out with the goal of transferring e-NABLE’s remarkable technology to the clinic in Majdal Anjar. They also solicited the help of 3D LifePrints, a UK-based company that helps amputees in developing countries obtain 3D-printed lower arm and hand prosthetics, and that prints from flexible rather than hard plastic, meaning you don’t need multiple parts to each hand. The material that the palm is made out of is flexible filament—"flexi-fil"—which can bend and stretch.

Bending the finger of a 3D-printed hand. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Mohammad

After they first contacted SMRO, Soufan and Mohammad raised $7,000 to purchase rehabilitation equipment for the facility. Last summer they established Prosthesis for New Syria, with the goal of raising enough funds to purchase two to three 3D printers and enough flexi-fil. They’d like to set up the printers in SMRO’s facility, and then gather a sample of patients in need of lower arm prosthetics. So far they’ve raised $4,300, and have purchased a 3D scanner.

Eventually they’d like to make the entire process self-sustainable. Rather than asking a doctor to apply the prosthetic limb, they would 3D-scan and print the prosthetic, mold and print a socket for the limb using 3D-molding software, place the socket on the cut, and place a printed hand on the socket. Since many amputees can’t afford to travel to the clinic, and since the idea of setting up a fixed facility in such a volatile, dangerous region seems unsustainable (at any moment it could be robbed or destroyed), making the process self-sustainable could allow for a mobile facility. They’d ideally place all of the necessary technology in a van—the 3D scanner, the printer, and a computer—and travel to each patient.

For Mohammad, one of the most valuable resources in life is time. He’s comforted by the fact that no matter how rich you are you can’t buy more of it: He has the same number of hours in a day as anyone. Seeing so many of his friends get killed or end up in prison—and knowing these are fates he may’ve narrowly escaped—has pushed him to do as much as he can as soon as possible. "When you give someone like me an opportunity to study at a university in the US," he said, "you shouldn’t expect anything less."

Mohammad eventually wants to visit camps around the world—in Haiti, Kenya, others in Lebanon besides the one he grew up in, where his family still lives. He wants to meet refugees from different backgrounds, and use the tools he’s gained at Rochester to help increase their access to electricity and other resources. He wants to watch a child regain the ability to catch a ball, and eventually, regain potential for a job that requires the use of hands. He wants to know that opportunities like the one he was afforded will continue to exist for refugees like himself, who had little hope for a future ahead and who now have the resources to help those still suffering.

He wants other refugees to know his story, that even though he grew up in a camp, he had the chance to achieve something he’s proud of. He graduates this May. And while the current landscape for refugees in the US is especially bleak, he wants his trajectory to remain an attainable possibility. "The best thing you can give someone," Mohammad said, "is hope."

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