Years of Waste or New Beginnings?

Welcome back! As we all get back into the swing of classes and campus life, we at the Mortenson Center blog are pleased to continue our series of guest posts written by Mortenson Center students.

I recently looked into sanitation for Internally Displaced People (IDP), who have been displaced from their homes but remain within their own country’s borders. Though their situation is often more dire than the situation of refugees, they both share the feeling of displacement. They are not in their home anymore, where it feels safe, where they can continue to build something permanent.

In my studies, I discovered that though these camps are said to be temporary, for many, they become permanent. Children are born in these camps. Teenagers grow up in the camps. Days go by and mothers are trying to find some sort of normalcy amidst the lingering question of returning home or not.

A friend of mine is currently serving Syrian refugees in Jordan, and I’ve had the honor of keeping up with her team’s updates. One quote struck me about the situation and their service: “And as we drive home I start to dream about what it would look like to have a community of refugees who are genuinely living, a community that is determined to thrive and not just survive. What if these are not seen as wasted years but years in which they felt they had been active participants in shaping and stewarding the future of their nation?”

This hopeful quote reminds me of my research about IDPs. One of the key findings was evidence of IDPs as action-takers and a call to action for aid organizations to implement actor-oriented projects. Could it be that displacement is an opportunity for refugees and IDPs to develop technologies, businesses, and new ways of thinking within their communities? I would be very interested to further study the flow of creativity and innovation among those who have been displaced when given the resources to act on their ideas.

When providing aid to people in this situation, the assumption is often made that such people are hopeless, traumatized, and paralyzed. This is one reason why aid is poured into these camps only to disappear and never come back once the camps have been removed from the headlines. But the people are still there, still trying to make a life.

And what does it mean to “thrive instead of just survive”? As an engineer in development, this question seems prominent, as the temptation is often to provide the bare minimum. But does the bare minimum allow communities to truly thrive? Is it our role as engineers to just provide for a need and leave our hopes for more at the door? I believe there are truly ways to incorporate deeper needs, such as ownership, community, and creativity into our technical projects.

The final question I raise is:  what is the role of an American engineer assisting with water and sanitation in these communities of displaced people? In my research, it was clear that the sanitation situation in these “temporary” camps is worse than normal, so the need is definitely there. Changing practices and training people in these situations can translate into “normal” life, whatever that ends up looking like. It is also clear that beyond the need being met, the situations may provide a unique opportunity for community participation and innovation. Sanitation efforts can be used to meet a need and to provide the voiceless with a voice, which may eventually translate into other sectors of life. What if aid organizations seized the opportunity to allow individuals to become “active participants in shaping and stewarding the future of their nation?” Call me optimistic, but I would think it’s worth a try.

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