Refugee robot engineers bring hope to Syria

The Hope of Syria robotics team, composed entirely of refugee students, has advanced to an international competition.

Syrian Robotics Team
While winning the US tournament is their first priority, the team also wants to draw attention to the plight of Syrians [Olivia Alabaster/Al Jazeera]

Taanayel, Bekaa, Lebanon – After more than five years of brutal conflict, Hope of Syria may sound like an ambitious name – but this young team of robot engineers is eager to help shoulder the responsibility of rebuilding their country.

The team, composed entirely of Syrian refugee students, recently won a national robotics competition in Lebanon, when their robot, SYR01, managed to shoot the most balls into a net. They will now compete in the Vex world robotics competition on April 20 in the US state of Kentucky, coming up against some 450 other teams from around the world.

While winning the tournament is their first priority, team member Amjad al-Homsi, 17, says they also want to draw attention to the plight of Syrians.

Hope of Syria won a robotics competition in Lebanon when their robot, SYR01, shot the most balls into a net [Olivia Alabaster/Al Jazeera]
Hope of Syria won a robotics competition in Lebanon when their robot, SYR01, shot the most balls into a net [Olivia Alabaster/Al Jazeera]

“[It’s about] putting the spotlight on Syrians,” Homsi, the team’s engineering network manager, told Al Jazeera. “We want to tell them that instead of the bad or difficult circumstances, they can do something – they can rebuild.”

Homsi, who is originally from Damascus, says that when he returns to Syria, he wants to continue in this field, working in mechatronics, which combines mechanical, computer and electrical engineering.

“My dream is to rebuild Syria, and to be part of that process,” Homsi said.

Fatima al-Soki, 16, one of the team’s programmers, is also hoping to turn this into a career.

“This is the first time that I’ve done programming, and I’ve been really excited to come to class,” Soki told Al Jazeera. “I want to be a software engineer, and I hope the skills I am learning now will help all Syrians in the future.”

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Mohammad al-Hasan, who directs the Continuing Education and Community Service Programme at MAPs, a Lebanese NGO catering to Syrian refugees, is passionate about inculcating this sense of optimism in students about a shared future back in Syria. Hope of Syria came about as part of a robotics class offered by Hasan’s programme.

“These skills and this knowledge will create a revolution in their minds,” he told Al Jazeera. “Good ideas come from sharing, not from one person. We want to raise our voice to the world community to support refugees’ education. It is more important than relief or aid.

“If we lose this generation, we will lose the future,” Hasan added. 

Tens of thousands of Syrian children in Lebanon do not attend school, sometimes due to the expense of transportation or school books, but also because parents often rely on the income that their children can earn.

Hasan’s programme, which provides an alternative for these children, is being funded by Orienthelfer, a German NGO. Bilal Hittawi, an Orienthelfer representative who works from the organisation’s Beirut office, recently visited the MAPs centre for a celebratory party for the robotics team.

I want to make robots to clear up the waste of the war.

by Mohammed al-Khoshfeh, Hope of Syria's team captain

“They are refugees because of the war, but they are normal people; they are talented, they are educated, they can do a lot,” Hittawi told Al Jazeera. “We have to support and let them be involved in other communities, and not just [be] outsiders.”

Hope of Syria’s team captain, 19-year-old Daraya native Mohammed al-Khoshfeh, has been interested in robotics for years, and says he is excited to learn more from the other teams in the United States next week.

“All Syrians … can learn these things, even outside of school. You can build a robot just by playing,” Khoshfeh told Al Jazeera, noting that he would like to help with the postwar rebuilding efforts in Syria whenever he is able to return home. “I want to make robots to clear up the waste of the war.”

Mulham Roumia, who teaches the robotics class at MAPs and is himself Syrian, is supportive of this idea.

“Our children in Syria want to be taught, and they need to be given the hope that they can build Syria,” Roumia told Al Jazeera.

If Hope of Syria wins in Kentucky, the prize will be dedicated to all Syrian refugees around the world, said 17-year-old team member Abdul Rahman Mawas.

“Every one of them can be a beneficial person within the community,” he said. “Everyone should have a dream to follow, and they will achieve it.”

Source: Al Jazeera