Boston-area Students Help Refugees Through Innovation

From left right right: Jessy Lin, Carson Tucker, Vick Liu, Rachel Groberman, Max Kessler and Yun Gu, some of the students behind TravelerPack. Photo courtesy of Jessy Lin.

Ying Wang
BU News Service

Growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts, Angela Luna dreamt of designing evening wear for Chanel before arriving at New York’s Parsons School of Design in 2012.

But four years later, her senior thesis took a turn in a different direction: a collection of jackets that can transform into tents, sleeping bags or baby carriers for refugees.

“It’s a humanitarian startup,” Luna said, whose work is featured in a Microsoft television ad. “I believe fashion can be a tool to ameliorate global issues and create a system to help.”

Luna’s new company, Design for Difference, or ADIFF, is part of a larger movement of Boston-area students using their creativity and entrepreneurial drive to assist some of the most vulnerable people on the other side of the planet.

Their efforts include both the traditional movement of aid packages to refugees along with innovations such as sleeping bags to accommodate whole families and waterless toilets to solve hygiene challenges faced in refugee camps.

“It’s brilliant to see social enterprise fostered in our university environment,” said Westy Egmont, a professor at Boston College’s School of Social Work and former co-chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Immigrants and Refugees.

Luna’s shift from high fashion to rugged survival wear came during her junior semester in Paris when she said she started to “pay attention to the world.” She tried to discuss the war in Syria with fashion by creating sculptural art pieces, such as dresses with ISIS military uniform design.

“My professor gave me the worst grade I’ve ever received,” Luna recalled. “The project was very controversial.”

But Luna said she kept the idea of helping refugees in the back of her mind. She decided to do something after seeing the photo of Alan Kurdi—the 3-year-old Syrian boy found dead on a Turkish beach—even though her advisor was afraid it would appear she was trying to capitalize on a crisis.

Nearly 15 million people have been displaced since the beginning of the Syria war in 2011. The United Nation says up to four million refugees in the Middle East face “extreme risk” in the forthcoming winter.

Last November, Luna took her finished collection to refugee camps in Greece and Turkey.

“The crisis has shifted. It’s not necessarily that people are leaving. It’s more about refugees being stuck at camps for a long period of time,” Luna said. “So I want to know what is still going to be applicable.”

While Luna was in Greece, she learned that a mother and her son were struck by a vehicle and severely injured as they walked along a darkened highway from a refugee camp a week before Luna’s arrival.

That led her to launch a fund-raising campaign. For $198, funders could get a reflective winter jacket she designed and have another one donated to refugees in northern Syria through a nonprofit organization, Rahma Relief.

The campaign made 463 jackets for refugees after two months. Before long, Luna established her outwear company in Los Angeles area and released another collection of jackets that could be converted into tents.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, such as capital raising,” Luna said. “I wake up in the morning thinking about my project and working all day doing it.”

Other students in the area are working on similar projects. A group of MIT students are aiming to help refugees with their own version of a survival sleeping bag for winter.

Vick Liu, a finance and political science sophomore, said he started out with an idea sketched out on a napkin. Eight months later, that inspiration become a line of sleeping bags for Syrian refugees.

Temperatures can drop to 30 degrees Fahrenheit when snowstorms hit the Middle East. The severe shortage of fuel for gas heaters has caused refugee deaths from exposure in recent years.

Liu’s sleeping bags, named TravelerPack, can withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees. He tested them by spending the night in one outside during a February snowstorm.

Liu talked to 10 refugees in Syria through a friend, then adjusted the design seven times.

“Refugees know better about what they really need,” he said.

The final version comes with six inner storage pockets, a built-in pillow pocket and a messenger-style shoulder strap. The sleeping bags, insulated with duck down, can be combined to allow families to sleep together.

“Duck down was easier to get. Wool was too big to compress,” Liu explained. “There was actually a lighter type of duck down, but it’d be too expensive.”

In September, Liu and a team of five classmates sought to raise $15,000 through GoFundMe to manufacture 250 sleeping bags. They exceeded their goal, raising a total of $17,888. The sleeping bags were sent to northwestern Syria with the help NuDay Syria, a non-profit organization based in New Hampshire.

“The fact that people care about refugees really gives hope to families and children in Syria,” Nadia Alawa, NuDay Syria’s founder, said in a phone interview.

But there were high hurdles to overcome. It took Liu four months to find a factory in China and a nonprofit distributor in the U.S.

“We’d reached out about 80 Chinese companies, but got few response,” Liu said. “We are just a group of students. It takes time for all of us to learn how to do it.”

Egmont, the Boston College professor, is not surprised by the challenges Liu encountered, noting that such student initiatives can be aided by American businesses.

“We should encourage them to find the corporate partner who can produce with enough quantity and have a distribution chain,” Egmont said.

Liu launched a second campaign to distribute 1,000 more sleeping bags to refugees in the Azraq Refugee camp in Jordan and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in January through nonprofits CARE and SalamLADC.

There are approximately 53,000 and 357,000 refugees respectively in those camps, according to the United Nations.

According to MIT News, another social enterprise by a MIT spinout lab team is on the way—a waterless toilet to address refugees’ sanitary problems.

The toilet has a polymer material that functions as a sponge, and contains residual waste that would be collected once or twice per month. According to UNICEF, there are 2.4 billion people worldwide who do not use improved sanitation.

Such efforts by college students in the Boston area have led NuDay Syria’s Alawa to think of Boston as the “second home” of her aid organization, which has worked with universities such as Boston University and Wellesley College.

“The youth of today want to make a difference,” she said.

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