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Wheels, Refugees and A Helping Hand From Sheffield

Zataari Refugee Camp

This is the story of the beginnings of our involvement supporting Tony Ryan and Helen Storey in their efforts at the Zataari refugee camp. Helen was responsible for the remarkable and inspiring "dress for our time" initiative (see )

10km east of Mafraq in Jordan is the Zataari refugee camp, home to nearly 80,000 Syrians who have fled the fighting in their own country. With a population density of over 60,000 per square mile, there’s precious little space, yet these people are expected to eek out a living in these barren conditions with only the most basic of available facilities and support.

The UNHCR is ultimately responsible for the welfare of these people and the camp is managed by the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization / JHCO With further support and facilities being provided by Unicef, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières and a host of other international charity agencies.

Sheffield Team

Into the middle of all this comes a team from Sheffield University and the London School of Fashion with a mission to help. Tony Ryan, Helen Story and Steve Marsden are old hands when it comes to helping others, combining their skills in materials engineering, design for sustainability, and practical hands-on building and making.

Zataari has effectively become a city, and as you’d expect commerce and trade pops up on every corner.

Most of these corners are made of the same 40-foot long shipping containers that you see on cargo tankers, obviously not all of them make it home, some shipping containers end up in Zataari. In fact, the entire bike maintenance area and the NCR (National Council on Refugees) are both made from them.

Like the re-used parachute silks and UNHCR tarpaulins, nothing is ever wasted in Zataari.

Despite living in terrible conditions the ingenuity of the Syrian people shines through.

With no transport infrastructure, there are no means to carry water and foodstuffs other than hauling them about. However, the Dutch police send over hundreds of bicycles every year reclaimed from the canals of Amsterdam.

These discarded, often broken and potentially beyond repair bicycles find entirely new lives in Zataari where they are transformed with the most rudimentary of tools into, trucks, trailers, carts, barrows, built back into functioning bicycles and customized into personal transport for the disabled and those who lost limbs as a result of the war in Syria.

It seems the humble bicycle is more useful than we ever thought possible.

The problem has always been wheels . You can’t fix a wheel if you can’t replace a spoke and true / repair the wheel. The camp was starting to build up a veritable stockpile of unusable bikes due to broken wheels and Tony was looking to possible solutions . 

The obvious solution was to provide them with a repair kit.

When Tony approached  Planet X founder Dave Loughran via mutual friend Steve Marsden requesting to buy a quantity of spares Dave was somewhat intrigued and suggested a 30 minute morning meeting at Endcliffe Park cafe was in order. Selling Tony  a few spoke keys and a wheel jig wasn't going to solve anything and thirty minutes turned into three hours and Planet X ended up putting together a "pack" of products that we believed would give the ability to repair nearly all solvable wheel issues based around a couple of rather rare and unique Japanese tools ..

The principal problem was obtaining a supply of all the various lengths of spokes required to repair the multitude of wheels, fortunately, as luck had it we were on point of receiving one of our more unusual Japanese shipments including the ubiquitous Hozan spoke threading tool. This tool enables you to shorten and thread any spoke, thus by supplying full-length spokes you can cut down to the required length and bobs your uncle.

Ultimately we ended up donating a first prototype "pack:" that Dave and Steve put together over the following weeks. This was taken over to see if it provides a credible option to solving the broken wheel crisis, the package comprised of Hozan spoke threading tool, Hozan Spoke cutter, Spoke keys, Tyre levers, a large qty of uncut spokes (thanks to Wilkinson wheels ), wheel jig, cone spanners and a few more bits n bobs. 

Steve and Tony have been over to see if it does the required job, ie enable the mechanic ; to fix/repair all the issues they find, this keeps the bikes in use and to coin a phrase 'keep the wheels turning ".

Ultimately once we have ironed out any issues we aim to donate more of these kits to Tony so they can service the needs of the camp, and maybe we will be involved later on in further support with teaching proper wheel building skills.

Tony further explained the importance of collaborations like this one with Planet X as the end game is not only repairing wheels but building skill sets and giving a chance for livelihoods to be earned, its part of long terms and scaleable solutions he is searching for ...

"Getting the quality of the wheels improved by proper maintenance is a priority. If we train young men how to build & maintain wheels & bicycles there is an opportunity to build a livelihood. So that’s why we’re here. We’re delivering training and the tools that will hopefully help them become self-sustainable in terms of bicycle and vehicle maintenance.”

Of course, it's not just bikes and transport solutions that are being delivered. The refugee camp now has its own photovoltaic plant and the team is helping them work on hydroponic farming systems that allow them to grow their own foodstuffs, something just not possible in the barren local soil.

Whatever tools you put in the hands of these Syrian refugees they will work with to create something better, to improve their quality of life. Maybe one day they'll take these tools and learning experiences home with them to help rebuild their own war-torn country.

We'll catch up with Tony and Steve on their return to find out how things went and what they think has been achieved and what remains to be done in the future. If you're interested in the plight of the Syrian refugees in Jordan and what to keep up to date with Tony and his sustainability projects check out his Twitter Feed.

1 October 2017


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