MIT Students Send Warmth to Syrian Refugees by Self-Designed Sleeping Bags

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By Ying Wang / BU News Service

The temperatures can drop to 30 degrees Fahrenheit as snowstorms hit the Middle East. A group of MIT students is working to help refugees with their own version of a survival sleeping bag before this winter comes.

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

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

The severe shortage of fuel for gas heaters has caused refugee deaths from exposure in recent winters.

Liu’s sleeping bags, named Travelerpack, can withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees. He tested one of them by zipping into it to spend the night out in a February snowstorm in Boston.

Liu talked to 10 refugees in Syria through a friend, and made adjustments seven times on the design. “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 raised $17,888 to manufacture 250 sleeping bags and send them sent to northwestern Syria with the help of a New Hampshire nonprofit called NuDay Syria.

“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 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. ”

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, is not surprised by the challenges Liu encountered, noting that such student initiatives can be aided by American business.

“We should encourage them to find the corporate partner who can produce with enough quantity and have a distribution chain,” said Egmont, “It’s brilliant to see social enterprise fostered in our university environment.”

Liu has launched the 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 the nonprofit CARE and SalamLADC. There are approximately 53,000 and 357,000 refugees respectively in those camps, according to the United Nations.  

Such efforts by area college students lead NuDay Syria’s Alawa to think of Boston as the “second home” of her aid organization that is based in New Hampshire.

“We have worked with a number of college students and on-campus associations in Boston areas, such as Boston University and Wellesley College,” said she.

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

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