INTERVIEW WITH ‘SOLIDARITY ENGINEERING’ WORKING IN REFUGEE CAMPS AT THE US-MEXICO BORDER
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Solidarity Engineering, a group of women engineers, is trying to provide clean water to the refugee camps in the US- Mexico border and to improve living conditions for asylum-seeking migrants. We met them through a tweet. They became involved after separately listening to the same podcast, The Out Crowd, which was about the waterborne illness in a migrant camp. That podcast inspired and encouraged them. And they inspired us… We immediately contacted them and wanted to listen to their story and experiences.

After they worked together for a while, they formalized their group as solidarity engineers in 2020. Since then they’ve worked in many different refugee camps and now, they are working in Reynosa Camp in Mexico. They’ve done a lot of technical engineering projects including stormwater management, water filtration and distribution. They are also doing STEM classes with children and with their words, they have “a little more insight into some of the needs specifically for the women and children”

We talked with Erin and Christa about how they founded Solidarity Engineering and their experiences and projects.

The members of Politeknik, Duygu Coşkun and Pınar Oktay were joined by Erin and Christa:

Duygu: Solidarity engineering was founded to improve living conditions for asylum seeking migrants and you are using your engineering skills to do this. How did you decide to startup this organization? Could you tell us your story?

Erin: We didn’t know each other. We heard about the conditions from a podcast. We both heard the same podcast episode ‘’ The Out Crowd’’ Ira Glass This American Life and they were interviewing a nurse volunteer at the border. And she was talking about super preventable waterborne illnesses that could be totally mitigated. And they asked her how she was planning to mitigate these issues. She told them that she was going to google them… We both heard this and were like “’Don’t Google it’’. We reached out. Christa went down for a trip in December 2019. We were working on different things and there was no technical or engineering presence at the border. I haven’t heard of any other group that does what we do. We go down here and we were joined by our colleague Chloe Rassatter. The three of us were unaffiliated with any other NGO and we were the only engineers. We teamed up and decided to formalize. We are handling a lot of the WASH, which is Water Sanitation and Hygiene for the asylum seeker communities at the border. I thought that “I’m an environmental engineer, I know how to filter water” and so I contacted Global Response Management. Unbeknownst to me, Chloe and Christa also contacted them. Then we met at the camp in Matamoros. There really wasn’t any engineering or technical presence at the border at all. I haven’t heard of any other engineering organization that does what we do. After working together for a while we teamed up and we decided to formalize our organization and so right now we are kind of handling a lot of the ‘’wash’’ which is an acronym  for water, sanitation and hygiene for the asylum seeker communities at the border.

Christa: Add to that, we all had a very similar approach, we were all very interested and not making assumptions about what people needed but constantly asking people and having interviews with people and trying to include them in the design, implementation of our projects. I think all of us having that kind of community-based mind set really helped us.

Duygu: Maybe you can tell us about your projects and campaigns like ‘’WASH’’ and STEM classes and other things.

Erin: When we first got together, our scope was really wide. We did a lot of technical engineering projects. We would handle  ‘stormwater management’ and we helped build a school and we built a playground and we did STEM classes. Now we’re kind of honed in on WASH and STEM and Infrastructure. With WASH we are in charge of managing drinking water.

Christa: I think, in 2021 we brought in like a 170.000  liters of clean drinking water to the refugee camps in Reynosa, which sounds a lot but it is not enough. That was one of our biggest contributions to WASH last year. We also funded like 18 bathrooms which again not enough but better than nothing. And we started what we called them- ‘hygiene free stores’’. The asylum seekers themselves were already cleaning the bathrooms and keeping the space clean and making sure everything was working. They needed hygiene supplies and we put stuff like that including toilet paper, pads, diapers, baby clothes, chlorine, gloves, and masks in there. The hygiene team manages it but anyone from the camp can get stuff there. That solves major problems for us. One, distribution was a major problem for us. You can get bum-rushed. There can be unequal distribution where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You might not really be reaching the people who need it the most. Because they live there and know everyone, they are the perfect people to do the distribution. And for this, the  asylum seekers formed their own hygiene crew and they manage the distribution and anybody from the camp can come, get stuff from there.

Erin: We put a lot of trust in the communities that we work in. We don’t wanna come in and tell them what they need. We are working with this community of asylum seekers and we’re supporting their hygiene crew. If they tell us that they need more bleach or brooms or menstrual pads or soap, we can support them in that. It’s great to work in the community like that because our team is small. It is the three of us.

Christa: And exactly we get community feedback from them so they think of things we would not have thought of. For example, diapers. We got a ton of newborn diapers. They thanked us for the help but said they needed the three to four sizes. We need something that is a little bit bigger. Then there were condoms. Sex work is a huge part of it, so we tried to distribute condoms. They said no. It’s not something they would take from the hygiene team. They didn’t want to distribute that. That’s fine, that’s the point of working with them. We get their feedback and do what they want to do. What we can do depends on the conditions of the refugee camp. So, that was a refugee camp in the classical sense of a refugee camp. There are also shelters around and there is a little bit more protection in the shelters. These are very similar in that you are outside in a tent, but there is a wall around you. There is a bit more protection.

Erin: In the shelters it is a little bit easier to build actual infrastructure. Because in this makeshift refugee camp at the Plaza, there is no wall around it, it is in a public space. If we started to try to build something in there, Mexican authorities would totally shut us down. So in the shelters we’re able to have a little bit more freedom because they are usually run by church groups or something. We can actually build things. So we built big roof structures and we’ve designed a water system with a pump, going up to a storage tank and feeding showers.

Christa: That is another example of not wanting to make assumptions. When we had first started we were like “alright let’s focus on potable water”. After we finished the bathrooms. But during the construction, the pastor who was running the shelter plus all the asylum seekers living there requested shade in order to protect themselves from the elements. They requested a big roof rather than potable water. And that was because they can afford potable water but there is no roof, nothing to protect them from the rain, from the wind, from the heat…

Erin: It gets so hot and sunny and you can’t escape it in these big tent fields. Right now we are focused at the border. When these emergency situations come up, we want to be equipped to deploy and help out when that happens.

Christa: Going off that we do have some research teams who are helping us develop some open source technology: two major ones. One is, basically we realize that the water filters we brought while useful took too much time to go from house to house. We need something that we can deploy right away and teach a crowd how to do. So we came up with the idea of a portable water filtration system, something super simple. Obviously you would need a fresh water source without heavy metals. If there were no heavy metals or salt, you could source local materials to create a filter that fits in a suitcase. So we were working with a university and also we used something called an aqua block to filter water, working with that company to make something similar but  way smaller.

The other research project that we have going on is actually run by Erin’s partner and that’s called Raspberry Pie*

Erin: It’s a remote learning, a tool so….. It’s just this little, internet type of device that you can send to, for example we are talking with a school down at a refugee camp in Malawi. They don’t have internet and the electricity is not reliable so you can deploy this little device and essentially you can download lesson plans and worksheets. That plays into our STEM outreach and education. We wanted to put all of our STEM curriculum on this remote learning device. It is cheap, like $40. If you send it into a community, everyone who has a screen or a phone can connect to it.

Christa: Basically it works like a little wifi network. You can connect too and download anything on that specific network. We got lucky because it is super affordable. Erin’s partner happens to know how to develop this because my background is civil engineering, Erin’s environmental. We don’t do coding, that sort of thing. So we got really lucky that we can afford it. We had the capacity to do it. And also we met a group down here called the refugee outreach collective. They are starting an accredited program through central Michigan University at the Dzaleka refugee camp in  Malawi.They approached us and said we have the curriculum, we have the teachers, we have the building, we have everything. We don’t have a way to get the professors in the US connected to the students. It’s very expensive. So that was kind of where this technology really took off, was for that. We are still developing it. Erin just brought down the first prototype and we tested it in Reynosa last week. We will iterate a few more times. We believe we’ll be able to ship it to them and it’ll be ready to rock in August.

Duygu: You are working with other local groups and communities there? Maybe you can tell us about it.

Erin: I mean, when we came down, we essentially just started volunteering with the groups that were down here on the ground. There are several American and Mexican organizations down here. There are a few church groups that you can partner with, so I mean everything that we have done is in partnership with someone, you know, for the most part, we are pretty broke.

Christa: We have a thin budget.

Erin: Global Response Management, is one of our biggest partners, and they donated a big water filtration device to us, and we essentially set it up, did all the technical stuff with that, and then apart from just like those organizations. Obviously working with the locals, the hygiene crews and we have a crew of construction workers. We give them an engineering design, they are doing it as implemented, and building everything.

Pınar: What triggered you to start this organization as women engineers? What did you prioritize and see as missing?

Christa: I guess we do like have a little bit more insight into some of the needs  specifically for the women and children, I mean that they feel a little more comfortable with us, telling us, you know, we need more menstrual pads or we need schooling, whatever. They are thinking of these things and men and women usually have different priorities. I think that the women in these communities really open up to us, which helps a lot, I think.

Erin: As an example of that, when we were first getting involved in Reynosa, we were trying think of menstrual cycles and we thought what if we gave to people reusable pads because then it will last you a long time, but then we started talking women and than they were like “ nooo, where we gonna wash them, where we gonna hang them?” Because you have to do everything in public, so they were like absolutely not, I don’t know if a man would have got the same response, I am curious if they would have been just like “ , sure, whatever”, because they didn’t want to explain. So I think being women has made us a lot more approachable which is really great. The expectation of us to listen is there. Women expect us to listen because we are also women.

That being said of course it comes with challenges, oftentimes you know, the men that we worked with construction crews, almost most of them are men and sometimes they don’t listen to us, which can be very frustrating. At the same time we have had a lot of men that we work with and back us up. We are also young, so a lot of these older men see us as “engineers” so that may be their take on us sometimes. But whatever, that is life in general and it is amplified in this context.

Erin: It’s very interesting just asking women, we wouldn’t have done some projects otherwise, specifically for the school project, in the playground literally women in the community came up to us and told us “these kids need a school!” We need an actual structure where they can be taught in it. And it needs to be like with less distractions so I felt we should prioritize school. This particular woman had gone to several men in other organizations. As soon as she came to me, we made this happen and we were able to do it. After making the school, she said now we need a playground.

Erin: There was No safe space for them and that was something I really feel like as being a woman, these mothers were able to come to us and really express their concerns and we took them seriously and we did it. On top of building that playground we also staffed it with someone on staff watching over the playground to make sure none of the kids got hurt or into a fight. It turned into a daycare. We had someone on staff looking after the children and this allowed the parents to go grocery shopping or have some time. That cannot be assigned a value in dollars but it is still super valuable.

Duygu: I watched some of your interviews. Maybe you want to explain why you choose “solidarity” as your name?

Christa: Everyone loves this question. I’ll give you the shorter answer. Basically we made a lot of mistakes at the beginning of working together. And after we realized that the key to all of these it’s not engineering, It’s listening, listening to people and working with people. That is how you make a functional, for instance playground, school or whatever project. So we kept the name in there to just constantly remind ourselves; We are doing this with somebody in this case, with asylum seekers and always keep them at the same level of us and they are our equal partners in this. That’s the point in the name is to remind ourselves about that. We are in solidarity with the community. And then the shovels came. Everybody can pick up a shovel and help, I think Erin could explain.

Erin: We were down here. It was just at the beginning of the rainy season. The camp at the time that we were working in was within the flood plain of this huge river, the Rio Grande river, that separates Mexico from the US. And everytime it would rain just everyone’s tents would get flooded out and be destroyed and it was awful. One day, I just got out there with a shovel and I just started shoveling drainage channels. As soon as someone saw me, they came out of their tents, picked up a shovel and helped. I had to do a ‘go-fund-me’ fundraiser for shovels to buy enough shovels for everyone who wanted to help. We had a whole team helping dig out and direct all of the rain water so that people’s tents didn’t get flooded. It was 100 degree weather and incredibly humid and miserable. As soon as the asylum seekers saw us out there digging, they came out and helped. It really gained a lot of trust for us in the community when they saw us helping their community. We were able to gain so much trust and love.

Christa: And then the purple just came from, We are women. It’s inherently a feminist organization. We just wanted to give a little wink at the fact that we are in fact here in solidarity with everybody but particularly we are looking out for women.

Duygu: As you mentioned in one of your interviews you said that you were the only engineers on the border between the Us and Mexico. I wonder what kind of reactions you get from your colleagues, from the other engineers? How is their interest or participation in your organization?

Erin: It’s interesting because we literally had to start this. Because we couldn’t find another engineering or technical organization down here. A lot of people do wanna help but they are not willing to quit their jobs and move to Mexico. We have been able to build up a roster of engineers,  So for example we just  did a design project where we had to design almost a water tower, it’s like a big platform where we pump water up to and then we gravity feed down to the showers and water access points. But none of us had a structural engineering background.  We reached out to someone that I actually went to school with. He’s a structural engineer now, and he was like “I want to get involved but obviously I can’t come down.” He helped us with this design remotely, which was awesome. We got a very professional structural design.

Christa: Without him, we wouldn’t have built this water tower at all because we don’t  have a structural background… I mean that could fall. That could really hurt somebody. So him being involved made this kind of project even possible. I do think some engineers, particularly older traditional engineers, don’t see the social side of things. Providing water and hygiene is a public health effort. This work is half technical and half social. I think a lot of engineers don’t see that side of things and why that is important. When you are here, you see why it is important.

Pınar: Covid 19 pandemic affected us all but especially migration and the immigrants, how did it affect your life and conditions there? Also the people living there? What were your challenges?

Christa: There was a healthcare provider at the beginning of the pandemic, so they built an isolation area.

Erin: At this refugee camp, a separate area…

Christa: If you have covid they isolate you so it wasn’t to spread. That was the idea…However that turned into a huge problem because you’re taking people away from their only sense of security and everyone lost trust and nobody would go to the clinic anymore. Because they were afraid of being taken away from their community. That was a mistake that we didn’t directly do but learned from..The importance of not moving people from their community. It’s hot and you have to be outside in those conditions. Covid was not handled as well as other countries. Yet since they are outside, we didn’t see a lot of covid like we did in the states.

Erin: We did a lot of outreach almost and there were a lot of signs  for washing your hands, distance yourself if you’re feeling sick. Kind of like this, which is not really possible when you’re sharing a tent with 5 people. But we helped to build a bunch of handwashing sinks and kept them always filled with water and soap  so  people can wash their hands.

Duygu- Do you make a call to the engineers, do you have a word to them to join you or do something wherever they are. There are lots of groups like you, people can do something where they live where they work

Erin: There is so much that needs to be done I’m realizing…. We got contacted from people in cities all over the place that were asking our advice because maybe they are managing homeless encampments in their own cities. And there are really opportunities to use your skill sets and use your education outside of work, outside of your regular 9 to 5 job. We need more technical people out on the streets. If something can be improved, find out who is in charge of that facility. It just takes a little googling and calling around. There are so many opportunities for engineers. Coming through and being in our roster and your work will be implemented at the border or just in your own city, in your own neighborhood.

Christa: Going off of that,  Most people have become engineers because they want to contribute to society. Engineers quite literally built societies historically and today. I feel like we are definitely doing that just in a different context.

Erin: It does take a lot of courage if you decide to take the big leap and quit your job and dedicate your whole life to something like this. Yes, that takes a lot of courage and if you feel like you need security so but I mean it’s possible.

Christa: We did it. 🙂

Erin: If anyone is listening to this interview and not sure of doing this…. do it 🙂  It’s like the best decision that I’ve made. A few years ago I was working in a regular desk job in engineering. You know my days were starting to blend together with my weeks and my months. And down here, at the border every day is so different. You have to change your design and think on your feet.

Pınar: Your projects are such a good example and principle of solidarity. And you’re using your technical skills to do this. And you’re inspiring us as Poliktenik, we are also trying to find ways to do the same. And as we can see there are many organizations throughout the world like this, working like this, trying to do something for the benefit of the people. Do you think at some point , these organizations can be united to create a more free, peaceful, environment friendly, animal friendly life for all of us?

Erin: I hope so…

Christa: I also want to recognize that our work is a band aid. We are here because of policy and we cannot really affect policy. All we can do is try to better people’s lives while they’re under these conditions. So I think that it’s an important thing to recognize. I would love to see all of us unite in a way that is synergistic and we could do more things together.  But I would love to see for the problem to not be there. People often ask how long we will be at the border. I hope we could leave tomorrow. If this policy ended, we would be gone.

Erin: I would never want to be a politician. But the politicians are the people that are gonna actually change the laws and change these official policies and hopefully maybe they will see this collaboration.  This is such a cool, I can’t believe you guys reached out to us. This is so cool… I hope that some politicians see a group of Americans at the US-Mexico border talking with a group of Turkish people and I hope that people that are making the policies get inspired. I hope that people making the policies realize that we think that this is important work and they should think that’s important too. I’m optimistic though…

Pınar: We all became engineers somehow. Some of us voluntarily, some of us not :)But engineering as a profession has a very transformative power and this power comes with responsibility. We are responsible for the results of our actions. What do you think is your responsibility in your field as an engineer?

Duygu: For example, there is a group in Israel, they are architects against Israel occupation. Something like this, the government builds a wall between countries against the migrants. For instance we can call them not to work for these borders.

Erin: That’s the same with here at this border. They are building these big walls between Mexico and the US. That’s a perfect example. So many engineering and architectural firms bid for these jobs. Because they are well paid, they are government bids. And I heard that one engineering firm that I used to work with as a partner back when I was doing private engineering work won a big bid to design the wall. It’s really disappointing. I feel like as engineers in this field, even if you don’t want to quit your job and move to the border and totally change your life, you do have a say in what you work on. You do have a say if what you are contributing to is generally good for the World or bad for the world and I think it is important for you to kind of look at what you are doing on that level and kind of decide if you feel good about this project or not.

Pınar: There should be some sort of professional ethics.

Erin: Yes, it should be.

Christa: It is kind of ironic that the point of engineering is to build societies, yet we just built a wall which tears down societies. Something to think about for those who are building it I guess.

Duygu: Is there anything you want to add? Because we ran out of time.

Erin: I don’  t think so. Thank you so much for reaching out to us. This is awesome, making this connection. I hope we can keep up our partnership and collaboration. Hope to keep this connection.


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