The dictionary definition of refugee is short and powerful: “one that flees.” Today the world is facing the largest displacement of humans in history, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Currently there are nearly 26 million refugees, the highest on record. As global temperatures continue to rise, forced migration of communities seeking refuge from droughts, floods, famine, and conflict, is expected to increase.
For Bushra Bataineh, MS ’14, PhD ’19, these statistics are personal. Her grandmother fled Palestine in 1948 at the age of 9, eventually coming to Jordan, a nation that has long welcomed displaced communities and that continues to be home for her family.
“Any of us could be a refugee. Displacement is not a choice,” she says. “Our role is to make refugee camps as dignified, livable, and sustainable as possible. Perhaps in a small way we can provide the building blocks to construct more adaptable transitional communities.”
Stays in a refugee camp can last years, even decades, yet a standard-issue tent from the UNHCR is designed to last from 6 months to 1 year. This mismatch between the reality on the ground and the solutions provided is how Mawa Modular got its start.
In 2013, when Bataineh was a graduate student at Stanford, 3,000 Syrian refugees were crossing the border into neighboring Jordan every day. Many of them ended up in Zaatari Refugee Camp, located only 20 minutes from her father’s agricultural business. By 2014, the camp had become the fourth largest population hub in all of Jordan—a tent city the size of Cambridge, England.
Bataineh visited Zaatari for the first time as a volunteer. She was there to advise on a sanitation project, but the bigger landscape took shape in front of her. Earlier at Stanford, Bataineh had enrolled in CEE 246: Entrepreneurship in Civil and Environmental Engineering out of academic curiosity, and her team had chosen to focus on pre-fab building.
Staring out at the tattered rows of canvas tents, she wondered if modular construction could make life as a refugee better.
Mawa Modular isn’t the first venture to pursue a pre-fab solution for refugee housing. IKEA led the effort with its Better Shelter in 2015, a flat-pack plastic design with an expected lifespan of three years. Reaction Housing, inspired by Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, custom-built a stackable approach, but the startup later folded due to the cost of manufacturing.
Within Jordan, there are vendors that sell portable trailers (known locally as “caravans”), but they cost $300,000 each and must be shipped two at a time on flatbed trucks and hoisted into place with a crane.
In contrast, the Mawa Modules are designed to last for more than 20 years, a switch that simultaneously reduces waste while creating more comfortable housing. Bataineh says the team is trying to learn from their predecessors—following the trail of success and avoiding known pitfalls.
The plan is for aid agencies, such as UNHCR, Oxfam, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, to lease the shelters as a service. Units then arrive as a kit of parts with a frame, floor panels, and interchangeable walls. No tools are required and four people can assemble each base unit in under six hours. To simplify shipping, the units pack flat like IKEA furniture; in fact, Boklok, an IKEA-Skanska Joint Venture Company, is a primary advisor for Mawa.
Integrated solar power means that Mawa Modules will function off-grid, reducing the use of fossil fuels. It also means less risk of fire, a deadly hazard for refugees heating and cooking indoors with liquefied petroleum gas. The modules’ insulated panels retain heat far better than drafty tents, improving energy efficiency as well.
“My team and I are problem-solving from an engineering perspective, but a lot of the challenges are actually political in nature,” she says.
Local governments often will discourage any seemingly permanent structures in camps because they fear it might motivate refugees to stay. It’s an understandable concern in water-scarce, resource-strapped countries like Jordan, where an estimated 1 in 10 people is a refugee.
So, Mawa Modular painted the panel connections of the modules in a branded orange color as a visual reminder that the shelters can be disassembled as needed. Details like this are the result of countless hours of meeting with aid groups and interviewing refugees directly.
While the venture is focusing first on Syrian refugees, the design is meant to be relevant globally. It needs to adapt from the tropics of Southeast Asia, to the sands of sub-Saharan Africa, to parking lots in Europe, to wherever the need arises next.
“We can’t assume that we have the solution. We hope to have a solution—a range of solutions.”
By now, Mawa Modular is an interdisciplinary team of eight engineers, designers, and scientists, but Bataineh reiterates the concept is young.
“We are still prototyping. We have a lot of work to do to deploy the shelters.” But when she pauses to consider the future, she says: “In five years, I hope that we will have proven our concept. I hope it’s the sound, obvious choice to build out refugee communities.”
She aspires to live up to her namesake—Bushra—her refugee grandmother’s name, which means “the bearer of good news.”
With special thanks to the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, Stanford Professionals in Real Estate (SPIRE), and StartX, all of which provided vital financial support and mentoring.