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LeTourneau team works on solutions for refugee housing

By Jimmy Isaac
Jan. 31, 2017 at 10:19 p.m.
Updated Jan. 31, 2017 at 10:19 p.m.

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As protests and counter-protests to President Donald Trump's travel ban dominate international headlines, LeTourneau University students are quietly developing transitional shelters to help refugees at the center of the uproar.

SafeHome is an engineering design team made up of 10 senior and two junior students.

Since September, members have worked to design and develop emergency aid shelters to help Syrian refugees, specifically those temporarily housed in Greece.

"I think one of the nice things about this project is that it kind of supersedes the current debate in that what we're targeting, I think, is something that most people agree on, which is that these people need help," LeTourneau assistant civil engineering professor David Dittenber said Tuesday.

Dittenber is the faculty sponsor of the SafeHome team.

On Friday, Trump signed an executive order that prevents refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days, and for immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia — from entering the country for three months.

In a Twitter message Monday, Trump said only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained at airports and held for questioning after the order, but a federal law enforcement official said almost 400 green card holders actually were delayed after arriving at U.S. airports after the travel ban was signed, according to the Associated Press.

"I understand Trump is trying to prevent them from getting into our country to give them a chance to examine the vetting process," SafeHome team member Stewart Abernathy said. "It's a temporary ban, so I don't see a problem with it."

Shelters specs

Building the shelters is a competitive project. Two smaller teams of six students each will participate in a design contest against teams from nine other higher learning institutions. Samaritan's Purse is sponsoring the competition at John Brown University in April.

One LeTourneau team is using lightweight steel to construct the shelters, while the other team works with wood framing and filler materials such as foam and plastic, Dittenber said.

According to contest standards, each single shelter should accommodate safe housing for four people with a 7 1/2-foot-tall ceiling. The shelters must meet the needs of Syrian refugees temporarily housed in Greece, but LeTourneau students want to give their shelters the versatility to serve refugees or those affected by war, flooding, earthquakes or other disasters around the world.

Contest judges will consider weight, cost, heat retention, the shelters' ability to keep out moisture and the cultural appropriateness for the users, who are Syrian refugees in Greece.

In past years, the competition has focused on shelters for refugees in Haiti and other places, student Hamilton Sutton said, and that SafeHome wants to push forward the idea of shelter technology being versatile and useful in various areas.

"So, kind of the broader scope of the project is that it would be a versatile structure that can fill the needs of refugees in a variety of locations," Sutton said.

'Creating a solution'

Team member Brent Ahrend said that, for him, it's important to make a difference however possible, and the SafeHome project is a good use of university time and research — no matter the public discourse or vitriol.

"Whether or not we agree with what has been going on politically," Ahrend said, "I personally feel a lot better creating a solution to the problem as opposed to complaining, defending or getting up in arms about the situation."

Abernathy said he prefers helping refugees as close to their native land as possible.

"I've always felt like it was better to help them nearer to the area that they're from rather than moving them from one place to another, uprooting them out of their own culture," Abernathy said. "I think you're better off helping them as close to their original point of origin as possible."

Dittenber noted that SafeHome isn't trying to house refugees in the U.S. but is aiming to help the more than 15,500 migrants and refugees stuck on Greek islands.

Earlier this month, 5,537 people were crammed into facilities designed for 3,500 on Lesbos, while in Samos, 1,944 people were in facilities built for 850, according to wire service reports.

"We're not looking to be involved with any of that part of the issue, but this is about trying to help them where they are right now," Dittenber said.

"Greece has already been flooded for years now with these refugees who have come to that property, and so Samaritan's Purse is running this project kind of with that in mind, that idea of how do we help them right now in Greece," he said.

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