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This Afghan refugee in Athens made a robot with a message for humanity7 min read

August 31, 2021 5 min read

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This Afghan refugee in Athens made a robot with a message for humanity7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Saidullah Karimi fled to Athens, Greece from Afghanistan along with his
family in 2017. But his refugee status came in the way of economic opportunities
for him and his family. Years later, as Afghanistan faces another humanitarian crisis,
Karimi shared one of his creations, the robot Athena made entirely out of recycled objects, as a message exemplifying the contributions of refugees,

only if they are given the chance.

Let’s get to know more about this innovator, shall we?

Wait, what’s happening in Afghanistan at the moment, that has made Karimi’s message all the more special? Click on the image below to know.

Early life

Saidullah Karimi is an Afghan refugee living in Athens, Greece. He was born in 1970 in Afghanistan and he grew up in the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul. He loved electric work and intended to be an electric engineer. But in 1980s, young people in Afghanistan were being drafted by the government to combat the US supported Mujahideen resistance. His eldest sister, a doctor, insisted that he take up nursing to stay away from the front line of combat. At 18, he was assigned to hospital duty. Later, he developed his extraordinary engineering skills over two decades in Afghanistan creating and fitting artificial limbs and orthotic support like braces and splints. Afghanistan was no stranger to war and conflict and Mr. Karimi’s work remained crucial to its people.

His struggle

Mr Karimi was no stranger to struggle himself. When the government fell in 1992, he went into hiding to escape death. Later, he set up a medical shop in Mazar-i-Sharif. In 1996, Mr. Karimi and his wife also faced threats from assailants when they got married. He is Suni and she is Shia making their marriage, a mixed marriage which may have offended extremists. In 2011, Mazar-i-Sharif saw itself embroiled in violence again raising warning signs for Mr. Karimi and his family. He was also worried that terrorists might kidnap him for his knowledge of microelectronics. This is also when he spotted strangers in a car watching his house. For the sake of his family’s safety, he decided to move their base to Athens, Greece.

Mr Karimi with Athena at his residence. Image: New York Times

His journey as a refugee

This is when he began his journey as a refugee, and faced the struggles that came with it. Karimi and his wife, along with their four children, arrived in Athens in 2017. The children enrolled in schools, and Mrs Karimi, as a trained physiotherapist, found work in an N.G.O helping new mothers. But Mr. Karimi suffered in a job market that discounted Asian knowledge against European skill. Even conversations with immigration officials triggered trauma. Eventually, he sought counselling to help with his struggle.

This is also when he dedicated himself to the creation of Athena, and what it stands for.

Athena has plastic bottles as limbs. Image: New York Times

Athena is made entirely out of recycled objects like discarded plumbing pipes, parts of abandoned printers, plastic bottles, pieces of broken toy parts. The robot’s fingers are made out of discarded Gillette razors. He used suitcase wheels to make ankle joints. Even the idea of creating Athena came to him when he was drinking out of a two litre soft-drink bottle:

One day I was drinking from a two-litre Coca-Cola bottle and thought, I could use this bottle for a thigh, and I could use a one-liter bottle for the shin. I thought I could make a robot using recycled things. It’s very cheap. It’s suitable.

Karimi, New York Times
Mr. Karimi did buy some parts of microelectronic elements for the robots. Image: New York Times

He named the resultant robot Athena after the Greek goddess of wisdom and the protector of his newly adopted city. But on arrival the city he now calls home was not as welcoming of the refugee seeking employment in a new country after successfully contributing to his homeland for twenty-one years! His knowledge was not thought to be at par with European technology even though his resume reflected otherwise. Most of equipment he had used in Afghanistan came from Germany. The long Afghan war gave Mr. Karimi enough experience to work with complex injuries.

There is a lot of demand for prosthetics in my country due to gunshot wounds, mines and bombs.

Karimi, New York Times

In the absence of work, he began focusing on building something of his own- an entire body in the form of Athena. He made Athena as a way to show the world what refugees can contribute with their knowledge, and experience. He also made Athena keeping in mind the struggles of differently=abled children with prosthetics. Athena mirrors movement and can help in orthotic exercises. And of course, a robot can make for a fascinating friend for a child!

I wanted to make a robot and fix sensors in the orthotics so that when the child moves his knee, the robot knee moves too…I wanted the robot to copy the gait, hand movements, everything.

Karimi, New York Times
Athena stands at the entrance of his home. Image: New York Times

His work that was completed last spring but shared only now stands as an evidence of human competency in the face of struggle. As refugees from Afghanistan are seeking asylum in different parts of the world, his work stands for more than sustainable innovation but as an appeal for compassion, humanity, and universal equality.

While working on Athena, Mr Karimi also learned Greek and English. He passed a European qualifying exam and is now a recognised orthopedic technician. In 2018, the whole family were given greek resident permits.

At present, he is working on a license for soft shoe soles and inserts. This would allow him to treat refugees with minor injuries or people with diabetes who need soft soles. For the material needed for that, he is on to building a 3-D printer from scrap.

With excerpts from New York Times


(In the Spotlight is a weekly column that features people who are in the news for all the right reasons)