Muna Abdelbaqi spent two months working with BORDA, the Bremen Overseas Research & Development Association. © Sascha Montag, Zeitenspiegel

Help without borders

A young engineer is utilising experience gained in Jordan, Iraq and Germany to tackle some of the technical problems faced by refugee camps.

Portrait by Jan Rübel

This eight-square-metre map of the world is uniquely contradictory. The seven continents floating in the pale blue waters have no borders, brazenly defying the reality of the world's nations outside the foyer of an office block in Bremen. Muna Abdelbaqi hurries across it – born in Amman in 1986, this young engineer has to face up to the conflict-laden reality that seems to repudiate the message of the mural.

"Just hold on a minute," she calls into her phone. A moment later she is sitting at her desk with an Excel sheet on her screen. "We need to pay more attention to the Mamilian camp in Niniveh", she says. "It's going to have to take in more refugees soon because of its proximity to Mosul."

She is talking to Tobias Ulbrich, who is based in Dohuk in northern Iraq. "OK," he says, "but have you got any more information about the situation on the ground?"

Muna Abdelbaqi promises to send this to her colleague, who is a project coordinator with the aid organisation BORDA. The Bremen Overseas Research & Development Association develops sustainable technology in the areas of water, wastewater, energy and solid waste.

At the end of 2016, Muna Abdelbaqi headed back to Jordan, where she is coordinating the construction of wastewater networks at the Zaatari camp close to the Syrian border on behalf of the Japanese aid organisation JEN. The camp currently houses 80,000 people. By the time the work begins she will have completed the Excel table for the camp in northern Iraq where BORDA will be playing an active role. This list is one of the results of her two-month internship under the auspices of the CrossCulture Programme (CCP). The ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) has been running the CCP for the last ten years. The programme was expanded in the summer of 2016 to include the Refugees and Migration module. During her collaboration with BORDA, Muna Abdelbaqi has been visiting refugee accommodation in Germany to study its infrastructure, meeting with wastewater experts and making masses of new contacts. "I’ve gathered loads of new ideas to take back to Jordan," she enthuses.

At BORDA she and her colleagues have been drawing up a list of criteria for determining which camps in northern Iraq are most suitable to work with. "We give them points based on their needs, existing infrastructure, number of occupants and other parameters." Abdelbaqi is fascinated by BORDA's particular strategy, where the organisation focuses on cheap, decentralised concepts. "During my career I've seen plenty of things that have gone wrong", says Abdelbaqi, a Jordanian with Palestinian roots, "but DEWATS is a real success model."

DEWATS stands for Decentralised Wastewater Treatment Solutions. Many remote areas have no sewage systems, so this is where BORDA gets involved, purifying wastewater to reuse it. The process leaves behind sludge and purified, nitrogen-rich water – both vital elements for agriculture. It is a low-maintenance, effective and sustainable solution.

Photo © Sascha Montag, Zeitenspiegel

Just three years ago Abdelbaqi was building shopping malls, but today such projects seem to belong to another life. She now builds and manages wastewater systems in refugee camps. "This work is much more collaborative than on a conventional construction site", she comments. "Every day there are new problems to solve. Every day we come up against new technical challenges."

Engineering is in her blood – her mother was a chemical engineer, her father a mechanical engineer. She never thought of doing anything else, so she worked hard at school to gain the qualifications she needed for this career. She went on to work in construction, and finally had an opportunity to help other people.

The long corridor at BORDA is lined with doors bearing signs such as "Hanoi", "Dar es Salaam" and "Mexico City" – the names of the areas where the organisation is currently working. Abdelbaqi is running in and out of the various offices, as there's a lot to talk about in her last few days here: "Are you coming to the meeting this evening?", asks Matti Hanisch, who looks after Latin America and South Africa. He is referring to a talk about Jordan that she gave to volunteers some weeks ago.

"Yes, see you later," calls Abdelbaqi as she dashes off. Next door Sven Meyer is poring over BORDA's involvement in World Water Day in March 2017. "I'll send you some ideas for topics," says Abdelbaqi – and suddenly she has reached the end of the corridor. The last door on the right is the "Quiet Room". But not for long. It is currently home to a half-assembled desk and a lamp without a light bulb. The carpet smells of cleaning fluid.

"This is going to be the new office for Jordan," she says. BORDA is expanding, and there's also a great deal to do in her home country. The work of tackling the everyday realities faced by so many people on this planet carries on – without borders.