Afghan refugee built robot as message of hope


When Saidullah Karimi enters the room, Athena’s blue eyes light up. When Mr. Karimi straightens his arm, Athena does so too. When he clenches his fist, then unfolds his fingers, Athena does the same.

Athena is not a child or a pet, but a robot.

An Afghan refugee living in Athens, Mr. Karimi built the robot entirely from garbage or, as he prefers to say, “recycled items” he found on the street: discarded plumbing pipes; pieces of an abandoned printer; tiny motors and transmitters he pulled from broken remote control toys.

But Athena is more than the product of a talented amateur. Mr Karimi, an orthopedic technician, built it to be a symbol of what refugees can accomplish and contribute to their new societies – if given the opportunity. At a time when thousands of Afghans flee their country with little more than the contents of a suitcase, Mr. Karimi’s story is particularly relevant.

“I wanted to show my capacity and the capacity of the refugees,” Mr. Karimi said. He is a neat, well-groomed man, slightly bald, with a reserved demeanor and usually wears black pants and a T-shirt.

Athena is an astonishing tribute to her resourcefulness. The robot’s fingers were fashioned from the blue handles of Gillette razors, molded on the stove. “I tried toothbrushes, but the razor handles worked better,” he said.

He made the feet and limbs from plastic bottles which he baked in his oven to strengthen them. He used suitcase wheels for the ankle joints and reinforced the knees with metal cut from a CD player. “I also bought wireless devices and tiny microelectronics from the bazaar and robotics store,” he said.

Mr Karimi, 52, completed his robot last spring, but has kept it a secret until now. He named it Athena after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and protector of his newly adopted city. She now keeps her studio, a small windowless room in her family’s apartment near Platia Victoria.

Mr. Karimi’s extraordinary engineering skills have been developed over two decades in Afghanistan, designing, building and fitting artificial limbs and orthotic supports like braces and braces. He arrived in Athens in 2017 after a perilous flight with his family across three countries, a snow-capped mountain pass and the Aegean Sea to face the daunting and often demeaning obstacle of finding work.

“I applied to three orthopedic workshops,” he says. “They said to me, ‘You are from Afghanistan. This is Europe. ‘ He had the impression that the men in the workshops were laughing at him.

He took a curriculum vitae and the educational and professional certificates he had obtained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the foremen simply returned them to him. “They said to me: ‘European technology is very different. You are not familiar with machines.

In fact, the machines that Mr. Karimi had used in Afghanistan all came from Germany, and due to the long Afghan war, Mr. Karimi had extensive experience with complex injuries. “There is a high demand for prosthetics in my country due to gunshot wounds, mines and bombs,” he said. “And a lot of complicated cases like polio, which you can’t find in Greece.”

Without work, Mr. Karimi found himself staying at home. So he started wandering the streets and sitting in the parks.

“It was a difficult time for me,” he said. “You can imagine. I worked 21 years in my country. Then I lost my job, my house. I came to Greece without a job or a language.

His response was both inventive and provocative. He set out to build a whole body.

“I started to do something to show them,” he said.

“One day I was drinking from a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola and I was like, ‘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 items. It is very inexpensive. It’s okay.

While building Athena, Mr. Karimi also had in mind to use it to help disabled children adjust to orthotics and exercises.

“I wanted to make a robot and put sensors in the orthotics so that when the child moves their knee, the robot’s knee moves too,” he said. “I wanted the robot to copy the gait, the hand movements, everything.” Beyond that, he added, a robot can make an injured child happy.

Mr. Karimi was born in 1970, the seventh of eight children, and grew up in the Afghan towns of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul. Her father was a manager at the customs office.

“I always intended to work as an electrical engineer,” he said. “I like electrical work.

But in the mid-1980s, his older sister, a doctor, convinced him to study nursing to avoid the front lines. It was the time of the resistance of the Mujahedin to the Russian occupation. At 18, Mr. Karimi was drafted into the government and assigned to the hospital ward.

The Russians left in 1989 and the American-backed Mujahedin overthrew the Communist puppet government in 1992. Mr. Karimi went into hiding for months. “As a government soldier, I would have been killed,” he said. Eventually, he opened a small medical store in Mazar-i-Sharif.

A year later, he began working for the UN’s Comprehensive Disabled Afghan Project, a program that has helped more than 100,000 landmine victims. By the time he fled Mazar-i-Sharif in 2016, he was supervising a team of 14 people, including seven technicians, in a workshop run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.

But the fighting that made her job so essential ultimately forced her own family to flee. Mr. Karimi does not like to talk about politics. Violence in Afghanistan at the time “was everywhere and every day,” he said discouragingly, “and it is getting worse”.

“Today I am very sad,” he said. “But what can we do? We just pray for these people in bad situations. Everyone is worried because we’ve had a lot of bad experiences.

Mr. Karimi was personally threatened by unknown assailants when he and his wife, Shaista, married in 1996. He is Sunni and she is Shia, a mixed marriage that could have offended extremists. After 2011, when Mazar-i-Sharif was reeling from the attacks and suicide bombings again, he became increasingly concerned that his family was not safe.

“I also thought that terrorists might kidnap me to use my knowledge of microelectronics for remote control weapons,” he said. When he saw strange men in a car guarding his house, he knew it was time to go. “It was a bad time, really a really bad time,” he said. “We lost a lot of money, our passports, our papers and our dignity. he said of their trip to Greece.

The couple arrived in Athens in early 2017 and moved into an apartment paid for by the Catholic charity Caritas. Their four children – Said Azim, then 18 years old; Said Rahim, 16; Said Hakim, 8; and Sadaf, their only daughter, 5, started school. Ms. Karimi, a physiotherapist by training, found work for an NGO, helping new mothers. They were safe and the family was almost a model of immigration success.

Except that Mr. Karimi could not find a job, and the asylum procedure was slow and tortuous. To make matters worse, preparing to speak to immigration officials triggered past trauma. “Every time I spoke with the lawyer, I cried,” Mr. Karimi said.

At his wife’s instigation, he sought advice, also through Caritas, which he said was very helpful. “Building Athena also helped me,” he said. “It’s good for me to keep busy. It helped me to avoid psychological problems.

While working on Athena, Mr. Karimi studied English and Greek and eventually passed a European qualifying exam. He is now recognized as an orthopedic technician. In 2018, the Karimis were finally accepted as refugees and obtained Greek residence permits. And, in 2019, they received refugee travel documents instead of passports.

These days he is aiming for a license to manufacture soft shoe soles and inserts. “It would allow me to treat refugees with minor disabilities, flat feet or hallux valgus toes, or people with diabetes who need soft soles,” he said.

As for the machines he’ll need for that, Mr. Karimi is already at work building his own 3D printer from scrap metal.


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