After shrapnel severs his leg, young Syrian designs ‘low-cost’ prosthetic limbs with 3D printing

In 2013, Asem Hasna was driving an ambulance through the opposition-held southwest Damascus suburb of Khan a-Sheh when artillery shrapnel struck his leg, severing it at the thigh.

With few options in Syria, the former math student moved to Jordan for medical treatment. There, he realized that he wanted to be more than a patient. Hasna began studying prosthetic-limb design in order to help other injured people.

Hasna, now 22, connected with Refugee Open Ware (ROW), a technology training organization for refugees in Jordan. He was part of a team that built prosthetic limbs and developed an echo-location device for a Syrian child who was blinded by a sniper bullet.

Hasna’s problem was that he was working illegally. Jordan denied him a work permit, in accordance with its policy toward Syrian refugees at the time. It was then, in 2015, that he realized he had to leave Jordan.  

“After many attempts to settle in Jordan, I decided to sacrifice everything and embark on the ‘journey of death’ to Germany,” Hasna tells Alaa Nassar. “It was a chance to build a new life in a new country and experience a society that’s totally different from where I had lived before.”

Things moved quickly. Hasna taught programming and robotics to the refugee children at the camp where he first stayed after arriving in Germany. Through his volunteer work, he learned about the TEDx Berlin talks. In March 2016, he presented a talk called “Rebuilding our lives, rebuilding our countries.”

Today, Asem Hasna is training with IT giant Cisco and teaching Syrian children programming on the weekends.

“Everyone who has lost a limb or been injured must look at his hardship as an opportunity for a fresh and unique start, a chance to experience life from a different perspective.”

Q: Why did you decide to work in the field of prosthetic limbs?

I joined this field because I needed to find a replacement for my leg. I wanted to learn more about prosthetic limbs so I could help others who are injured. 

In my opinion, the way my injury occurred—in a battlefield—played an important role. During war, you have a different mentality. You know that you could be injured or killed at any moment. So, I guess I can say that, to a certain extent, I was mentally prepared for this.

Nevertheless, there were times where I almost crumbled and completely gave up. But with God’s favor, I was given the chance to survive and recover from this traumatic injury. I gained great wisdom through this experience and used it to help other injured people.

The key to overcoming any mental blocks was to focus on how I could build a new life after I recovered.

I won’t be able to regain what I’ve lost, but I can still live a new and exceptional life. That’s the bright side of my injury.

 Asem delivers a TEDx talk in Berlin in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Asem Hasna.

Q: Where and when did you first become involved in prosthetic limb design and 3D printing?

In Jordan. I moved there for medical treatment after I lost my left leg from the thigh down in 2013.

At the time, the US State Department and Al Hussein Society (AHS) ran a joint project for people with physical disabilities. The project provided 150 people with prosthetic limbs and trained 12 people in prosthetic limb production. I was nominated to be both a beneficiary and a trainee, along with 10 others.

By the end of the nine-month program, I had made several prosthetic limbs with my colleagues. I also produced a prosthetic limb by myself, with the help of medical advisors.

After the training, I came across the organization Refugee Open Ware (ROW), which utilizes technology to serve refugees. ROW had launched a project in partnership with a Jordanian 3D printing company. The project used 3D printers to create low-cost prosthetic limbs for refugees. I worked with ROW for a year, producing prosthetic limbs. I gave one to a Syrian woman in Zaatari camp who had lost one of her arms.

A colleague and I also helped Ahmed, a child who was blinded by a sniper bullet. We designed a hand-held, ultrasonic echo-location device that helps him detect objects. It vibrates when he gets close to something, so he doesn’t run into it.

We developed this device in cooperation with the Royal Medical Services of the Jordanian Army.

Q: What advice do you have for people who have lost their limbs, especially those who view their condition as a disability?

Everyone who has lost a limb or been injured must look at his hardship as an opportunity for a fresh and unique start, a chance to experience life from a different perspective.

Of course, it’s not that simple. But one must come to the realization that the alternative option is to give up and watch life transform into a living hell, full of constant psychological pain.

My advice for anyone going through this experience is to set life goals and work towards reaching them. You shouldn’t just focus on receiving treatment—but look beyond treatment and consider how to live life after recovery. Life after treatment is a reality you’re going to face eventually.

Q: Do you ever feel that people look at you with pity or treat you differently from others because of your injury? Has your experience varied in different countries?

Of course this look exists, but unfortunately, I’ve only experienced it in Arab societies: on Facebook, in an Arab country or among Germany’s Arab community.

Despite this, I haven’t experienced any positive differential treatment. What I get is pity and superficial sympathy, which aren’t beneficial. In fact, this attitude can cause psychological damage to an amputee. Fortunately, I haven't let people's reactions get to me.

Q: How do you think you can change the way society views amputees?

The only way an amputee can change society’s views is by acting completely normal, as if he hasn’t lost a limb. He has to work on both a psychological and physical level.

First, an amputee has to make peace with himself.

Then comes the physical aspect. Even though he’s lost a limb, he must put his full effort into everything he does. He needs to encourage people—not just other amputees, but everyone—to be optimistic and continue to push forward.

Healthcare plays a crucial role here. It’s needed to help the amputee recover as quickly as possible.

Q: Throughout these past five years, what are the biggest unexpected turns or setbacks you’ve faced?

The first setback happened when I joined the revolution. From the very beginning, I was certain that the revolution would affect my life. I dropped out of school and worked as a paramedic to help the injured. The first shock I experienced was my father’s arrest, which affected the course of my future.

The second shock was my injury, which thrust me into an entirely different world. I left Syria—for the first time in my life—to go to Jordan for treatment. There I had a chance to start anew. I found work in a new field—prosthetic limbs. I began to work towards my dream of helping amputees. I also learned the latest technology.

But I also experienced my third obstacle—Jordan wouldn’t grant me a work visa so I could formally practice my profession. The country became a prison. I couldn’t see my wife in Syria. After many attempts to settle in Jordan, I decided to sacrifice everything and embark on the “journey of death” to Germany. It was a chance to build a new life in a new country and experience a society that’s totally different from where I had lived before.

Q: Do you think that, through your personal story and success, you can inspire people with traumatic injuries to overcome challenges?

I hope that I can help someone—even if it’s just one person—who is stuck in this hateful cycle of helplessness and inability.

I always try to show injured people that I’ve gone through hardships that most of them won’t face. My path was thorny and difficult, but despite this I was able to overcome many challenges. I was only able to do so because I believed that there is great wisdom to be learned from this loss. I learned to release the energy that’s inside of me.

I hope that anyone who faces challenges looks at them as a chance to strengthen his character and succeed.

Q: What are you doing in Germany?

I’m applying for asylum and learning German.

In 2015, two months after I arrived to Germany, I decided to teach children at my refugee camp how to do basic programming and robotics. I used Arduino, an open-source electronics platform.

Three months later, in March, I participated in a TEDx Berlin talk, where I talked about the project that I hope to start—creating a lab for manufacturing prosthetic limbs using 3D printing and training Syrians in this technology.

After the TEDx talk, I met up with a German organization called the ReDI School of Digital Integration and worked with them to develop a program that teaches children the basics of programing and robotics. ReDI connected me with the IT company Cisco, and I received the opportunity to train with them for six months. I’m currently training with Cisco, and I also teach children programming on the weekends.

Q: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to expand your work outside Germany after you get residency?

This is exactly what I’m thinking of doing. I decided to come to Germany with the hopes of getting residency so I could travel more easily.

My short-term goal is to support my colleagues at Refugee Open Ware (ROW) by using the expertise I gained through previous work and through my current work with the IT firm Cisco.

In the long run, I dream of establishing an innovation center in Syria to help young people achieve their dreams by providing them with the technical skills and financial means to design and launch their own projects. Knowledge is the only way to rebuild our country.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.

Justin Clark, Reporter/Translator

Justin Clark studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Amman. He works as a translator and reporter for the Syrian Voice.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.