Palestinian girls win Intel Science Fair award

For inventing electronic stick cane for blind


Three Palestinian girls won an international award at a youth science competition in the United States for inventing an electronic stick cane for the blind people.

Aseel Abul Lail, Noor al-Arada, and Aseel al-Shaar are 14-year old students at the UNRWA school in Askar refugee in Nablus in the northern West Bank. They took part in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, California, with a censor cane for the visually impaired and walked away with a special award in the field of Applied Electronics.

UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – funds and provides protection for around 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as well as the occupied Palestinian territories.

New invention

The new invention is the first stick cane that sends infrared signals downwards and forwards in order to help the blind find their way.

The invention first came as part of a competition organized by the girls’ UNRWA-affiliated school. After months of hard work and thorough study of the various experiences of the visually impaired both inside and outside Nablus, the three girls managed to figure out that using infrared rays would be the best way to detect obstacles along the way.

Through the infrared signals, the cane identifies the topography of the road that lies ahead of the blind person and sends special signals when there is a hole or a tree or any of the other things the blind person might hit while walking.

The mission of the three girls was far from smooth since they were not able to get the necessary equipment from their hometown and had to travel to Ramallah on daily basis. This meant waiting for hours at checkpoints and getting searched by occupation forces with every movement.

After six months, the cane came out in its final form. After the cane was tested and proved its effectiveness when actually used by blind people, it was presented at the UNRWA competition and the girls were awarded a trip to California to present their invention at the San Jose fair.

Fierce competition

Competing with some 1,611 participants from 56 countries, the girls' invention was met by enthusiasm on the part of the participants of the fair and particularly technical editors from specialized American and European companies.

"The invention is considered revolutionary because it managed to avoid defects of other laser canes that existed since the 1970s especially their inability to deal with uneven surfaces," said Mark Uslan, director at the American Federation of the Blind.

“The girls' design resolves a fundamental flaw in previous models by detecting holes in the ground,” he said in a press statement.

The UNRWA school system is in charge of the education of around 500,000 children throughout the Middle East, according to UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner General, Margot Ellis.

However, the relief agency is suffering from financial problems that might not make it possible for promising students like the three girls to get the education they need.

“Unfortunately, severe financial constraints threaten the continued provision of quality education to young Palestinian refugees like these girls from Nablus," she said.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said that science education in particular costs more and the current deficit makes the future of the agency quite bleak.

“UNRWA’s science education costs $25 million a year, and with a $90 million deficit across the Agency, our funds will run out in a matter of months. In Gaza, we had to turn thousands of children away from our schools this year.”

Askar refugee camp, where the girls’ school is located, was established in 1950 on land that the UNRWA leased from the Jordanian government. It currently houses around 15,900 registered refugees.

(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid).