Sniper alleys are rife in Syria. Streets manned silently by Assad's gunmen, the specific locations of these death traps often aren't known until someone takes a wrong turn and gets shot. A dire side effect of these sniper alleys is that after the snipers fire at innocent civilians and leave them to die in the street, others try to drag the wounded to safety, often getting themselves shot and killed in the process.
Ahmed Heider, a computer programmer from Aleppo, saw this scene play out one too many times and was motivated to help put an end to it. For the last two months—from his cramped hotel room in Turkey, where he now lives as a refugee—he's been working on a solution: the latest love of his life, Tena, a remote-controlled robot that can save wounded civilians from the line of sniper fire and take them to safety.
All of Ahmed’s best work is named after women—computer viruses are given the names of ex-girlfriends, for example—and Tena is no exception, in that she's named after a Finnish woman Ahmed sat next to on a plane from the UAE home to Damascus. However, unlike his computer-virus namesakes, Tena didn't manage to break Ahmed's heart during their brief airborne love affair, so it’s a fitting name for a robot that saves people. “She's like a robonurse,” he says.
The miniature prototype Ahmed has built may look like a toy, but its purpose is only to test the software required to operate Tena remotely. “The size doesn't matter, the software works,” he explains.
But Ahmed is now hoping to build the full-size version and is crowd-funding the $15,000 he needs to make it. Once he raises those funds, Ahmed believes Tena will be ready in just two months. The full-size model will be constructed from the body of a bulldozer, with additional titanium covering for added strength, and will be controlled from a safe distance by remote control. Ahmed is keen to stress that the vehicle will be nimble and efficient, asking me, “If I say 'bulldozer,' does it sound like it's a tank? 'Cause it's not a tank.”
Ahmed’s hope is that Tena's robotic arms will lift the injured person and take them inside the body of the bulldozer, where a small clinic inside the frame means that the wounded can be treated while they're being wheeled to safety.
Ahmed's skills in computer programming have shaped his experience of the Syrian civil war. Having studied computer science and then becoming a lecturer at a private institute in Qatar, his skills were sought after by all sides involved in the conflict. When the Syrian uprising first began in 2011, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) took Ahmed to their safe house and asked him to join their ranks in lieu of military service. He declined and went into hiding within Syria.
While in hiding he formed a group, alongside a number of other computer hackers, called the Pirates of Aleppo. The pirates, who work alongside other hacker groups within Syria and abroad, spend most of their time hacking government websites. But, according to Ahmed, the group also once hacked into Syrian state TV and declared al-Assad's resignation as president of Syria, stating his reason for standing down as being “for the good of his people.”
Syrian activists trying to save a sniper victim while being shot at by Assad's snipers.
However, the primary aim of the group is altruistic: when an activist is arrested by Assad's forces, the pirates hack their Facebook page and clean up any evidence of their activism, replacing it with hardcore pornography. Laughing, Ahmed explains that their porn-switching technique is to, "keep the investigators busy for at least an hour."
And it wasn't just the SEA who wanted to utilize Ahmed's skills, but plenty of other forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad aware of the fact that having someone with a detailed knowledge of technology on your side probably isn't a bad thing. However, Ahmed declined to help every time he was asked and, in doing so, has put his own life in danger in order to channel his skills into building helpful solutions to the problems on the ground in Syria.
This stance has put him and his family in danger, and last September—after the battle for control of the city began in earnest —Ahmed left Aleppo, which is how he ended up living as a refugee in Turkey. When he left, he took only one suitcase filled with suits. He told me, “It was summertime, and I didn’t have time to get my winter clothes—my suits were already in a suitcase, packed up with my passport certificates.” Ahmed spent nearly five months wearing only those suits. He was the best-dressed refugee in the province.
Ahmed recently managed to get his family to the safety of Turkey, too, and they brought him more clothes and a sense of relief that's visible as soon as he starts talking about them.
Now that his family is safe, Ahmed's focus is set on making the Tena working prototype, which can be used in the field but will also prove she works for her intended purpose. Once her purpose has been proven, Ahmed hopes aid agencies will find the design useful and seek to roll out wider production.
Ahmed’s sense of purpose is palpable. He wants to leave Turkey and Syria and get on with his life, but he can’t until he's built Tena. And while one aid agency has said they will consider helping to fund the project once they see a prototype on the ground, the only thing standing in Ahmed's way are the funds to build that initial prototype.
But Ahmed is optimistic. And after Tena? His dream, eventually, is to live in Canada. “I'm supposed to be with the woman I love there, so wish me luck.”
Follow Emma on Twitter: @ejbeals
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