Empowering at-risk refugee children to be their own safety superheroes

2017-18 — 8 months (Master’s thesis)

Research, UX, Strategy, Game Design, Social Impact

This project was selected for the Paula Rhodes Award for quality and originality in thesis conception.

Even though this was a solo project, the development wouldn’t have been the same without the enriching conversations with my advisors and so many talented people I met along the way.


The ongoing Rohingya crisis has left more than 400,000 children fighting for survival in chaotic refugee camps, where child trafficking is one of the biggest perils they face. Children as young as seven often need to trek through the camps alone. Unaware of the potential dangers, they become easy targets for traffickers.

Most existing efforts are geared towards helping victims and few, if any, address prevention. What if we empower children to look out for themselves?

MightyUs is a workshop that helps refugee children, ages 7 to 10, exercise vigilance and be more confident. Through interactive storytelling, games, and songs they learn to assess risks, practice caution, and be their own safety superheroes. Its learn-through-play approach makes the experience fun and not overwhelming for young children.



Research Methods

I started with the broad idea around safety and well-being, and immediately immersed myself in whatever information I could find about the crisis, primarily in two ways.


  • Cold emails + interviews
    • Current and past refugees (both adults and children)
    • People working at official agencies (UNHCR, UNICEF, Save the Children, etc) or local NGOs
    • Reporters and journalists who have covered refugee crises

  • Reading
    • Books
    • Online articles
    • Reports by NGOs working on the crisis
Initial Challenges

The research was especially challenging because when I started this project, the Rohingya crisis had just begun, so:


  • In the beginning the information was scarce and ever-changing. Hence, analysis of the data was not conclusive.
  • People (NGO workers, journalists, etc.) directly involved with the crisis were busy and difficult to reach.
Important Insights
  • Identification of families started as late as 40 days after the crisis began, leading to chaos in the beginning. Also, the adversity leads to many children developing toxic stress response, addressing which requires medical and psychological attention. This is difficult in the first few months as not all systems are fully operational yet. The first couple of months could be a great time frame for an intervention.


  • Amid all the adversities, the children (and their parents) live under constant threat to their safety. Many children are orphaned or separated from their guardians. Even when they are not, their parents need to go out to earn money and cannot always chaperone the children. On top of this, there is a lack of safe physical environments for the children to play and segregated tents for them to sleep in. Thus, children become targets for trafficking, slavery, physical violence, and sexual abuse. Providing safe environments or supervision can contribute towards keeping the children safe.[1]


  • Children also need to go out in the camp to get food or ration. Sometimes, they wander far off and cannot find their way back. Improving night lighting and wayfinding can also contribute towards their safety.

  • In my conversations with a psychologist working in the camps, she provided some crucial insights:
    • The Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) act as safe havens for parents, who can go find work without having to worry about their children.
    • While colors can play wonders, the camp environment lacks visual stimulation.
    • Many children start to develop guilt over losing memory of their culture and their lost beloved.
Potential Problem Areas

Based on the research, when I mapped potential problem areas in different tiers based on how directly they affect the safety and well-being of refugee children in camps, one pattern that immediately emerged was that child trafficking is a central issue that affects all age groups and genders.


And while it may be difficult to address the problem for older children, as they fall prey to trafficking due to complex socio-economic factors, there is significant room for improvement for younger children, who become victims mainly due to the lack of safe spaces, lack of supervision, and unawareness of safety dangers. This helped me narrow my focus to addressing child trafficking for young children of ages 7-10.



Mapping Assumptions


Based on the “high risk, unknown” assumptions, I created the hypothesis that:


Incentivizing children to stay at child-friendly spaces (CFS) for longer hours will increase their safety. We would know that this hypothesis is true if the number of exploitation incidences reduces after implementing the solution.


As I began thinking about testing my hypothesis, I realized that it was more difficult in my project than in most: it was nearly impossible to devise a prototype, have it quickly tested by my target users (Rohingya children in refugee camps), and check if my hypothesis is correct. For one, there were many logistical barriers. But more importantly, safety is hard to measure quantitatively, and even if we try to measure it, this would require observations over a long period of time.


Hence, given the time frame, I chose to reach out to more volunteers working in the Rohingya refugee camps and validated my assumptions through one-on-one interviews.


After narrowing down my focus to safety and well-being, my initial explorations were more at the systems level and viewed the problem through an architectural lens. I explored several possibilities.


  • Building a resilient community by creating safer environments for children
  • Improving wayfinding using color-coded tents.


However, the bylaws and difficult logistics turned out to be the biggest roadblock. Learning from this, my focus further narrowed down to:


  • Improving the existing learning centers at the camps, which already provide a safe environment for children but deal with the problem of a low retention rate.
  • I explored different ways of incentivizing children to stay engaged at the learning centers.
    • The key insight from this exploration was that “safety is the way of thinking”, which made me realize: if we don’t empower children to look out for themselves, they will still be at risk whenever they go out in the camp. This was my “aha moment” that led me to design MightyUs.


And in one such interview, I had an “Aha!” moment. During our conversation, one of the volunteers insinuated that:

While children will be safe when they attend Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS), not all children can attend CFS regularly. Also, some children need to go out alone in the camp to get ration and water. What can we do about their safety?

This made me rethink my approach to safety for this project and revealed the opportunity I was looking for.

How Might We...

How can we empower at-risk refugee children to be their own safety superheroes?

Stakeholder Needs



After exploring several different approaches, I arrived at the basic structure of my solution. MightyUs would be a workshop that teaches safety skills to children in the form of superpowers. Each skill would be explained in multiple ways — using hand gestures, games, songs, etc. A safety marshal would conduct the workshop with a small group of children.



My first prototype involved an “adventure walk”, during which the safety marshal would lead the children outdoors, and tell the story of a princess who is lost in the jungle and needs to return home safely. The children would think and advise the princess to use superpowers at each step of the way using what they have learned.

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The adventure walk was a good idea as it helped children be more comfortable in using the superpowers in the real environment. However, in my preliminary testing I observed that it was too long and did not leave enough time for explaining the superpowers to begin with. In the next iteration, I translated the adventure walk into an indoors experience that facilitated metacognitive learning through guided discussions.



Phase 1: Warm up

Phase 2: Superpowers
Phase 3: Clapping game
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Usability Testing Sessions

Long before reaching the testing phase, I had begun investing efforts to be able to go to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh to test my prototype. Unfortunately, the intricate logistics of the process did not permit such a visit in the short time frame. Hence, I had to come up with a Plan B for testing.


I decided to have two detailed tests of my prototype, both with children of ages 7 to 10. I conducted the first with children in the US. In this test, my primary goal was to answer two question: Do my engagement strategies work with children of my target age group? And do children like the games I have designed to practice superpowers?



The second test was conducted with children in India by a safety marshal that I trained. Here, my goal was to observe how changing factors affect the implementation of MightyUs. Would children still be able to learn about the safety concepts if they have not been exposed to formal safety education in the school? What happens when MightyUs is conducted in a different language? Is anything lost in the translation? Do the examples and conversations still work? Is the guidebook self-sufficient for training the safety marshal?



These two tests helped me validate my key design decisions, and revealed fascinating insights.


Is the workshop the right length?

When I first tested MightyUs, my time estimates were way off. What I thought would take an hour actually took 2 hours. I had also forgotten to incorporate breaks. In the next testing, I removed not-so-important phases of the workshop to make the experience more easy to digest, and added a break every 30 minutes. While it was wonderful to see children enjoying the workshop, 2 hours was a long time to keep up with all that energy!


Is introducing all five superpowers overwhelming?

I was skeptical at first. But surprisingly, the sequence of learning each superpower — a hand gesture followed by a game followed by a conversation — proved to be extremely engaging. It created pockets of physical and mental activities, and the change maintained their attention throughout the workshop.


Are conversations boring for ages 7-10?

While children of ages 8 and younger were more interested in the games and the hand gestures, children closer to age 10 were quite invested in reflecting over their choices. They found the conversation part to be intellectually stimulating.


Is the experience consistent across different contexts?

When the second user test was conducted in a different country, in a different language, and in a different cultural context, the safety marshal needed to use new context-appropriate examples to explain the same concepts. This demonstrated the need for contextual translation of the safety marshal guidebook into different languages to ensure a consistent experience.

Final Outcome

The Solution
Highlights and Constrains
The Workshop

The workshop teaches 5 “safety superpowers” in a form of games, songs and storytelling.

Educational Approach

One size does not fit all. Each child is unique, and has different needs and attention span.

Through research and usability testing, I learned the importance of explaining the same concept in many different ways, so each child can learn from the way that suits them the most


Learn it through Hand Gestures

Use of  iconic hand gestures has been shown to dramatically enhance learning in children. It also makes the experience more memorable.


Practice it by playing a game

The concepts around safety can sometimes be intense and challenging to understand for children. But playing them out can make the understanding clearer.


Use it in simulated scenarios

Once they understand what the concepts mean, applying them out in different scenarios makes children feel more prepared.

Workshop Requirements
  • A Place
  • Volunteers
  • A 52-page A5-sized guidebook 


Here are some of the important learnings from this project that will stay with me forever.

How to keep a balance between empathetic and vicarious emotions while conducting research.

From the beginning, the project was emotionally challenging for me. Reading and listening to the stories about these children and their suffering affected me deeply.

The main learning from this project was how to have empathatic but not vicarious emotions, that is, how to mentalize but not mirror your user’s emotions.

Active participation requires freedom to make choices.

As I developed my project, I constantly asked myself: “What makes an activity interesting to a child?” The answer, I learned, is co-creation.

Children find an activity most interesting when they get to make decisions, and therefore feel more invested and have a sense of ownership over the activity.

Knowing what to do isn't always enough to make someone prepared todeal with the situation.

Knowing what to do is one thing, but being prepared to act in a situation is different. This is where practice helps, especially for children. For example, it is not enough for children to simply know how to use a math technique; they need to practice it in different problems to really grasp it. And I re-learned this as an adult during this project.

One size does not fit all. Effective education needs to pressent different ways of learning the same thing.

One size does not fit all. Each child is unique, and has different needs and attention span.

Through iterations, I developed 3 step approach so each child can learn the same concept but choose a way that suits them the most.