Winter in Syria can be cold. Freezing cold.
With over 11 million people displaced since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011, many millions are without adequate heating or shelter during the cold winter months.
A group of MIT students has set out to change that.
The team of six, led by MIT Sloan undergraduate student Vick Liu, has created TravlerPack, a light, durable, water-resistant sleeping bag that can withstand temperatures as cold as -10 degrees Celsius, with the goal of distributing them to Syrian refugees.
TravlerPack started as an idea scribbled on a napkin.
During a freshman pre-orientation exercise last year, Liu was among a group of students discussing startup ideas when he realized he was interested in creating something that would help people. He wrote the idea for TravlerPack on a napkin and stuffed it in his pocket so he wouldn’t forget it.
“TravlerPack was a natural transition for me, since I went backpacking and camping growing up,” said Liu. “The refugee crisis is a huge problem, and I have experience with something that could really help people.”
With fuel and shelter hard to come by, refugees have few ways to keep warm during the Syrian winters. But a sleeping bag doesn’t require a battery or fuel. “It’s a simple solution to a big problem,” said Liu.
The idea grew from there, with the team sewing together its first prototype sleeping bag in a dorm room over the winter. To test it, Liu slept on the roof of his fraternity house one night during a Boston snowstorm last January — temperatures dropped to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but Liu stayed warm the entire night.
TravlerPack sleeping bags have evolved since then. Initially insulated with sheep’s wool (the team bought the wool directly from a local shepherd they visited) the bags now use duck down. Also, Liu and his team spoke directly with refugees to understand any additional features they would need. They found that refugees had no way to securely store valuables, especially at night, so each TravlerPack contains one outside storage compartment and five inside storage compartments. Each pack also has a built-in, detachable mosquito net and TravlerPacks can be zipped together to make one larger sleeping space for a family, or unzipped completely and used as a blanket.
When not being used, TravlerPack compresses down into a small sack, which can be worn over the shoulder like a messenger bag. This allows refugees to also wear a backpack and still have their hands free.
After initially reaching out to around 80 potential manufacturers, the team officially partnered with one in April to make the sleeping bags. Then they had to figure out the logistics of actually getting the sleeping bags into the hands of refugees.
The team reached out to many non-profits and organizations that turned it down because they had “little to gain by working with us and a lot of time and effort to lose,“ said Liu. Luckily, NuDay Syria, a non-profit with experience distributing goods to Syrian refugees, signed on to distribute the packs within resettlement areas in northwestern Syria.
The group launched a GoFundMe campaign on Saturday to raise $15,000 to send TravlerPacks to Syrian refugees. Every $50 raised funds making and sending one bag.
The team has held off on becoming an official company for the time being — they are waiting until after the GoFundMe campaign is done. But the tentative plan is to become a non-profit. In the meantime, all money they make from the fundraising push will go directly to providing refugees with sleeping bags.
“We’ve been really lucky the whole way through,” Liu said. “This has been a journey of luck, intuition, and a lot of planning.”