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Planting new roots

Community garden for refugees gets a makeover thanks to help from ASU students.
ASU students show their concern for Valley's refugees through service.
April 20, 2016

ASU students help refugees tend to community garden

Lindsay Dusard has a heart of gold.

Get the 20-year-old Arizona State University student to open up about the subject of refugees, and more likely than not a tear or two will be shed by the time she finishes her first sentence.

Refugees have an ally in Dusard, one of approximately 60 members in ASU’s Peace Corps Club. She says being a Peace Corps AmbassadorAmbassadors are interns who work closely with Peace Corps recruiters to raise the agency’s profile on campus and introduce the Peace Corps to new and diverse student groups. has been a life-changing experience.

“I’ve grown up here in Arizona and lived a very comfortable life. Working with refugees has completely changed my perspective on the things that really matter and what life is about,” said Dusard, who is a public policy and marketing major in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“Almost all refugees have been through some sort of trauma. They’ve seen their houses bombed, family members get shot and yet we’re still sometimes unwelcoming as a country. My mission is to get people to understand who they are, how thankful they are to be here in this country and why we should help them start a new chapter in their lives.” 

For about 20 refugee families in the Valley, their new chapter started in 2011 with the construction of a community garden at the southwest corner of Dunlap and 39th avenues. The 1.5-acre lot belongs to the West Dunlap Baptist Church, which has leased the land for free to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for the past five years. The IRC has a few other community gardens in the Valley, which it calls its New Roots program. The program allows refugees to grow food to eat and to sell to help support themselves.

While other Valley service groups and grants initially raised more than $100,000 to prep the once-vacant land into a community garden, ASU’s Peace Corps Club was able to make further enhancements to the property this year thanks to a Woodside Action Community Grant provided through ASU’s Changemaker Central.

The $1,500 grant allows service groups to carry out community-focused projects that are engaging, solutions-focused, sustainable and have long-term impact.

“The participation of ASU students this spring has not only added color to the garden but also creates an image that sends a good message to the community and the refugee families,” said Timothy Olorunfemi, the New Roots program supervisor with the Glendale-based International Rescue Committee. “The ASU students have really shown their love and passion for the refugees.”

On April 9, with the assistance of 27 ASU students, the Peace Corps Club put the grant into action with a day of service. Students pulled grass and weeds, collected trash, cleared out irrigation systems, painted murals and provided garbage bins to the site. A few of them picked up shovels and hoes and worked alongside the farmers, tilling the dusty crops, which include tomatoes, okra, pumpkin, corn, sweet potatoes, melons and beans.

Siang Neh, a farmer from Nepal, grows pumpkin leaves. It is considered a delicacy in many countries, including Nepal, Bhutan and some countries in Africa.

“We can only grow this for three months,” said Neh, who has lived in the United States for five years. “The cold is no good.”

About a hundred yards away, a handful of students were painting a mural of farmers working their crops, lead by Peace Corps Ambassador Miriam Carpenter-Cosand.

“Images are very powerful, and creating a mural in a place like this will help bring something to the farmers and the community,” said Carpenter-Cosand, a 21-year-old painting and Spanish literature major in the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “I’ve had a couple of farmers thank me for making them feel more welcome. They know we care about them.”

Farmer Mohammed Mohammed definitely feels the love. It’s an emotion he savors after being driven away from his war-torn home in Iraq five years ago. He says being forced to move from his native land at his age — he appears to be in his mid- to late 60s — was difficult at first. Knowing people want him to succeed makes his life here easier to accept.

“The students are amazing and wonderful,” he said through an interpreter. “I am very thankful to them for coming to the garden, and I always have a nice time with them.”

man giving thumbs up in garden

Mohammed Mohammed gives volunteers the thumbs-up after
giving his directions for digging the irrigation canal at the
IRC's New Roots community garden in Phoenix on April 9.

Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mohammed grows okra, tomatoes and eggplant. He feeds his family and sells the rest at various farmers markets in the Valley. He estimates he makes about $1,000 a month. He says the garden gives him more than money: It gives him a sense of purpose. 

“Back home there was no land for planting,” Mohammed said. “I like farming and am happy in the garden.”

His story doesn’t come as a surprise to Mohammed Alkhyeli, a 19-year-old finance major in the W. P. Carey School of Business who is from Dubai.

“Back home in Dubai there are twice as many immigrants than there are natives,” Alkhyeli said. “We try and help them with their issues, and I believe that’s a good thing. Other countries should be doing the same thing.” 

Dusard believes the reason why most Americans don’t want to help refugees is based on fear, not facts. She said there are approximately 60 million displaced refugees in the world, and less than 1 percent get resettled in other countries and even fewer enter the United States. She said refugees endure a strenuous international vetting process, which can often take years — but they never give up hope.

“I take it very personally when the media or whomever attacks them,” Dusard said. “The majority of those who are resettled are large families, and all that they want is to have the opportunity to put down roots again and to create a better life for their children. 

“Isn’t that what we all wish for?” 

Top photo: Double major in biochemistry and non-profit organization management junior Lissette Valle (left) tends to pumpkins in rows of the garden being farmed by Siang Neh from Burma at the IRC's New Roots community garden in Phoenix on April 9. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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Building a foundation for a better world

ASU prof wants to make composite concrete the next big thing in construction.
Fiber- and textile-reinforced concrete is better economically, environmentally.
April 20, 2016

ASU engineer's research aims to make more effective and efficient infrastructure

Substandard housing affects almost 2 billion people worldwide. Wood, often the American building material of choice for housing, isn’t always a global resource in developing nations and can be fraught with environmental and durability issues.

That's why Arizona State University professor Barzin Mobasher is developing fiber- and textile-reinforced concrete that is strong in compressionA simplified explanation of the difference between compressive and tensile strength is that compression is when a material is being squeezed inward, whereas tension is when it is being pulled outward. like traditional concrete but has the added capability to be strong in tension as well as flexible — a material more suitable for a wider range of infrastructure projects.

“I want to develop the next generation of the two-by-four that’s not wood, but acts like wood — it can be connected with screws and be used to build trusses — and would not contribute to cutting down forests,” said Mobasher, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering who has spent more than 30 years researching composite concrete materials.

“The idea is that concrete by itself is very weak in tension and strong in compression,” Mobasher said. “You have to reinforce it to increase its tensile strength, such as with rebar and steel. But my work deals with using a smaller type of reinforcement in the context of fibers, the same technology of composite materials like carbon fiber composites replacing the aluminum in the structural components of airplanes.”

This concrete has the added ductility, or the ability to absorb energy, to withstand earthquakes and other stresses that would topple other structures thanks to tiny fibers or sheets of textile.

Mobasher says houses can be made out of 90 percent composite concrete that is structurally sound and energy-efficient.

“I want to show that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done."

Barzin Mobasher, ASU professor of civil and environmental engineering 

These composite materials can be made into modular pieces using local materials and manufacturing plants near where materials would be used.

The problems of poor housing in Brazil’s favelas (slums) could be remedied with a small-scale concrete manufacturing plant that uses sisal- or coconut-fiber-reinforced concrete segments, Mobasher said. This in turn could build up the agriculture-based economy by having fibers supplied from local sources and local workers could manufacture it.

In other places, integration of this technology with 3-D printing could revolutionize how construction materials are made.

Before Mobasher’s dream can become a reality, a lot of other work needs to be done to go from idea to building code. Construction is a slow-moving and challenging industry to work in due to the critical need to prevent failures — but failure is what drives Mobasher’s research.

Learning to love failure

His interest in finding a better way for people to build infrastructure comes from his childhood when he watched his grandfather build and rebuild terraces on a mountainside in northern Iran. Every winter, snow and rain would lead to the terrace structure’s collapse, but his grandfather wouldn’t give up. He’d try different procedures and find a better design that would last longer. This also sparked Mobasher's motivation to understand how materials fail and an unfailing persistence in accomplishing his own goal to design better materials.

When he arrived at ASU in 1991 as an assistant professor, no one in Arizona was publishing in the areas of fiber- and textile-reinforced concrete, so he charted a course for this new area of materials research.

Since then, he has been developing and testing composite materials — and learning what makes them fail. The work Mobasher and his students are doing in his lab documents how the materials work and what their strengths, weaknesses and limits are. Understanding how they fail means failures can be prevented from happening when they’re put into use.

Mobasher uses the measurements from the testing to develop a core set of tools to document how materials behave under different circumstances.

Barzin Mobasher stands in front of equipment in the Structural Mechanics and Infrastructure Materials Laboratory.

Professor Barzin Mobasher in the Structural Mechanics and Infrastructure Materials Laboratory at ASU. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Getting new concrete materials out in the world

Mobasher doesn’t limit his efforts to his lab at ASU. He also works with the American Concrete Institute (ACI), an organization responsible for writing building codes for infrastructure ranging from skyscrapers to sidewalks. The ACI’s technical committees define various codes related to concrete material use. Mobasher chairs the Fiber-Reinforced Concrete Committee — a position he has held for six years — and is also a member ACI's Fracture Mechanics Committee and Thin Section Products Committee.

As a committee chair, it’s Mobasher’s job to get new technologies put into use by compiling research, figuring out how to reach a consensus among the various members of the committee, and converting it into international reports that can become building codes — not an easy feat to accomplish.

Builders use 10 billion tons of concrete per year around the world — that’s more than one ton of concrete per person — and it’s not the most effective concrete out there. The industry tends to stick with decades-old, tried-and-true materials and methods rather than switching to newer and better materials because failure is not an option in critical infrastructure.

“Infrastructure is made three or four times as strong as it needs to be, and tools and models belong in an era of 40 to 50 years ago,” Mobasher said. “I want to show that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done.

While it’s understandable to want to avoid failure in the case of a high-rise apartment, for example, which could result in the loss of life, more isn’t always better. Instead of using a larger volume of concrete to achieve better strength, the new technologies of fiber- and textile-reinforced concretes can add that strength and added flexibility while taking up 10 times less space in volume.

The efficiency of these materials has big economic and sustainability benefits. When less volume is taken up by concrete support columns, that area can be used as more rentable space. Less material means construction is quicker so disruptions — which can add up to billions of dollars in cost — can be much shorter. And 10 billion tons of concrete per year comes with a hefty carbon footprint; using less concrete that can be made of materials that last 100 years in corrosive environments means a lower carbon footprint, and thus creates more sustainable infrastructure.

“My dream is to roll out this technology,” Mobasher said. “I want to tell people about the solutions, how they can use them and what they’re good for.”

He plans to continue to expand his efforts outside the lab with more outreach efforts, setting up collaborative efforts with groups like the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU and focusing on marketing to get more people involved, interested and using these materials in real construction projects.

Award recognizes Mobasher’s achievements in the field

Mobasher’s work to take the field of composite concrete materials from its origins to where it is now — with its own textbooks, conferences, doctoral student theses and international reports — has not gone unnoticed. The ACI gave him its Delmar L. Bloem Distinguished Service Award at the ACI Spring 2016 Concrete Convention and Exposition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The award recognizes his work as committee chair in publishing three international reports that detail new design procedures he has developed through his materials research at ASU.

The award is a great honor, but, above all, Mobasher hopes this will put the spotlight on sustainability and social justice issues about which he has been trying to raise awareness.

“We need to design concrete more efficiently,” Mobasher said. “I think people are listening and that’s important because each of us has a role, and we’re putting a solution on the table. If people acknowledge and use it, that’s the best reward.”


Monique Clement

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering