Refurbishing computers for refugee

By James Abela. Posted

The refurbished computers being used in the Rohingya centre classroom

Originally published in Hello World Issue 19: Sustainability and Computing, June 2022. All information true at the time of original publishing.

James Abela introduces his 15-year-old student John Ling and tells the tale of how he sourced, refurbished, and distributed computers for Rohingya refugees in Malaysia

The local residency association in our area of Kuala Lumpur wanted to help students in need during the pandemic by providing them with used computers donated by the community. However, nobody in the association had the skills needed to do repairs, and so when a member of the association heard that John was good at fixing computers, they were keen for him to get involved.

John had high hopes that he could make a real difference to the Rohingya refugee centres. Although these refugees considered themselves to be the lucky ones in many ways, because they had escaped Myanmar, Malaysia was taking them in only on a temporary basis. Their schools were very basic, and this was made worse by a lockdown that meant they had no access at all to education.

Unfortunately, the residency association only got one computer donation, and it was a 22-year-old IBM ThinkPad that John could not get the required spare part for. John felt really bad about this, and so he asked everyone he knew whether they had a machine, in any condition, that they might give to the cause.  Emma Jones, one of John’s neighbours, recalls, “I had these three broken old laptops and they were doing nothing in my back room. They weren’t worth repairing, so I gave them to John to see if he could do anything with them.” John seized the opportunity and repaired them. Initially they were used for distance learning, and then they were used in the refugee school.

The corporate response

John also explored other positive leads. For example, he contacted AmBank, who said that if he could prove his scheme by refurbishing ten computers, they would donate the machines that had finished their five-year cycle of useful life at the bank.

He set up a Facebook page, which quickly gained traction (helloworld.cc/pluggedin). John started to get a few more donations and gratefully accepted them, writing each person a heartfelt letter of thanks. One of these letters went to Jane Wilson, and she showed her husband, who was the country president for Chubb. He was so impressed that he asked around in Chubb to see which computers might be due for renewal soon and could be sent to John for refurbishment. John had now also proven his scheme with ten machines, and so AmBank released their computers, too.

Operation: refurbish

Altogether, 21 desktops were donated, and so John now needed help to get them all processed and sent to the centres. To do this, he gathered four of his friends for a refurbishment party. The corporate machines were all mechanically sound and had all been very thoroughly wiped clean. The first thing that John did was to install an operating system; each of the motherboards had a licence key for Windows 7, and as that was what the teachers were familiar with, that’s what he installed. If you do not have a licence key, Linux is an excellent open-source option and distrochooser.de can help you choose the right distribution.

The team then split into two. One team labelled the ports so that it was easy to plug in peripherals, and the other team set up USB Wi-Fi dongles and installed the software and teaching materials. These machines were then ready for delivery to the centres. The process for computers that were donated by individuals rather than corporations was generally more extensive — see ‘The refurbishment process’ boxout for more information.

John repairing computers

Plugged in Malaysia

To bring it together and make the project more sustainable, John has now branded his operation ‘Plugged in Malaysia’ and is trying to get more people involved. He is pleased that he has made a good start in equipping centres with computers, and now that people have heard of the scheme, he is getting more donations, including from some unlikely sources. He ordered some cupcakes to thank the IT team at AmBank, and it turned out that the baker was married to someone who works for DHL. The project is now investigating whether DHL too can donate their machines at the end of their corporate life.

In essence, his plan was simple, but it took a lot of resilience to implement: “I found two ways to get computers for the centres. The first was from people who have old computers that don’t work anymore, and some of those only need minor repairs. Even if only the monitor works, I can always put in a Raspberry Pi to make it a useful device, and the rest of the computer might make useful parts for another refurbishment. The second route is from companies. Most companies need reliable computers, and many have an end-of-life policy after three to five years where they might sell them off cheaply. Their corporate philanthropy would go much further, though, if they donated them to me for refurbishment so I can get them to children who really need them. I did this last summer when I was 15. If I can do it, I am sure there are many others who have the skills to do this for their communities.”

So far, John and his friends have managed to put 56 computers back into service (using parts from 94 computers) and helped more than 850 students in Rohingya teaching centres. He has also started distributing computers to MYReaders centres, which help low-income families gain access to electronic reading materials (myreaders.org.my). He hopes that people will continue to donate, and he is now training up more students to refurbish machines, so that the charity can have access to a hub of volunteers in Kuala Lumpur.


The refurbishment process

John used this process for refurbishment:

  1. Identify faulty parts by pressing the power button and seeing how far along the process the computer gets; many cannot reach the login page

  2. Unplug and disassemble the computer to isolate the casing and the motherboard

  3. Clean the casing with soapy water and leave it to dry

  4. Replace faulty parts

  5. Update memory depending on DIMM type (DDR2 — 4GB, DDR3/DDR3L/DDR4 - 8GB)

  6. Clean cooling fan and CPU heatsink

  7. Apply new CPU thermal paste

  8. Reassemble

  9. Plug in and install operating system


John Ling

John Ling

John is an A-level computer science student at Garden International School in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the founder of Plugged in Malaysia (helloworld.cc/pluggedin). John collects, refurbishes, and distributes old computers to give to underprivileged students for learning.


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