“Existing is an act of resistance”: Syrian refugees create design from displacement | Architecture


When the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp began to overflow in 2013, it was so large that it had become Jordan’s fourth largest city. Za’atari camp housed an impressive 150,000 people, and the influx of new arrivals forced another camp to be built a few kilometers away.

Za’atari had been plagued by design flaws associated with violence and disorder. So when Azraq opened in 2014 as a “model camp” for the region, it was touted as a chance to rectify these issues. But it wasn’t that simple.

“Azraq was ‘beautiful’ in the eyes of aid organizations,” says Azra AkÅ¡amija, founder of the MIT Future Heritage Lab, which develops creative responses to a world in crisis. “But it was also sterile, there was no cultural or educational activity. We have entered this void. The lab’s contribution to Azraq was Design to Live: Everyday Inventions from a Refugee Camp, which documents more than 20 projects made by residents. From a rocking cradle constructed from school benches to a life-size sand sculpture referencing the citadel of Aleppo, the people of Azraq question not only their minimum conditions, but the humanitarian conception of needs. “Essential”.

Bare minimum circumstances… The camp during a sandstorm, Azraq, Jordan, 2017. Photography: MIT Future Heritage Lab

More than 6.6 million Syrians have fled their country since the start of the civil war in 2011. While most live in poverty in neighboring countries, 5% are in refugee camps maintained by a white list of refugees. government, nonprofit and United Nations agencies. Design to live tells the story of what is not planned for these refugees. Burlap and logo-stamped metal sheets are reused to solve practical problems, like a desert cooler in the absence of air conditioning in 45-degree heat. But patterns like a mosaic of date seeds to adorn a cup of tea address the philosophical problem that is the refugee camp itself: how to live in a shelter that is not a house?

“Within the camp, to exist is an act of resistance and to be yourself is an act of resilience because you are in an environment where you are constantly reminded: ‘it is not yours'”, explains the architect Muhsen Albawab in an interview with the editors of the book. “Any intervention, even a mural, is something that goes against what a camp is meant to be.”

The design in Azraq begins with the main UN relief items: think of water vessels with weight specifications down to the decimal place and “T-shelter”, a 24 square meter housing unit for one. family of four or five. But if you cannot eat, drink, or sleep on it, an item is not considered humanitarian design canon. Such thinking comes from systematizing data-driven human life to cover the basics for as many people as possible. The problem is that the self-actualization and cultural preservation of refugees is neglected. What if refugee camps were civic spaces for cultivating creativity and social healing? A mural looks valuable given what sparked a crackdown in Syria: protests in support of a group of teenagers arrested for anti-government graffiti.

“In the event of a disaster, it is really important to support the cultural revitalization of affected communities, not just empty symbols of physical monuments,” AkÅ¡amija explains. “And isn’t the culture they produce while to be moved a legacy of the future? A fountain is a traditional feature of the Syrian court, but the 20% of Azraq residents who are under five would not have experienced it at all if their parents hadn’t turned the shisha into miniature waterfalls. They wouldn’t have much to play without the ingenious transformation of household waste into spinning tops and fluff. These moments of agency and subversion highlight the gaps in the existing infrastructure.

Abo Jar Al-Nabi, Fountain made of plastic buckets, yoghurt pots, shisha pieces and a motor, Azraq, Jordan, 2017
Traditional features… Abo Jar Al-Nabi, Fountain made of plastic buckets, yoghurt pots, shisha pieces and a motor, Azraq, Jordan, 2017. Photography: MIT Future Heritage Lab

While bureaucracy is the obstacle to implementing residents’ ideas, Design to Live finds that it is not an insurmountable obstacle. Modifying the T-shelter to shift the direction of the entry point – to trap heat and add privacy for mahram, family members around whom the veil is not needed – was so popular that it was made official by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“[The humanitarian design field] treats displacement as something temporary, that we have to accommodate a surplus population for a short period of time, creating instant cities made fast and dismantled quickly, until everything is back to normal. The world doesn’t work that way, ”says Melina Philippou, Director of the Future Heritage Lab program. “We are going to have more and more dynamic population movements.

The work of AkÅ¡amija and the Future Heritage Lab is on display at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale: Displaced Empire is an interactive textile installation that merges the designs of a portable Ottoman palace and a contemporary shelter in Azraq. Elegantly dressed visitors wearing cords walk through a sacred space to enter a tent made of discarded clothing and humanitarian textiles from different countries, including “Imperial Banners” embroidered with daily scenes from Azraq. The hope, AkÅ¡amija says, is that some of them will wonder, “It could be me. “

We are all part of a global community responsible for the production of refugees. The current living conditions of internally displaced people in the Middle East point to a common future, as the climate crisis creates disasters regardless of the GDP of the ravaged land. One climate model estimates that by 2100, the US cities of Atlanta, Orlando, Houston and Austin could each accommodate more than a quarter of a million new residents due to sea level shifting alone. Could we build vertical gardens if planting in the ground was not possible? Should we? “You don’t understand the full meaning and realization of these designs unless you understand the limits behind them,” AkÅ¡amija says. “What we need in humanitarian design is empathy.


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