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


W.When the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp began to overflow in 2013, it was so big that it had become the fourth largest city in Jordan. The Za’atari camp was home to a staggering 150,000 people, and the influx of newcomers meant that another camp had to be built a few kilometers away.

Za’atari was plagued by design flaws related to violence and disorder. When Azraq opened as a “model camp” for the region in 2014, it was heralded as an opportunity to address these issues. But it wasn’t that simple.

“Azraq was ‘beautiful’ in the eyes of humanitarian aid organizations,” says Azra Akšamija, founder of the MIT Future Heritage Lab, which develops creative responses to a world in crisis. “But it was also sterile, there were no cultural or educational activities. We stepped into this vacuum. ”The contribution of the laboratory at Azraq was Design to Live: Everyday Inventions from a Refugee Camp, which documents over 20 projects by residents. From a rocking nativity scene built from school desks to a life-size sand sculpture referencing the citadel of Aleppo, the residents of Azraq not only represent their minimal circumstances, but also the understanding of humanitarian design of “essential” needs in question.

Extreme circumstances … The camp during a sandstorm, Azraq, Jordan, 2017. Photo: MIT Future Heritage Lab

More than 6.6 million Syrians have fled their country since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. While most of the neighboring countries live in poverty, 5% live in refugee camps run by government, non-profit organizations and the United Nations. Design to life tells the story of what is not available to these refugees. Logo-embossed burlap and metal sheets are repurposed to solve practical problems, like a desert cooler without air conditioning in 45-degree heat. But designs like a mosaic of date seeds to adorn a teacup address the philosophical problem of the refugee camp itself: How do you live in accommodation that is not a home?

“Existing within the camp is an act of resistance and being yourself is an act of resilience, because you are in an environment in which you are constantly reminded that ‘this is not yours’”, says architect Muhsen Albawab im Interview with the editors of the book. “Any intervention, even a mural, contradicts what a camp should be.”

At Azraq, design begins with the most important aid supplies from the UN: Think of water containers with weights down to the decimal point and “the T-Shelter”, a 24 square meter residential unit for a family of four to five people. However, if you cannot eat, drink or sleep on it, an item will not count towards the humanitarian design canon. This thinking comes from the data-driven systematization of human life in order to cover the basics for as many people as possible. The problem is that refugees’ self-fulfillment and cultural preservation are neglected. What if refugee camps were civic spaces to encourage creativity and social healing? A mural seems valuable considering what sparked a wave of repression in Syria: demonstrations 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 the affected communities, not just the empty symbols of physical monuments,” says Akšamija. “And isn’t that the culture they produce? while being displaced, a legacy of the future? ”A fountain is a traditional feature of the Syrian courtyard, but the 20% of Azraq residents who are under five would not have seen it at all if their parents hadn’t turned shishas into miniature waterfalls would have. Without the ingenious transformation of household rubbish into tops and plush toys, they would have little to play with. These moments of action and subversion highlight the gaps in the existing infrastructure.

Abo Jar Al-Nabi, fountain made of plastic buckets, yogurt containers, shisha parts and a motor, Azraq, Jordan, 2017
Traditional feature … Abo Jar Al-Nabi, fountain made of plastic buckets, yogurt containers, shisha parts and a motor, Azraq, Jordan, 2017. Photo: MIT Future Heritage Lab

While bureaucracy is the obstacle to implementing residents’ ideas, Design to Live finds that it is not an insurmountable obstacle. The modification of the T-shelf to change the direction of the entry point – to store warmth and privacy for. to accomplish Mahram– Family members who do not need to be veiled – was so popular that it was formalized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“[The humanitarian design field] treats displacement as a temporary thing, that we have to house a surplus of population for a short period of time to create instant cities that can be done quickly and dismantled quickly until things return to normal. That’s not how the world works, ”says Melina Philippou, Program Director of the Future Heritage Lab. “We will have an increasingly dynamic population movement.”

At this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, works by Akšamija and the Future Heritage Lab can be seen: Displaced Empire is an interactive textile installation that combines the designs of a portable Ottoman palace and a contemporary shelter in Azraq. Smartly dressed visitors wearing lanyards wander through a sacred space to enter a tent made of discarded clothes and humanitarian textiles from various countries, including “imperial banners” embroidered with everyday scenes from Azraq. The hope, says Akšamija, is that some of them will think: “That could be me.”

We are all part of a global community responsible for producing refugees. The current living situation of the displaced in the Middle East predicts a common future, as the climate crisis leads to disasters regardless of the GDP of the destroyed country. A climate model estimates that by 2100 the American cities of Atlanta, Orlando, Houston and Austin could each gain more than a quarter of a million new inhabitants through the shift in sea level alone. Could we build vertical gardens if it wasn’t possible to plant in the ground? Would we? “You don’t understand the full meaning and performance of these designs if you don’t understand the limits behind them,” says Akšamija. “What we need in humanitarian design is empathy.”

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