Our task is to design a refugee camp for approximately 1,500 people however, as social innovators our goal is to create a scalable and sustainable design that can be replicated and used in any country or social context. This is a complicated endeavor, but a challenge that we as a team are prepared to address.
Our belief is that when designing refugee camps it is imperative to look at the population who will be living there: ethnicity, social class, religion, history and politics of the population(s) should all play a large role in the design process in order to be truly “human-centered”. But how can a refugee-camp designer address each of these context-specific situations when creating a master design that can be scaled and replicated for use in multiple situations? This is where our innovative ideas are being incorporated.
Through our research, and confirmed by primary sources, we have mapped out similar problems that we see arising in refugee camps from Cameroon to Lebanon. There is a consensus that women across the globe face massive challenges in refugee camps related to safety. Regardless of social context these primary needs must be addressed in order to create a sustainable design. Our job is to offer a camp design that places safety and the well-being of women, and all camp habitants, as the first priority.
In addition to addressing the safety of camp inhabitants our goal is sustainability. By sustainability we mean that our camp will function in a way that ensures the well-being of the population for as long as necessary without being a drain on the host community, environment, or aid agency’s which are working in the camp. We want to offer our refugee community a variety of choices regarding education, health and economic opportunities in order to create a sustainable atmosphere so our camp can continue to function while also being able to adapt to the needs of the refugee population over time.
We have recently skyped with one of our mentors who works in a refugee camp in South Sudan and also met with our project proposer from the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom. The discussions we had were inspiring to us and confirmed, and sometimes refuted, our assumptions. Our mentor’s have provided us with knowledge that can only be acquired after years of experience working with women and refugee communities- and we are taking their advice seriously and incorporating it into our design. Our research combined with these interactions with primary sources has given us a solid grasp of the problems women face.
In the coming weeks we will be ideating and prototyping some designs in preparation for our final presentation. We really hope to adequately address the problems that so many women around the world face in refugee camps. After having their lives uprooted by conflict or natural disaster, refugee communities are often placed in an undesirable situation with an uncertain future. We believe these men, women and children deserve to live in a sustainable community that affords them opportunities to improve their lives and a place they can call ‘home’.
In tackling the problem of creating a gender-conscious refugee camp, our design philosophy has been focused on co-creation from the start. As outlined in the previous blog, the first stage in our design process was to empathize with our target users – the refugee population to inhabit our camp redesign. We had a number of productive interviews with mentors and challenge setters, conducted a large survey of available literature – IGO/NGO reports, academic articles, etc. – and searched for as many primary accounts of the daily life and challenges facing refugees as we could.
Documentaries and videos of interviews with refugees really brought these facts to life, and allowed the team to approach the problem with a sharper understanding of the issues at hand. As we are wrapping up the research phase of our project, each team member was able to identify some crucial areas of focus and interest.
Our approach is far from linear, but in attempting to address some of the concerns we identified – the physical infrastructure of the camp, the food/water distribution networks, the type of trainings provided to camp inhabitants, etc. – we were beginning to define specific concerns to be addressed.
In order to illustrate, let’s look specifically at problems with food distribution in a refugee camp:
A young mother in a large refugee camp in Jordan might spend up to half of her day or more in queuing up to obtain rations. While in line, she has no time to further her education or be otherwise engaged productively. When it’s finally her turn, an aid worker checks her name against a long list of names of all families in the camp. There may have been a mistake, and her name might already be crossed off. The worker might harass her, extort or blackmail her into having sex. She might also be harassed by idle men loitering around the distribution center. Maybe the worker is generous and nice, but the ration she receives is still doled out from a large sack stamped with the UNHCR logo – she feels ashamed that she has to rely on charity. The last time it was mostly rice also, the next time it will likely be the same. She can’t remember the last time she was able to give her children chocolate. When she finally receives her rations, she prepares to walk along rows of stark white tents back to her own. On the way, she might be beset by a group of guys that don’t want to wait in line for rations. They might just take hers. At that moment, she may also become the target of rape or other gender-based violence. She will have to do it all again soon.
The challenge is to find ways to address issues of such complexity – and do it in such a way that the women’s needs are prioritized. This brings us to the “Ideate” phase, where our team has to come up with solutions that addresses directly the needs we have discovered so far. That’s no easy task, but we are well under way in defining the potential solution spaces.
Looking over at my teammates when we first heard our project assignment, I couldn’t imagine a team more passionate and ready to take on a project. As soon as we could, we reached for research material to start exploring the topic and framing our project design. With a superstar cast of mentors, we’ve already been offered a glimpse into human-centered design and using architecture to empower vulnerable groups.
So what exactly is this project that we’re all so excited about? Our challenge is to design a refugee or IDP camp “from a woman’s perspective” – actively confronting women’s issues by redesigning the physical spaces of the camp to reduce security threats and to provide a platform to empower women. Our project parameters are somewhat flexible: we’re looking to design a small-scale camp, hosting approximately 1,500 people. The setting is remote, in a region that is subject to climatic extremes… more to come as we narrow our research and choose the region on which we will focus!
We have started our research by looking at the spaces and structures that women in refugee camps interact with daily to get an idea of how their design and placement can shape these women’s lives. For example, we will be looking at lighting of public spaces, access to facilities and healthcare, proximity to water and firewood, and availability of other amenities.
Having developed our mission statement and design philosophy, we are moving forward by envisioning what one woman’s daily life might look like in a camp, and where she may feel vulnerable: what’s called an “empathy map.” We’re looking forward to meeting with more of our wonderful mentors this week, and we can’t wait to learn how to transform our ideas into action this weekend!