Design for refugees is a noble enterprise, but it will only work when policy makers see refugees as regular individuals in the first place, each with their own skill set, hopes, and dreams.
The migrant and refugee crisis has intensified in all layers of society, in Europe and far beyond. The situation along migration routes, the frosty treatment of refugees, the despair and frustration in the refugee camps, the growing resistance of local populations, are all cause for concern.
The world of design and architecture shares in this concern. At the current Architecture Biennale in Venice no less than four national pavilions are addressing the refugee problem. One of the first things the newly appointed official Dutch State Architect, Floris van Alkemade, did, was launching the open call “A Home away from Home”, asking for solutions for the housing of asylum seekers. The conference What Design Can Do has a much broader approach and asks in its open call: “What could Design do for refugees?”
In response to the latter initiative, five Dutch designers gave a resume of their thoughts on this topic and their decision not to submit a proposal. In their open letter, titled “Refugee Challenge Wrong”, they explain their concerns. They want to go beyond the boundaries of the Refugee Challenge, because they feel that this call is asking for the improvement of something that is unwanted in the first place: “Nobody wants to be a refugee, or to be addressed as one, let alone to be part of an interesting target group for designers. What you want is fleeing violence and lack of safety, is to find a quiet place – as quickly as possible – where you can pick yourself up again, start a social life, make a living.”
AZC Ter Apel
Ter Apel refugee center, 2015
Decisions on a political level are needed first, before design can do anything. In this respect, the German pavilion at the Venice biennale makes a strong statement. In close collaboration with Doug Saunders, Canadian journalist and writer of Arrival City, the Germans present eight arguments that show how the more than five hundred thousand refugees who entered their country could begin to feel they have found a new Heimat. The arguments make sense. They address matters such as education (the worst neighborhoods demand the very best schools), language (everyone should speak German) and work (jobs emerge where there are already jobs). But they also tackle legal issues, pleading for tolerating semi-legal practices and relaxing housing construction regulations. For instance, if you want to open a restaurant without having the necessary permits, just call the enterprise a cafeteria or if you want a hair salon, just start an official “hairdressing wholesale trade” and put customers in the chairs. In line with these arguments and proposals, policies should favor much more DIY solutions by diminishing regulations for housing construction. For instance, reducing the extent of expensive detailing, so that future occupants – even if they are unskilled – would be able to participate in the building process. Less strict rules and regulations would certainly speed up the integration process. But, again, this needs a good amount of political will.
Another thing that may speed up the process of feeling at home, is to stop framing these people as refugees, as being part of a homogenous group. They are coming from different places in the world and even if they originate from the same region, their habits and lifestyles could differ significantly. We experienced this first hand, when we recently organized two dinners at Hôtel Droog with newcomers from an Amsterdam refugee center: 60 people in total, mainly from Iraq and Syria. Among our guests were introvert women wearing a headscarf, as well as scarcely dressed girls, gay men and hip youngsters, but also traditional family people, conservatives and liberals, men with whom we had a good conversation and men who were sexually harassing (yes, it happened) Dutch women. Among our guests was a cook, a hairdresser, an IT specialist, a doctor, and there were teachers, students and many others. It was a very mixed group of people. We should listen to what they have to say. What do they expect from the future? How do they want to make their living? Do they want to live with their fellow countrymen or do they want to mingle with the population here? These are some of the questions we will ask in a Social City poll, which we are developing specifically for these newcomers. It’s time to approach them as individuals with passions, dreams and desires.
Top image: still from “De leeuw en de dappere muis” (The Lion and the Brave Mouse), video. Els van Driel, 2014
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