In the past year, Americans have been keenly aware of two events that caused massive forcible displacement; Afghanistan and Ukraine. For the first time since four years into the Syrian conflict, refugees were on many of our minds. The reality is today, over 100 million forcibly displaced people, many from conflicts and contexts that never break our news cycle. The World Bank predicts this number will triple by 2050.
I was a graduate student at the Rice University School of Architecture when these myths burst for me. I became aware that the vast majority of these refugees who found themselves in camps and settlements in barren fields around the world received only a few things to make a home for themselves; some form of structure (bamboo in Bangladesh, eucalyptus poles in Uganda, thin welded steel in the Middle East) with a lousy tarp stretched over it, and a dirt floor.
Naively as earnest graduate students, we believed this was a design problem.
Families needed a floor. So we set about to solve one obvious problem – families living in the dirt for decades. We followed the “typical” innovation pathway, we learned, we listened, we made prototype after prototype, we secured some funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures) to begin running small batches, and finally, we caught the attention of the IKEA Foundation who invited us to Sweden to test our floor with a new shelter they were designing. We ultimately landed a grant from the United States Agency for International Development. We worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon for three years to test our floors with 34 families along the border with the Syrian border in Hezbollah-controlled Bekaa Valley.
Though we thought this was the pinnacle of our endeavor to do right by these families, this is where the real learning started.
Refugees don’t live in inadequate shelters because of product design failures. They do so because of systems design failures. Every system is perfectly designed for the outcomes it produces. We encountered a system failure of a grand proportion that must be solved.
“The system” brings short-term solutions to decades-long problems. When the UNHCR formed in the early 1950s, it was an extension of the West’s post-WWII Cold War strategy. It was chiefly a resettlement agency happily resettling discontent defectors from Soviet sympathizing countries to Europe and the States. Over the decades, the context changed dramatically, but the system aiding refugees changed very little. It is ill-equipped to deal with decades-long displacement.
Take the humble tarpaulin. This ubiquitous tarp, an innovation of the early 1970s, is made in Pakistan, India, or China. It is then shipped around the world to distribution centers and regional warehouses, where it will ultimately be trucked through developing countries struggling for employment opportunities. The tarp you may buy at a big-box home improvement store is nearly identical to the tarps millions of refugees will receive to become their roofs and walls. Within 3-6 months, that tarp will begin to shred to pieces.
Uganda, where my organization’s operations base is, has hosted refugees since the 1950s. It is currently third in the world in the number of refugees it hosts – 1.4 million. Despite nearly seven decades of hosting refugees, no one has invested in producing tarps here. No one has seen the golden opportunity of solving two problems at one time; the need for high-quality goods for shelters and the need for meaningful local employment.
Until now, that is. In my nearly ten years of working with refugees in and out of camps, I have learned the most from a design perspective from observing how refugees have solved their shelter problems. From creating compression washers from used agricultural hoses to inventing cooking fuels from organic industrial bi-products, refugees are creative, innovative, and fully capable of leading their own recovery if given the opportunity.
In Uganda, we work with refugees to train them to produce shelter roof tarps that will last for 5-10 years. They are made from repurposed billboard vinyl – old advertising nearly as commonly found in East Africa as it is here. To date, we’ve repurposed over 130 tons of the stuff. Instead of importing bad tarps from abroad, refugees, for the first time, can provide a living for themselves, making shelter goods for other refugees. Refugees are building local businesses serving the needs of their fellow refugees. This is just the start.
We envision an entire ecosystem of goods and services for refugees by refugees. The rest of the world has a part to play, but it’s time we stop thinking about refugees as mere victims but as whole people ready to rebuild their lives. To find and create a home for themselves, even in a foreign land. We will work to build this new ecosystem empowering refugee-led products and services, as our organization’s vision statement says until every refugee creates home.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from a refugee sewist our organization works with. Noella Kabala was an attorney in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but now in Uganda cannot practice law. Instead, she leads a successful sewing operation employing dozens of other refugees. Noella said:
Refugees are strong. They are resilient. When refugees flee from their country, they don’t leave their brain there. They come with their brain full of potential and talents.
Monday June 20th was World Refugee Day. Every Shelter will have our demonstration billboard shelter up all week at the Museum of Fine Arts in the Cullen Sculpture Garden. We’d love it if you’d stop by, learn more, and help us build a better way forward for refugees around the world.