Part 3: The roles of community architects in fostering resilient refugee camps

Our two previous posts provided both a theoretical background on community architecture and resilient human settlements and a deeper understanding of the practice of the Office of Displaced Designers (ODD) in Lesvos. This third post connects these former two elements by examining the roles the community architects of ODD fulfilled when trying to foster resilience in the temporary human settlement of Moria Hotspot as well as the conditions that diminished their resilience-building potential.


Since one of ODD’s main philosophies behind their practice is to collaborate with the refugee community, ODD has strongly involved the community in their design processes. This involvement provides a great opportunity for the refugee community to either learn new skills, improve their existing ones and also share them among other residents (Paidakaki et al. 2021). In the construction sessions of the Olive Grove project, ODD – taking the role of a building teacher – taught the participants basic construction techniques. These skills were not only useful for their individual development but also for their further stay in the Olive Groves. Thanks to these newly learned construction techniques, the participants were able to maintain the already existing structures and to even start their own projects in order to further improve the structural quality of the camp. Throughout participatory design processes and workshops, ODD also sought to learn from the refugee community and in doing so took on the role of an attentive student. Among the inhabitants of Moria Hotspot were people who had a creative background in, for instance, architecture or design. By being offered the opportunity to teach their skills and knowledge to others, the refugees were getting back in touch with their own profession. This not only ensured a wide range of knowledge exchange during the workshops, but it also boosted the self-esteem of the participants who felt valuable and respected. Hence, ODD ensured a two-way knowledge exchange by being both a teacher and a student. During participatory design projects, ODD – as an involved facilitator – not only focused on this knowledge exchange but also on dialogue. Open dialogues at the beginning of and throughout the construction sessions empowered the refugee participants to speak up and offer new insights into the design, which made them feel valued. ODD, within the role of a distant translator, also translated the needs, wishes and ideas of the refugee community into tangible outcomes. By carefully listening to them and taking their needs and wishes seriously, the participants felt understood and respected. This collaboration and knowledge exchange between the architects and the refugee community was eventually translated into actual public infrastructure that, in turn, improved the overall social and structural quality of the refugee camp (De Becker, De Reu & Viaene 2020).


ODD’s architects manifested three novel roles that complemented the ones described in our first blog post: the community peacemaker, the political activist and the influencer. During the construction sessions, ODD – in its role of community peacemaker – promoted social cohesion both within the Moria Hotspot, by bringing diverse cultures within the refugee community together, and outside the hotspot, by connecting the refugees with the local community (Paidakaki et al., 2021). This role was at the very heart of their practice: by considering the refugee community as equals, ODD created an environment whereby refugees felt supported and less isolated from the wider society. Refugees had not felt such positive emotions since the beginning of their stay at the camp (De Becker, De Reu & Viaene 2020). The importance of the role of the community peacemaker was especially essential in the context of growing tensions between the refugee and the local community. At the beginning of 2020, these tensions were especially exacerbated by the local community’s accumulated frustration over the deteriorating conditions in Moria Hotspot that led to several riots and acts of violence against refugees and volunteers (Paidakaki et al. 2021)).


To improve the quality of life and foster the self-confidence of the refugee community, ODD also played the role of the political activist. Through their socio-spatial interventions (e.g. the Olive Grove project) in the camp, ODD indirectly advocated for the importance of a camp environment where social quality is considered as important as structural quality and where the refugee community is involved in the camps’ (re)development (Paidakaki et al.. 2021). This counter-hegemonic practice disrupted the domination of the prominent powers in the camp who served the classic humanitarian paradigm by placing a disproportionate emphasis on the camp’s built infrastructure.


Outcome of the brainstorm session around the meaning of ‘resilience’, in the context of the Documentary Filmmaking workshop (Source: Archive of Office of Displaced Designers)


To persuade other humanitarian organisations of the importance of social quality and the involvement of the refugee community in the activities in the refugee camp, ODD also took the role of the influencer (Paidakaki et al. 2021). ODD aspired to build coalitions with fellow organisations to combine narratives, agencies and resources to cast a deeper impact on the redevelopment of a resilient Moria Hotspot. To achieve that, ODD used the UNHCR coordination meetings to network and establish contacts with other organisations that share similar alternative narratives and complementary assets and resources (ibid).


Although ODD’s different roles contributed in the development and governance of a more resilient Moria Hotspot, ODD’s aim of creating social cohesion succeeded on a small scale seeing as their activities brought about a change of vision within its participant group but was rather limited on a larger scale as many camp residents were not open to collaborating with people of other origins (Paidakaki et al, 2021). Moreover, building up overall social cohesion in a constantly changing refugee community could not be fully achieved. ODD’s potential in bolstering the structural quality of the camp was also challenged by three main factors: (1) lack of funding that compromised the material quality of constriction initiatives; (2) a rapidly changing situation in the camp where unexpected events (e.g. increasing number of refugee arrivals and tents) prevented the realization of planned interventions or resulted in an appropriation of the finished projects; (3) the lack of available land, which was a strong impediment in building and maintaining the overall quality of the camp (ibid). Being politically modest in the defence of their social space on the Olive Groves and without control over the levels to which the responsible site partner (DRC/ICRC) advocated for the interventions, ODD was not able to counteract the growing amount of tents on the site which were gradually appropriating (the space of) the projects (De Becker, De Reu & Viaene 2020).


To conclude, community architects hold great potential for (co-)constructing socially resilient refugee camps through their holistic and participatory approach in harvesting and translating the refugee community’s wishes, needs and resources into proper structural and social infrastructure (Paidakaki et al. 2021). However, community architects find it many times hard to realise long-term projects or meet the needs of communities due to the transient nature of refugee camps on Europe's borders and the ever-changing refugee community. Moreover, under hegemonic governance arrangements in refugee camps, community architecture practices are less prioritized and, thus, inadequately funded (ibid). In such contexts, it is crucial for community architects to be politically activated, build up stronger alliances and steer more pro-equity humanitarian aid trajectories in refugee camps in order to have a deeper and lasting impact with their projects. Bolstering resilience as a socio-political process by attempting to improve the governance arrangements is equally important as building socio-structural resilient refugee camps. Consequently, community architects are expected to enhance the camp’s socio-spatial environment and equally aim to rearticulate the power relations in the governance structure (ibid). This will fully unlock their potential in the refugee camp context and better the living conditions of the refugee camp community.


References

De Becker, R., De Reu, Y. & Viaene, F. (2020). What Makes a Refugee Camp a Resilient Temporary Human Settlement? Resilience Building by Community Architects in the Context of the European Hotspots (Master Thesis). Leuven: KU Leuven. Faculteit Ingenieurswetenschappen, Web.


Paidakaki A., De Becker, R., De Reu, Y. Viaene, F., Elnaschie, S. and Van den Broeck, P. (2021). How can community architects build socially resilient refugee camps? Lessons from the Office of Displaced Designers in Lesvos, Greece. Archnet-IJAR, Vol. ahead-of-print (No. ahead-of-print). https://doi.org/10.1108/ARCH-11-2020-0276.