A small boy no older than 10 years of age holds up a drawing to the camera. Beneath the detailed cartoon illustration of a well-known Pokémon character are the words: “I am in an existing area of Eastern Ghouta, Syria… come save me.” He stands alone frightened, his eyes fixed on the camera, traumatised by the atrocities of a civil war in his hometown. He’s not the only one; he’s one in millions. As the world goes crazy for Pokémon Go, what if the collective frenzy for the game could induce a positive impact on the refugee crisis?
Asked recently what she saw as the single-greatest driver of social change, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation offered up design. “Vilified as the ultimate symbol of excess, consumerism and futility, design has recently changed sides, more and more designers have taken up the challenge of creating meaningful products and services that can help humanity and create a better future,” Gates adds.
“Design to improve life” has been Index: Award’s mission since 2005. Index: Award finalists and nominations range from a warm coat that turns into a sleeping bag for the homeless or displaced; a housing-system to help people in situations of humanitarian crisis to regain a dignified home, and an architectural setting offering holistic therapy and professional terminal care for victims of war.
The Refugee Challenge
What Design Can Do: Refugee Challenge is a design platform launched in 2016 in collaboration with the UNHCR and Ikea Foundation. “The Refugee Challenge is a global design competition in search of game-changing ideas to improve the reception and integration of refugees,” explains What Design Can Do founder Richard van der Laken. The competition attracted 31 entries from designers, artists, entrepreneurs, students and staff from NGOs in 70 countries. An international jury comprising designers, politicians, design thinkers and representatives of refugee organisations selected five winners from a shortlist of 25 entries.
One of the five winning entries revolves around the universally adopted food trucks. Labelled Eat & Meet, the project turns renovated city buses into food trucks where refugees can cook and sell food from their culinary tradition; the proceeds go to the workers, as well as integration projects.
Another Refugee Challenge initiative is Reframe Refugees. Marie-Louise Diekema and Tim Olland hope that the digital platform will transform perceptions of refugees. Based on social media and Facebook, refugees upload photos and stories that portray them as people with the same dreams and ambitions as everybody else. And who better to provide these counter-intuitive representations of refugees than a refugee?
A roof over my head
With asylum seekers flowing into safer nations, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to source adequate and sustainable accommodation in large refugee camps. With funding from the Ikea Foundation, the Better Shelter Housing Unit offers safe and comfortable living for refugees. Able to be produced in high volumes at very low cost, the classic flat-pack design keeps transportation affordable and, once delivered, can be quickly and easily assembled. Developed in conjunction with real users, the designers hope to respect the personal, social and cultural expectations of refugees, while improving their overall living conditions.
With this in mind, Lexus Design Award winner AbeerSeikaly has designed a state-of-the-art solar-powered tent. The structural fabric references ancient traditions of joining linear fibres to make complex three-dimensional shapes; the hollow structural skin enables water and electricity lines to run through it.
RapidFTR — which stands for Family Tracing and Reunification — is an open-source mobile-phone application and data-storage system. Designed to streamline and speed up the efforts of humanitarian workers immediately after a crisis or violent outbreak, RapidFTR collects, sorts and shares information about unaccompanied and separated children in emergency situations. The goal is to register them for care services and reunite them with their families as soon as possible. For example, the Ugandan Red Cross has previously used RapidFTR to reunite unaccompanied and separated Congolese refugee children with their families.The project is run by volunteers under active development from the Child Protection in Emergencies Team at UNICEF, and has received funding from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and UNICEF Supply Division.
Food for Thought
Held in Paris in June 2016, the Refugees Food Festival brought together French and refugee chefs in a dozen Parisian restaurants for an exchange of cuisine and culture, to potentially open up a new perspective on Europe’s refugee crisis. “We wanted to show that these people had real lives and professions before. And now, as they have to start all over again, we wanted to give them our full support and show that they are real people, just like you and me,” said Marine Mandrila, the spokeswoman for Food Sweet Food, the organisation behind the festival.
In the hospitality industry, the Magdas Hotel in Vienna offers jobs and training to multilingual asylum seekers. The former retirement home was transformed into a boutique hotel with a €1.5m loan from the charity Caritas and €60,000 was raised through crowd-funding. Of the 28 staff, 20 arrived in Austria as refugees. Martin Gantner of Caritas says: “We wanted to make a political statement: whoever is in Austria legally should also be able to work legally. It’s pointless for society that these people remain unemployed for so long; they often have many untapped skills.”
Naturally without borders, art is another medium that drives interest, crystallises messages, inspires crowds and provides therapeutic relief. Paving the way, Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art has run the project Travelling with Art for refugee children and young people in collaboration with the Red Cross schools since 2006. Most of the project’s participants are teenage asylum-seekers from war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia. The aim is to use art as a space of freedom that can encourage absorption in art, strengthen the students’ social relations and offer a starting point for telling their own stories.
The refugee crisis is immense and unresolved: traditional response systems provided by governments, the underfunded United Nations Refugee Agency and humanitarian aid programmes have, thus far, been unable to respond adequately. As highlighted by Amnesty International, many governments have been busy devising ways to keep people outside their borders, instead of implementing concrete solutions. What are the solutions worth our attention to help the 65.3 million people in need?
Here are some initiatives embracing the refugee challenge:
Index: Award, Design to Improve Life
What Design Can Do
The Ikea Foundation
The UN Refugee Agency
Migrant Offshore Aid Station
Refugee Food Festival