Helping hand for Syrian refugees

 19 Jan 2017 - 10:48

Helping hand for Syrian refugees
Maja Kinnemark, Assistant Professor Interior Design at VCUQatar. Pic: Abdul Basit/The Peninsula

Irfan Bukhari | The Peninsula

They say action springs not from thought but readiness for responsibility. Everyone talks about the miseries of Syrian refugees in somber tone but there are few who can walk the talk.

Maja Kinnemark, assistant professor of Interior Design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and Theekshani Perera, a former student of the same varsity represent the segment of society who believes in action and never shy away from lending help to any noble cause.

Kinnemark along Perera and undiluted support of VCUQatar are trying to bring comfort in camps of Syrian refugees in Greece with their innovative designs in collaboration with a team of behaviour scientists, material engineers and local architects on site in Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece.

The Peninsula talked to Kinnemark on her journey’s start, hopes attached with the ongoing project, future plans of VCUQatar’s Interior Design department for promoting humanitarian design concepts, plight of refugees in camps etc. 

What is Better Shelter project and how did VCUQ associate itself with the initiative?

For us it all started last year when I took my Interior Design students at VCUQatar to Stockholm to meet first hand with the designers behind the award-winning refugee housing called Better Shelter, that has been developed with the support of IKEA Foundation and is now being used all over the world in areas of crisis. 

Better Shelter is a cost effective structure that provides a more dignified housing than a tent. It’s not great – because nothing is great about the situation for refugees, but it’s at least “Better” than a tent, cheaper and more sustainable than a cabin. There is for example a proper door which you can close behind you to give a sense of privacy in a busy camp, and good sturdy walls that provide a bit of safety.

Our team from VCUQatar has been working with representatives from Better Shelter and a team of behaviour scientists, material engineers and local architects on site in Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, to use innovative design ideas and new technologies to improve the housing situation for all the people caught in limbo on their journey to Europe from war-torn Syria. The island of Lesvos has received 750, 000 people in transit and many of them are still stuck on the island.

Team Better Community: Multidisciplinary design team of one behaviour scientist, two architects, two interior designers, and one material engineer at work.

After careful field study of the use of space in the refugee camp we learned that there was an apparent lack of privacy and shade for the people living there, and these fundamental human necessities forced people to build their own shading and demarcation devices, which eventually turned into a fire hazard (there was a tragic fire with casualties in camp Moira nearby just a few days before our team from VCUQatar arrived). This is where design and architecture can really make a change.

Our team designed a new way to layout the camp through a small device that fits on the existing bolts of Better Shelter. Our idea expands on the function of the shelter and makes an enormous change because it allows for shades and partitioners to be mounted easily, both outside and inside. We also incorporated the idea of traditional Qatari courtyard houses in our proposal for the layout of an extension of the refugee camp. The traditional Qatari courtyard houses provide a safe private environment for the extended family in the centre, a place for children to play and women to rest, and a similar layout will improve the life of women and children greatly in the camp.

What kind of tangible benefits you expect from your input for the ongoing project?

I expect no benefits, this is part of what designers do. Anyone interested in Humanitarian Design can complete our programs at VCUQatar and work within this field in the future. It might not be the most lucrative area of expertise but certainly meaningful. 

Being an interior designer, what kind of professional and technical support you have so far provided to other partners of the project and what more lies in the pipeline?

My background is in furniture making so I am a detail-oriented interior designer concerned about materials and joinery. I considered the small device we designed to be “a little piece of architecture” with its own list of requirements that are crucial to fulfil to succeed. It may appear insignificant at a glance, but the form of the device makes all the difference; it had to fit effortlessly over the existing bolt but should at the same time discourage other people from “borrowing it”.

What is the level of support you have received from VCUQ in accomplishing the task?

VCUQatar has been very supportive of our engagement in Greece and is now planning an exhibition for “The Gallery” on the same theme of “Displacement and Shelter” in which we will bring a Better Shelter structure to Doha for our students to study and learn from.

The company in Sweden has provided us with the challenge to develop a desert skin for Better Shelter because the way it is designed now is not functional in very hot climates. 

We are also planning a cross disciplinary workshop expanding on the function of so called CORE Relief items, provided by UNHCR, that every person entering a refugee camp is entitled to, such as blankets and water containers. As for my own academic research I feel strongly supported by the university in my work exploring ideas of Adaptability in Design and Diaspora Cities.


Your impression on refugees’ life in camps of Greece and what else urgently needed to ameliorate their plight?

My impression of the situation in Greece was one of shock. Not that I was surprised, I knew what to expect, and I quickly realized that the camp we got to work in was one of the better ones in Lesvos offering communal spaces and activities for children, but it was still a terribly emotional shock experiencing the desperate feeling of permanent limbo that families find themselves in. 

I saw an environment not good for people. What the people in the camp really need is to get out of there. No design solution will ever make life bearable for them if they have to stay in the camp, but design can really help make life a bit better in a transit camp for a limited amount of time. 

The problem now is that the temporary camps are becoming permanent because people are not allowed to continue their journey in Europe. Greek economy has hit rock bottom, they can’t even afford basic health care for all Greek children, and the government is generally thought of as corrupt. Still, the population of the island of Lesvos was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for all their humanitarian aid provided people crossing the Mediterranean Sea. 

Sharing her views, Theekshani Perera an alumni student from Interior Design Department at VCUQatar who is part of the team said: “As a designer, the most important lesson that I have learned from this experience is that designing a solution for the smallest problem can make a huge difference to a community and/or an individual’s lifestyle. It takes a passionate and committed team or individual to not only look at the big picture, which is usually the surface of the problem, but to regard the minor details.”