What Happened on a Design Student’s Quest to Help a Refugee Camp

What Happened on a Design Student’s Quest to Help a Refugee Camp

refugee camp
19-year-old Julia Spence visits new refugee camp in Dunkerque, France. Photo: Julia Spence

I have just returned from the outskirts of Dunkerque in northern France, where I volunteered to work in a refugee camp. My name is Julia and I’m a 19-year old French-born, second year design student living in London. Like many others, I am perturbed by what is going on at this present time in our society. What upsets me the most is not only seeing so many people forced to leave their homes and abandon everything they’ve built just to stay alive, but the lack of empathy from the people who have the power to help and change the situation.

Feeling helpless in London, I decided to take some kind of initiative and witness first-hand what is going on. My aim was to go to the refugee camp and see the ways in which the principles of design could help, and to potentially work with charities or design companies seeking to create alternative solutions to the overwhelming refugee housing crisis.

refugee camps
Harsh living conditions in Grande Synthe Refugee Camp, January 2015 © Carina Okula

I travelled to the new camp built up next to the A16 highway on the edge of Dunkerque. The Grande Synthe camp was built up by Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) and local authorities following the closure of a previous camp in a nearby location, which was deemed too unsanitary to live in. The new refugee camp “houses” over 1,000 people, mostly families from Iraq and Kurdistan fleeing conflict in their war-torn countries. When I say houses, I mean that men, women and children live in a four-by-four-meter plywood box (15 square meters with a 400mm x 150mm window) that can house one family of two adults and two children.

Grande Synthe new refugee camp. Photo: Julia Spence

For the first few hours in the camp, I was scoping out potential design-related modifications that could make the refugees’ stay more… adequate? However, by lunchtime, I had completely forgotten about my primary focus, which was to look at this trip from a design perspective. I became completely absorbed in the plight of the refugees, and how these people’s lives were being affected.

I had come expecting to experience a eureka moment: “I’m going to make this camp so much better, good Design will solve the refugee crisis!” Boy, was I wrong.

Cabins made out of plywood have replaced tents for refugees in a new camp. Photo: Julia Spence

I was confronted by two main issues: first, while the new camp appeared clean, safe and organized (considering the circumstances), there is still so much to improve, and you don’t have to be a designer to see that. There is a lot of unused space. The houses are built from MDF or off-cuts of plywood/plywood shavings; they are too small, too hot or too cold. Many practical changes are needed, thus making it hard to narrow it down to one intervention.

The second issue that surprised me was the attitude the refugees had towards the situation. Indeed, they were all extremely nice, generous and grateful for the work the volunteers were doing in the camp. I spoke to them to get their opinion on the camp itself and subtly asked them what they would like to change or improve in their surroundings. Surprisingly and, in retrospect, understandably, no one I talked to cared about improving the camp.

The predominant response was, “It doesn’t matter because tomorrow I’m leaving”.

The refugees have so much hope, because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Frankly, I admire them.

Refugees cling to the hope that these homes in the camp are temporary. Photo: Julia Spence

These refugee camps have popped up all around Europe, but no matter how clean and organized they may be (although most of them are not), they are simply a place of limbo. Imagine being in a foreign country, not speaking the language properly, not knowing how long you would be there, not having the same values and norms as your hosts. Now imagine your passport, your identification card doesn’t work – like a credit card that has been declined in a store. The refugees own passports that don’t help them get to where they want to be; thus, being indefinitely stuck in this state of limbo.

In the end, most of these camps would not survive without the help of volunteers and donations. For me, this goes to show that more needs to be done politically; people’s consciences need to be engaged.

There is a crisis that is spiralling out of control that is destroying too many lives. It’s so close to us, happening in our cities, our neighboring countries. I ask where’s the solidarity, the comradeship?

Children grow up in limbo inside refugee camps. Photo: Julia Spence

I believe more attention and efforts are needed as this human crisis is not going away by itself, and sadly, improving housing conditions is just another temporary solution.

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