Participatory architecture and art for Syrian children in the refugee camp

Interview with the architect Luca Astorri on building a playground in Lebanon

by Marcello Pisu.
Story published in Italian on Il Sole 24 Ore , #artrevolution
photos by Ronan Glynn

With the recent allocation by the EU of a billion euro for organisations that help refugees close to their countries of origin, it is important to remember that in addition to the needs of food and medical care, the refugees are also a cultural emergency. Confined for years in non-places, refugee children would have no access to schools, playgrounds, safe places to expand their imagination, if it wasn’t for volunteer and non-governmental initiatives. To understand the importance of this issue, we should remember that it is a precise long-term strategy of the extremists of the Islamic State to enlist children taking advantage of the desperation of the war, and “educate” them against the enemy based on a mono-culture of hatred. To win the trust and respect of these children for the world community, we must guarantee them a childhood of playing and learning.

Luca Astorri, a partner in the Milan-based architectural firm Argot ou La Maison Mobile, has long been professionally involved in interventions on “informal settlements”, which include slums, favelas, and refugee camps. Invited as a supervisor by the young London-based non-profit CatalyticAction, Luca tells us about life in the camps and the importance of giving a simple tool for Syrian children, such as a playground.

How did you start volunteering as an architect in general and in this project in particular?
I have already conducted work on informal settlements with my firm, for example in Portugal, but in 2010 I started to dedicate myself to volunteer projects in Nairobi, Cairo, Sâo Paulo, typically when the firm starts the summer break. People in my network ask me to contribute with my experience as a supervisor on the field. For example this last project was organized by Riccardo Conti, director of Catalytic Action, whom I met in the “field” in Nairobi, where he was my student, before concluding his studies in London.

Help us to imagine life in the refugee camps in Lebanon: how big and widespread is the area, and for how long people have been living there?The Syrians who come to us in Europe are 0.2%, but in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey there are about 1.5 / 2 M of refugees arrived in waves since 2011, particularly in the area around the border, like the Bekaa Valley between Lebanon and Syria, where we were located. Refugee camps are very small, with no more than a thousand people each, not like the ones in Africa created after the wars in Rwanda and Congo. Here, within 500 meters there are three fields.

In which type of constructions do they live?
They are tents with a concrete or gravel base, with above a brick curb where the poles are wedged to hold a plastic tent. Everybody covers them from the inside with carpets or blankets. Each tent accommodates 6–7 people. The bathrooms are outside. In the tent they sleep, eat, do everything. Winter is heavy, so when the tents are damaged, the schools are used as shelters.

Which religions have you encountered mostly?
They are almost all Muslims of various branches, and Christians. The ISIS has exacerbated the civil war that has been ongoing since 2011 as a result of the Arab spring, and made everything more complex, forcing other groups like the Kurds to flee. There are also Syrian refugees in Syria, moving from the northeastern areas near Iraq, occupied by ISIS, to others.

How are the refugees connected to the external world, for instance with Lebanon?
The Bekaa Valley is quite isolated, but it would actually be possible to create situations of integration. Unfortunately there is a form of diffidence from the locals. Refugees are often seen as inferior, both for prejudices, both for their condition, although many Syrians are graduates, wealthy and speak English. On the other hand they can not return to Syria because some would be treated as opponents. Or because they have lost everything in the Civil War. They can not work in Lebanon if not for an expensive visa that allows them to move around the country. As a matter of fact, many refugees work illegally in agriculture and construction. For the Lebanese the camps are also a source of business: they lease the land to the United Nations and other organisations, because it has a higher yield than a cultivated field.

What is the situation of education in the camps where you have worked?
Many children fled when they were very little, or were even born in the camps, so they have no education. The American University of Beirut, run by Lebanese people, but of American origin, has built seven schools in seven different camps, managed by the Foundation Kayany. In one of them we built the playground. The education system, the program, is the same that there is in Lebanon: they study Arabic, mathematics, geography, English. Also the Lebanese Ministry gave their approval. The teachers tend to be Syrian, also to give work to the people of the camp.

Tell us about the process of the creation and construction of the playground.
We designed games that can help children express themselves with a Lebanese artist who studied in London, Dima Mabsout. The artist has spent the months with 300 school children to understand what they really wanted through exercises in which, by brainstorming and creating collage and drawing, they could visualise themselves playing. The children then were also involved during the construction. Optimizing a school also means another type of interaction, in addition to education on the desks. It must be a safe place to play and express yourself. All games included narratives coming from their own stories, while the idea of the generic park with a swing was avoided. For example we have integrated lenses that explain how the eyes work. We have created a closed area to stay alone or with a few other children, to give the idea of ​​the private sphere, since in the curtains they always have to be with the rest of the family. While in Africa children are everywhere, here they are always in the camps. When we reopened the school they appeared everywhere like mushrooms.

How many of you worked in the camp and for how long?
We were three of staff. I stayed for a month, the site lasted 18 days, inclusive of two workshops with students from Europe and Lebanese, who have helped in the construction phase.

How did the freestyle sports performing collective Da Move got involved?
The Da Move they came to inaugurate the playground. The children were thrilled of their performance, that involved directly some of them. They also organized four days of training with the children, teaching them the fundamentals of basketball. The Da Move were very pleased with this first humanitarian experience and hope to return soon to work with us on future projects.

Will you go back to the camps?
Absolutely. This for me was a pilot project. There are also many other larger and more structured organisations like Right to Play, always focusing on the use of playing as a tool for development of expressive skills in children.

On you can find the details of this and other projects of transformative participatory design.

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