Over the centuries, humanity has evolved socially and biologically as a response to its environment. It is clear that creating a healthy environment, that is good for our social, mental and emotional growth is vital for the sake of our evolution as a species. It is this crucial parameter that promotes healthy functioning societies thriving with logic as well as empathy.
With this in mind, two members of our team at Studio Carbon– Itika Gupta and Manikanta Polisetti, ventured out to understand the Refugee problem back in 2018, and to make a positive change; forces of relief in the folds of a crisis. Their study unraveled many threads, with which we worked to stitch together the base fabric of a solution to wrap around this crisis, and to foster a warm and snuggly sense of belonging and community among the peoples of the world — refugees, and non-refugees alike.
As felt by the world
The refugee crisis, affecting 65 million people globally, is a pressing issue caused by conflict and persecution. It strains host communities, who must provide shelter, food, and other basic necessities for the newcomers. But more scary than straining resources around the world, this humanitarian ciris has also resulted in a rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. The refugees, who flee to safety and a better life, face exploitation, discrimination, and constant fear. Their desperate circumstances call for compassion and support, not hostility. Their stories are a sobering reminder of the reality of those forced to flee their homes and the urgent need for a more just and equitable world.
As felt by a refugee
Migration is not a new phenomenon; it has been responsible for opening up global trade and providing an opportunity for cultural exchange and knowledge sharing among communities. However, for refugees, the experience of migration is so sudden and life-changing, that it can be challenging and difficult. They wake up every day trying to make ends meet, manage housing and healthcare, and balance work and family life in a new and foreign location. The displacement from their homes often leads to social isolation and loss of community.
Many refugees come from difficult circumstances, including trauma and violence, and adjusting to a new culture and environment can be a daunting task, especially for those who struggle to adapt to different customs and beliefs. In addition, practical challenges add to their difficulties, such as cramped living conditions in refugee camps with limited resources, unreliable electricity, limited internet access, and limited food.
Step into the shoes of a refugee. What does it mean to be called a refugee? Before this, you were a human being with hopes, dreams, and aspirations, just like everyone else. You know that there is more to you than just living out your life as a passive victim. You are capable and resilient and can contribute greatly to society if given the opportunity.
Under what circumstances might you thrive in the unimaginably tough climate of socio-cultural misalignment, and limitless challenges in your new land?
The Syrian conflict has caused millions of individuals to be displaced globally, with over half a million refugees in Zaatari alone. These individuals face abrupt disruption in their lives and struggle to integrate into society. The population in refugee camps continues to grow, leading to a lack of opportunities for independence and community engagement for refugees in host countries. This brings forth the rise of social inequity and lack of factors providing liveability for the refugees.
Designers Itika and Manikanta chose to focus on Syrian refugees in the Zaatari camp with the goal of providing a solution that promotes economic independence and inclusion, without adding additional stress to the host community.
Plunging into Research
Designing for refugees is a complex task that requires the understanding of their needs, preferences, and cultural backgrounds. Itika and Manikanta approached the task comprehensively by conducting thorough secondary research, exploring the impact of environment, culture, health, economy, and technology on mass migration around the world. They gathered observations from various sources, including films and research papers, and focused on Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camps and other user groups. Their research resulted in a design brief that centered on a specific problem.
“The land in this city had become so scarce that there was no longer any place for locals to bury their dead, as per tradition. The locals, therefore, use burners, even today, for cremation. The rich in Israel are also said to book available land plots for their family members. Others from around the world would buy pieces of land in advance, in order to be buried in their homeland (or ‘promised land’) post-death. This underscores the economic burden of having a sizable number of refugees in a host country.”
Following this, the two designers followed Eritrean refugees and immersed themselves in their experiences. They participated in English language lessons and studied with them, and then traveled to Palestine where they learned from local schools and listened to stories from citizens. This allowed them to gain a firsthand understanding of the refugee crisis, understand the refugees’ habits, behaviors, and narratives.
With the need for continued exploration, they further delved deeper into the problem statement with greater and greater vigor and enriched their understanding by conducting user interviews with many people in shops, streets, and other public places.
This time around, they sought responses to what different generations in Israel thought it meant to Belong to a Land.
After conducting a 6-hour social experiment, it was clear that comprehensive, creative, and innovative research can help to gain a deeper understanding of complex problems. The experiment aimed to gather information from the community using an unobtrusive approach, and was successful in attracting responses from all age groups, fostering open and meaningful conversations. The participants, including refugees and locals, felt comfortable expressing themselves honestly with the tools provided.
Itika and Manikanta synthesised the information they gathered and identified the most critical problems that refugees face after migrating to a new country. Their synthesis revealed top three challenges — communication, employability, and integration into the local community.
The synthesis also revealed two promising directions that could be pursued as opportunities for societal integration of refugees. These were — Food and Language.
Everyone loves food! Food brings people together, creating opportunities for connection and conversation, and also making refugees feel more welcomed in their new homes, easing their cultural transition. This helps them break down barriers and integrate into their new communities. The team identified food as a solution to offset social isolation for refugees, through shared experiences of food design.
The team hypothesised that, a community kitchen designed for refugees, can provide a space for them to cook traditional meals, and would be an effective design solution. This allows refugees to feel more comfortable and connected with their new surroundings, while also giving them a chance to share their culture with others. Food design solutions like “food exchange programs” or “open food fairs”, that represent both local and refugee dishes, can help foster unity, intercultural understanding, and socioeconomic independence for both locals and refugees. Itika and Manikanta ideated on food design solutions through which unity can be weaved into a society’s fabric, as people get an opportunity to taste from and learn about different cultures.
We came across a project, that even today is providing communal cooking facilities for refugees in Germany. The project, called Kochtopf (German for “cooking pot”), is run by a team of chefs, designers, and volunteers. It provides a safe space for refugees to cook their own meals and share their culture with others. Kochtopf is just one example of how food design solutions can help refugees feel more connected with their new community. By creating communal spaces for cooking and eating, these solutions can help reduce social isolation.
Food is often more than just sustenance; it’s a medium for communities to connect and communicate. This was evident from a food experiment that was conducted in our camp. By taking up food as an aspect of connecting people, a sense of camaraderie and community began to develop. It was a very useful way to build connections and foster understanding between different groups of people.
The refugee population presents numerous challenges for the host country, including potential cultural clashes. One of the biggest challenges faced by refugees is language barriers, which can result in isolation and difficulty performing everyday tasks such as finding food and shelter. The research showed that language barriers also make refugees unemployable, leading to dependence on local resources set aside for their care. Language proficiency offers refugees economic opportunities and can help them become assets to the host country by contributing to its economy and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Once refugees learn the local language, they can become financially independent, turning a difficult and traumatizing situation into a mutually beneficial relationship between both parties. Language learning was therefore identified as the most critical skill for displaced refugees to regain control of their lives, and a solution was needed to focus on this. Thus, a new problem statement emerged.
How might we design a product that helps Syrian refugees learn the English Language quickly and integrate into the host country’s community and workforce?
The big question
The realization that language was a major barrier for refugees in integrating into a new culture and society was not enough. Given the trauma of leaving their homes and countries amidst a crisis, it became apparent to our designers that acquiring new, fundamental skills like learning a new language seemed nearly impossible for adult refugees. The question then became, “How can they learn?”.
Language learning tools
The product design research on language learning tools for refugees began with a thorough examination of existing resources such as apps, bear-like toys, apps that blind people use to “borrow the eyes”, and quick-learning techniques used by nomads. Itika and Manikanta aimed to gain a comprehensive understanding of language learning triggers and methods.
The image below shows the vast ideation and brainstorm process that the designers undertook to create language learning tools.
After this, they researched and analyzed the two scripts that were relevant for their primary users (Syrian Refugees) in Canada and Europe. This was conducted as a one-to-one comparison between the alphabets in the Arabic language and the English language to identify commonalities and differences between the both.
A crowdsourced list of the top 300 English words was also compiled. The words in this collection included nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions and pronouns — making it a complete dictionary for the construction of sentences in English.
The Light-Bulb Moment
At the end of their detailed exploratory research and ideation process, an amazing idea lit up. Itika and Manikanta figured out that the Arabic game of Backgammon could be reinvented to teach Syrian adults how to communicate in the English language.
Key points that make this possible -
- The game consists of multiple components — board, coins and dice to aid the redesign as language tools.
- The game has a metaphor that depicts reaching “Home” for Syrians.
- The game can be played by people of all age groups and genders.
- It is a game Syrians already know, and is deeply embedded in their culture.
- Its strategy of play is personalized by each individual, allowing each player to learn the English language through their own unique strategy.
The modified backgammon board includes sliders for essential conjunctions, subjects, and objects. They were made using English words written in Arabic alphabets, and can be modified by players as their English proficiency improves. The board was also designed in the color yellow, for better memory retention and focus.
Following this, customized backgammon coins that can accommodate visual flash-cards of subjects were created. These flashcards were designed with an icon + arabic name of the subject + its English word, in arabic. As a player moves the coin on the board, they combine its subject with conjunctions on the board to frame a question for their opponent.
To ensure that each player moved a limited number of steps on the board to frame a short sentence in English, the designers reduced the markers on the dice from the regular 1–6 to 1–3.
Testing and Adoption
The newly designed game was tested with participants from the target group, and received great feedback. Players not only found the game to be engaging, but also informative.
The food experiment showed that even in difficult circumstances, food can be a powerful tool for bringing people together and creating a sense of belonging. It was a reminder that even in the darkest of times, humanity’s ability to connect and empathize through the medium of food is a powerful force for good. Food became a medium to not just sustain the body but also to nourish the soul, and bring comfort to those who had lost everything. It was an emotional and profound experience for everyone involved, and it highlighted the importance of food and community in the face of hardship.
Similarly, we realised how games could be a powerful tool for promoting empathy, understanding, and connection between refugees and the rest of society. By designing games that give voice to the refugee experience and foster communication and understanding, we could play a small but meaningful role in addressing this ongoing crisis.
With these solutions in place, the result showed that refugees could unlock their potential, becoming independent migrants instead of helpless victims. The project showed us a hope that we could reduce hostility and foster interconnectivity, enabling a more receptive environment irrespective of differences. Through our efforts, we could encourage the embracing of shared mutual interests. Using design as an instrument of societal integration, we found out how social isolation can be reduced drastically, while refugees struggle to rebuild their lives. We also managed to find a way to empower the refugees with financial independence, thus giving them a huge confidence boost.
The refugee crisis is a humanitarian issue that requires immediate attention and action. As designers, we have a unique opportunity to use our skills and systems thinking, to create solutions that can help refugees communicate their needs and integrate into their host communities.
Ultimately a great deal remains unknown about how we can collectively thread the human tapestry together, by managing international displacement on international levels. However, an immense leap forward may can be taken in the right direction, provided solutions such as these are implemented well in the society.