Three years after the peak of the European refugee crisis, conditions for refugees still remain dire. As the refugee crisis affects all EU countries, it is our responsibility as members of the EU to step-up and join efforts to collaboratively strive for positive solutions. Field H@cks aimed to contribute to the empowerment refugees in camps to take action in improving their living conditions. By establishing collaborations between Dutch creatives and refugees in Greece, the need towards the betterment of their community, habitat and shelter can be supported and improved.
Field H@cks consisted of a field research at a refugee camp in Lesbos in Greece, one of the epicenters of the refugee crisis. Through this project, the opportunity is developed to build a shared legacy of applied, hands‐on humanitarian design that can be tested and implemented for the benefit of refugees across Europe. BALTAN and LATRA believe that by undertaking this endeavor in an international context of movement-makers and creative innovators, the opportunity is created to harvest and disseminate knowledge that can make a difference on the lives of people that may become tomorrow’s change-making entrepreneurs.
Field H@cks challenged creatives from the Netherlands to come up with ideas, tools or initiatives for humanitarian design, to contribute to the development of new solutions for this crisis. A small group of selected participants was invited to visit the refugee settlements and experience the situation first hand: social design studio Joes + Manon, designers and artists Marie Caye and Arvid Jense, research director and founder of design studio Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken Jop Japenga, designer Meis Suker. The program was facilitated and organized by Aris Papadopoulos (CEO LATRA) and Lorenzo Gerbi (designer and studio manager at Baltan Laboratories).
Experiencing Kara Tepe Refugee Camp: a diary
Containers. There are about 300 of them in the Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesbos (GR), now hosting 1500 people, mostly women, children and unaccompanied minors. The camp is divided in different areas according to the use: administrative, accommodation, services, and activity areas where LATRA container is, our base for the week. The whole camp structure is thought to dignify the temporary presence of people. Also language is used as a way to normalize a complicated living conditions: the managers of the camp prefer to call it a village, and refugees are simply people. The presence of kids is quite extensive, during the day they are busy with school which is offered in a few containers in a dedicated area.
Time is slowly passing by. "A day feels like a year" we are told. Many of the residents did not have a follow-up meeting about their status in Europe until 2023. Waiting, between immediate survival and freedom or deportation, without knowing how much time will take a decision to be made. This condition makes impossible for refugees to consider "home" their containers, they don't want to improve their places, not to accept the fact that those temporary accommodations are less temporary than what they hope.
We dedicated the first day to observing this totally new context for all the designers in the group. We managed to get a first idea through few conversations with residents, some of them are responsible for services offered in the village: a communal vegetable gardens, a barber shop, a tea place.
Besides the container in Kara Tepe, we had also a studio space in center of Mytilini, the main port and city of Lesbos. Here we had the occasion to detach from the context of the camp and the emotional involvement that can imply, in order to start sketching directions, based on the insights gathered, to be then tested back in the camp.
Two main directions emerged: a workshop space to improve their housing unit (big containers called ISOBOX) and the need of a new information system, which uses a physical info board to share skills and to facilitate exchange of goods.
On day 2 we came back to the village, divided in two groups. One group went around to discover smart hacks made by people in their ISOBOX, using leftover materials and objects they can easily find, like pallets, cardboard and plastic crates. We collect sketches, skills and people willing to share them.
The second group focused on the information system and what kind of information people would like to share. It became quickly evident that residents would be interested to discuss the problems they are facing, have a way to communicate to the managers which issues should be prioritized. So instead of a way of sharing information between refugees, the priority addressed by the residents was the need for a platform of better communication with the camp management, a challenge that we felt too delicate and complex for the short timeframe of our project.
So we decided to focus with all the group on creating a showroom of smart hacks, a sort of exhibition in the ISOBOX of LATRA, featuring their hacks and our additions, as a pretext to start a conversation around the issue to be improved, through the creativity emerging from the community itself.
Day 3 was finally the time to get hands-on and build the hacks, inspired by the invention of the residents we observed in the previous days.
The purpose is to create a sort of showroom of solutions already implemented by some of them and share them with the rest of the village. We organized a small event to open the "showroom", inviting creators and residents to give feedbacks and comments, but also to propose other ideas. We also want to use the pretext of the showroom to start a discussion about what can be done to improve the situation on their doorstep, with the people around them. Creating a community can be very difficult in their living conditions, but we feel that sharing possibilities and not just complaints could be a way to start another kind of discussion.
One of the first issue you experience in Kara Tepe during summer is the relentless heat. In most Isoboxes, the air conditioning does not work, making it quickly 35+ degrees inside. There is a lot of hot asphalt around and the installation of shadow nets on the containers is still under construction.
Some people have been very creative in finding ways to make their place cooler. The same creativity is applied in the self-made shoe racks, cupboards, benches, vegetable gardens and ovens. Need is the mother of innovation, the gardener explains. Almost all innovations consist of stray material and UNHCR buckets, blankets and plastic, stuff that can be found in the area.
For our event on day 4, we were allowed to borrow the residents' own hacks and put them next to the replicas we made ourselves. Due to the extreme heat situation, cooling air or water is an important necessity in the camp. In the showroom there were therefore some very popular examples of how to hack a fan.
Two workshops were organized: one for men and one for women. The women in particular was very successful in terms of participants. People started to discuss among themselves what they thought were good ideas, which ones were already implemented and how the solutions could be improved. This was exactly the interaction that we were aiming for: creating an environment in which the residents are triggered to adopt a proactive attitude and are inspired by the hacks of their neighbors.
It was very interesting to see how the language barrier was more an opportunity rather than a problem: explaining the projects with gestures and visual language, sometimes using the English knowledge of their kids, gave them a pretext to then asking each other questions and starting a positive discussion about their living together.
The last day of the Field Hacks project was dedicated to the documentation of the process and solutions. We decided to create a big foldable poster containing the most appreciated hacks, to be distributed through the info boards and distribution centers in the village. The challenge was to create visual instructions, because of the diverse languages spoken and low literacy.
It’s now time to look back at the experience in Lesbos, but also to look forward to possible next steps, starting from opening up the same process to other NGO and interested institutions.