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How Design Could Change the Refugee Crisis

Multifunctional refugee shelters, data visualizations of asylum seekers, and much more at Design and Flow's exhibition at Design x NYC Week, 'Transitions: Migration and Travel.'

Sami Emory

All images courtesy of Design and Flow. 

Change is in the air at the Design and Flow (D&F) Transitions: Migration and Travel exhibition at Industry City for NYCxDesign Week 2016. The New York-based design platform, co-founded by Hala A. Malak and Reina Arakji, has culled together environmentally and socially conscious work from 12 artists, organizations, and innovators to spark a discussion about current conditions of migration and asylum-seeking. "We feel that it is very relevant to invest in projects that actually create a long-term social change," Malak tells The Creators Project. This year, Malak says, "we are looking at how design can play a role in facilitating migration and travel with a special focus on refugees." 

The Ghata Project, a refugee shelter designed by architect and American University of Beirut (AUB) professor Rabih Shibli, is the impressive heart of D&F's initiative. Built outside of the exhibition itself, with its light brown plywood exterior and its unmistakable perfume of freshly shaven wood, the Ghata stands out from the surrounding architecture of industrial Brooklyn. "It was designed as a multifunctional shelter: it's easy to build, it's easy to deconstruct," says Malak. According to the co-founder, the structure takes a mere six hours to build and only three to deconstruct. As such, "it counters initiatives, like the Ikea initiative, which are great on paper but cannot be implemented easily," she says. 

The design has, in fact, already been implemented to widespread success in the refugee camps of the Beqaa in Lebanon, and will soon be rolled out into camps in Jordan. In the Beqaa, eight of the Ghatas are currently in use, protecting refugees from the elements in the fertile valley: Shibli has designed the Ghata so as to weather rain, wind, and even snow.

While the structure is multi-use, so far the primary function of the Ghata has been to provide schools for the thousands of refugee children in the camps. "Education is fundamental," says Malak. "And [The Ghata schools] have managed now to provide education for over 3,700 children in the Beqaa and do it in a really great, affordable, and sustainable way." 

Part of the Ghata Project is to also encourage refugees to construct these shelters for themselves. The project promotes the use of materials that are local and easily accessible and the design is highly adaptable to any given location. In the Beqaa, for example, the structures are constructed of finished plywood walls and steel supports and bases, while the New York structure has been adapted to be constructed of principally unfinished plywood and four-by-fours The Ghata also allows for the customization of the structures so that, in contrast to the stark exterior of the recreation on display at Transitions: Migration and Travel, the Beqaa Ghatas burst with color, courtesy of their young occupants. Says Malak, "It's really beautiful." 

The Ghata, while physically and symbolically the giant of D&F's NYCxDesign Week exhibition is still just one among 11 other projects laboring along similar lines. "We wanted to bring in projects that were really relevant to either create awareness, conversation, or real design interventions," Malak comments. If this last category of design is dominated by the Ghata, the first two are the primary focuses of the other works.

Lucify's "Visualizing European Migrant Crisis" interactive map, for instance, uses open-source data to show the diachronic movement of asylum seekers arriving in European countries. The dynamic visuals of Lucify's project, available both online and on mobile devices, have in turn inspired custom-made scarves from Slow Factory, in collaboration with D&F. The designers have overlapped a NASA image of Europe with the open data visualized by Lucify. As is customary with Slow Factory, the scarves are made with 100% eco-friendly and fair trade silk. 

Fashion mobilized towards social change is represented in the show by Mary Mattingly's now famous Wearable Homes and Jahnkoy's Playground of Da Americas a.k.a. Hood Buys Everything project. Mattingly's designs combine highly functional fabrics—complete with UV-protection, waterproofing, and temperature regulation—with the concept of a design that one can literally live and survive in, such as her wearable sleeping bag or her wearable flotation device. Jahnkoy, the selected Parsons School of Design student winner for this year's exhibition, blends sustainable design with the practice of traditional craftsmanship to create stunning, armor-like sets made from a combination of recycled plastic bags and Swarovski crystals. 

200 Grs's powerful Sift sculpture, meanwhile, represents the painful, frustrating, and harrowing experience of being a refugee by placing dozens of pounds of pins unto a suspended sieve. The scattering of pins that break free from the stifling pressure of the masses represent the process of crossing boarders, of receiving asylum. In addition, 200 Grs collaborated with D&F to create five other products that reify the refugee experience. D&F also collaborated with Amelia Black to launch her individually sourced ceramic sets and with Choux à la Crème for their "Paper Emergency Kit," a hand-silkscreened collection of "essential paper & communication survival skills." 

Obeida Sidani's Al-Manfa (Exile) and Azra Aksamija's Cultural Transfers make up the more conceptional side of the show. Sidani's installation comprises 25 frames, lasting one second each, that use Arabic calligraphy to tell a story about the emotional and physical impacts of migration. Aksamija's work repurposes anti-Muslim imagery, used in posters and other forms of popular protest across Europe, into road signs critiquing these polemic reactions. The show is underscored by Karim Douaidy's composition, "You're Not Supposed to Be Here."

Finally, there's Design To Improve Life's winning project, the "Welcome Suitcase." Made by school children in Denmark, this suitcase includes games, handmade books, and puppets to help welcome refugee children and teach them a few things about a kid's life in Denmark. 

Design and Flow's exhibition for NYCxDesign will remain on view until May 17. D&F will also be hosting a series of panels and discussions at the Parson School of Design and the Portraits of Change launch reception and party. Find more information about all of the above on D&F's Facebook page

Related: 

How Artists Are Addressing the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Beyond Vivienne Westwood: When Designers Become Activists

Virtual Reality Journalism Puts You Inside the Refugee Crisis