Tag Archives: resettlement camp

What We’re Researching: the Instant City

By Joyce Lee, Harvard Graduate School of Design Community Service Fellow

For the past ten weeks, I had the good fortune of working with AHI as a summer fellow researching post-disaster, post-conflict settlements around the globe –or as we at AHI like to call it, instant cities. For the purposes of our research, we define instant cities as spaces that result from mass, rapid migration from disruptive circumstances. These spaces have a sizable population with food, shelter, water, and other living needs but limited or no supportive physical infrastructure. In turn, this situation creates many humanitarian, economic, operational, and environmental challenges. As an urban planning student with a background in architecture, this subject piques my interest because the confluence of these challenges unfolds at an accelerated rate. And I mean very accelerated. Think: building-and-providing-for-200,000-people-or the-equivalent-of-a-third-of-Boston-in-two-weeks-accelerated (which was the actual case for Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan).

I presume many relief practitioners are drawn to this field of work because of, among many other reasons, the tabula rasa condition of new camps, I certainly was. But in reality, there is no blank slate. Resource-scare site conditions, clashing neighboring host communities, and unclear land titles are all already present at the start of the camp. Yet, many of the camps reviewed this summer do not publicly document these issues unless they become problematic. Are there ways that host countries could be more proactive instead of reactive in this field? Are there possible economic synergies that could take place to make the camp residents and host communities feel more productive? Should states bordering contentious territories prepare refugee contingency plans in advance? This research raised a lot of questions and we started to identify gaps in our knowledge of instant cities. Thus far, our findings are still preliminary, but it is clear that this subject is understudied.

Jalozai Refugee camp in Pakistan

Aerial of Jalozai Refugee Camp in Pakistan. What happens when the camp “closes” and all the aid agencies leave?

Azraq is among the first refugee camps to include a grocery store. Aid agencies hope that this would foster a sense of normalcy.

Azraq, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, is among the first refugee camps to provide a supermarket for its residents  instead of cooked meals. Aid agencies hope that this would foster a sense of normalcy and dignity.

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What we’re reading: Refugee Cities

By Anya Brickman Raredon, Global Associate

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a front-page article by Michael Kimmelman about the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, naming it as a “Do-It-Yourself City”.  Here at AHI, we’ve spent part of the spring and summer speaking at conferences and raising a related set of questions to humanitarians and global housing finance experts:

What is the nature of long-term humanitarian settlements? Can we continue to see refugee camps as “camps” or are they actually “instant cities”?

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Four years after the earthquake this IDP camp is now a thriving community. Port-au-Prince, Haiti 2014. Photos by author.

UNHCR recently reported that the number of refugees wordwide exceeds 50 million.  This number is only likely to increase as cities and countries face increasing instability and environmental risk, making the question of where refugees live and what the conditions of those places are an ever more pressing question.  Furthermore, when entire cities are displaced, the demographics of refugee populations cut across economic lines, and new 2013-11-08 15.05.39settlements (camps) include tradesmen, entrepreneurs, educators, and a whole range of professionals – challenging our preconceptions of camps filled with the poor, unskilled, and helpless.
Individuals, even when displaced from their homes, will shape the spaces in which they live – whether that be through planting vegetables in pots by their door, hooking up their tent to electricity, or working with their neighbors to pave the road and reduce dust.

As the NYT article points out in the case of Zaatari, “There is even a travel agency that will provide pick-up service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”

This sure sounds like the beginning of a city to me.  So how do we shift humanitarian thinking, actions, and systems to acknowledge this reality and redirect the expenditures of supporting these settlements into investments in long-term development which can benefit both the current refugee families and the surrounding host communities? How do we shift the paradigm from seeing refugees as ‘beneficiaries’, and instead view them as proactive and able to contribute to the environments in which they live?

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Living as a Syrian Refugee in Zaatari

Take a minute to read this powerful account (as told to Paula Cocozza at The Guardian) of how Um Fouad, a mother of four, is living as a Syrian refugee in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.  This story hits close to home to us at AHI because much of our work on informal housing is involved with resettlement or rebuilding after disasters (natural, as in Haiti, or man-made, as in Syria), and we believe that today’s resettlement camp is either tomorrow’s city or tomorrow’s slum – depending on the choices we and others make.

Zaatari

Um Fouad has grasped a truth that many wish to deny: Zaatari is becoming more and more permanent, and it already is her children’s home. Indeed, the resettlements that occur post-disaster or post-conflict are often more of an urban form than they are a temporary camp. We’ve seen this happen all over the world and throughout history, and we believe that we can and should learn from that reality. Ultimately, if relief-oriented agencies and people see themselves as urban-planners-on-fast-forward, we can constructively reshape the agenda of relief delivery to one of unexpected urban renewal, where the new city that arises from the rubble is better than the old one the disaster destroyed.

We’ll write more on our projects and work related to resettlements in the upcoming months, and hope you’ll come back to join us. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take the time over the holidays to read about Um Fouad. We feel strongly about these issues and think you will, too.