In 2016, researchers from the University of Sheffield went to Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan to work with the people who lived in the camps to help find innovative solutions to the practical problems they were facing. This was not about parachuting in experts to tell people what they should do. The people in the camp were the real experts, in terms of understanding what was needed, the resources they had at their disposal, and the constraints (the ban on creating any permanent structures, for example) on the solutions they implement.
This isn’t a one-way process. Because to solve the everyday problems in the camp they are working with, and not just for, the people in the camp.
Obviously not everyone living there has the kind of skills that can be pressed into service to help build the resources that the communities need, and not everyone is well and strong enough after the physical and mental traumas of flight to contribute in this way. But as a transit camp becomes a city the people living there can become again the people they were at home, can be part of the process of building and healing and problem-solving.
Innovative solutions to everyday problems are being developed, in collaboration with the people of Za’atari. Tony Ryan, the Director of the Centre, has been working with Helen Storey from the London College of Fashion, on resource use and repurposing in conflict zones, and on specific questions from the UNHCR about the design and manufacture of all kinds of things that we take for granted, like sanitary wear, make-up and bicycles. Resources are scarce in the camp, where 80,000 people share 6 sq km of space, and nothing is left to waste.
The team went back in 2018 to do some further work on these projects, and see the progress that had been made. Check out this presentation given by Professor Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, showing some of the work his team has been involved with in the camp: 24H2018 Zaatari, as well as the film below.
Make no mistake, the people who end up in these camps face daily struggles that many of us cannot imagine. But those I met embodied values that are often forgotten by those of us in more privileged parts of the world: an adaptable approach to solving problems, an aversion to waste, a sense of community. As hard as we must fight to live in a world where no one is forced to flee their home, there is much we can learn from Syria’s refugees.
Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield.