--Scroll down a bit if you want to jump right into the project!--
Knowledge is the most sustainable resource in the world. Those with the most, rely on knowledge to consolidate power. Those with the least, rely on knowledge to obtain power. The war in Syria has manifested in four million refugees and seven million internally displaced people. Estimates are at two million in neighbouring Lebanon, where only 20% of children have access to education. The rest are subjected to a generational loss of culture, tradition and knowledge. 'Migrants of Circumstance' is an investigation into how community based education can empower and enable these people to learn and thrive outside traditional, institutionalised educational practice. Community based education - a continuous, open sharing platform of social, cultural, and academic knowledge exchange - not only serves the refugee community, but promotes cross cultural engagement and exchange between the Syrian diaspora and their host nation, Lebanon.
An open source [knowledge sharing platform] design, for migrants of circumstance who otherwise have no access to a sustainable education.
Migrants of Circumstance
A man has a job. The man lost the job. The man moved away. The man is a migrant of choice.
A man has a job at a factory. The man built his house with the money he made working at the factory. One day, both the factory and house were destroyed in a disaster. The man must move to survive. The man is a migrant of circumstance.
"The word refugee becomes associated with the meanings it often does not define itself in- those being war, poverty, failed national unity, failed state, failed identity and so on. '[The term] refugee implied a relatively helpless, impotent passive and directionless state standing in marked contrast to the politically motivated, active and striving frame within which they pictured themselves' (Sandra Dudley). These largely negative connotations make up the general perception of the modern ‘migrant by circumstance.’"
Equally so, when we use the term "migrant" we lose all sense of struggle and context. When we say "migrant" we brush aside the politically manifested framework in which they sit. A migrant is a traveler, a migrant of circumstance is a refugee.
I began the project in October 2014, after a few visits to Lebanon in 2014 that highlighted the severity, and disparity, of the Syrian refugee life on the ground. Living in London for the past three years, I left Lebanon in 2012 when, while refugees were prevalent, they were in no way near as much in numbers as they are now: an estimated two million, in a country of four million Lebanese.
I made my first visit since having started research in November 2014. I didn't know what the project was at the time; I went with the intention of further research and to come up with some loose methodology of a design response. I planned to visit two (but turned to three) settlements on my first day there, all along the coast, south of Saida (Sidon). The first was Zahrani Seaside.
It was the first settlement I had ever visited- there, was the traditional refugee "camp", so to speak- the tents were well kept, stacks of UN allocated mattresses lined many tent walls, makeshift plant pots defined outdoor spaces, and concrete blocks and rocks established paths and alleyways between the homes. Syrian refugee camps are technically illegal in Lebanon, as the government still has not fully recognised them as refugees (partly due to the fact that Lebanon is not a signee of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which forces participating states to give certain civil liberties to its guest community).
They told me their biggest problems were the lack of access to medical attention, and that when it rains during winter, the camp floods and they are forced to sleep on the highway that runs near the site. Because UNHCR camps are illegal, private landowners capitalise on the migrants, and charge them up to $100 a month to rent the land for a tent. They also told me that no child on the site goes to school, and there are over 200 children living there.
I then drove down the coast for five minutes to get to another informal settlement in an old pepsi bottling factory that is now wholly occupied with refugees. They pay around $160 to live in an underground strip of small garages, some of them hosting more than one family at a time.
They too, did not send their children to school, and many confessed they were not registered with UNHCR, which provided each family with $20 in cash per family member, per month. Since then that program has drastically been cut down.
At the Pepsi Building, I saw some of the worst living conditions and extreme poverty I had ever seen in my life- us giving out sweets to the children at the end of the visit quickly turned to a mob surrounding the car, and cutting the visit early. I went to high school in Beirut and saw the beginning of the Syrian influx into Lebanon, so that was the image I had engrained in my mind- never did I think that the conditions were this bad. A five minute drive away are some of the nicest beaches in the country; this visit specifically highlighted how easy it is to shut this world out- I had visited Beirut in the summer time and went to those same beaches, with the complete ignorance of what was happening down the road.
A man in the camp wanted to show me another settlement, down along the coast which only had 15 families, but was in much worse condition. So we drove in a convoy of sorts to Fuadville, an abandoned attempt at a Lebanese suburbia.
When we arrived, I was greeted by a Bedouin man who immediately took me to see his wife, who was desperately in need of medical attention but could not afford any treatment. Many of the residents came by to show us around their homes. Many needed medical attention but could not afford treatment in Lebanon, a practice that is foreign to socialist, free healthcare, Syria.
Later that week, I drove up to the southern Chouf mountains to a region known as Iqlim. There, was only settlement I visited in the country where the residents did not pay rent. The location was a bit secluded; the residents spoke of the need for welfare services such as accessible education and medical treatment. They admitted that the nearby school did accept Syrian children, at a cost, however they could not afford the transfer fees. They also set up an informal school, in a makeshift mosque.
I had to admit, while they're in need of cash and medical assistance, they had a system in place to support them- a generous landlord, an electrical grid, and a makeshift cultural centre that serves both religious and academic purposes.
The following day I traveled to the north of Lebanon, to Chekka. There, I was told about a beach resort turned refugee settlement. I found that scenario a bit bizarre and was really interested to visit. There I met Loula, the impromptu mayor of the settlement.
We spoke about the various socio-political issues migrants face in Lebanon, she stressed the need for sustainable access to education:
“Our biggest problem is schooling; fix this and the crisis will solve itself. That way, everything won’t be working against us. People can get by day by day, but the most important thing is education.”
The residents at Plage Nour pay about $300 a month for each apartment. At the time, there weren't any children in school. When I visited in March 2015, many of the kids were in school, but those under the age of 6 weren't permitted, and many older children were working instead.
I spent the rest of the week conducting workshops with refugee children at a psycho-social therapy centre for displaced kids in the Chouf mountains.
I went to Lebanon in November with no knowledge of how I was going to respond to this, and left with equally as little confidence. The trip was really eye opening, to say the least. Countless NGO's are working on the response, including an entire branch of United Nations, so what could I possibly do that would have an effect? It was way bigger than me, and I was naive thinking a single week long trip could possibly yield result.
The [pre] Project
It took me a few months of researching, writing, and another followup trip in December/ January to begin to structure what I was going to do, in Lebanon. I also wrote a thesis/book on the project, including site analyses, an in-depth look at the social construction of the term "refugee", with various workshops conducted with refugee children in Lebanon, and a photographic record of the trips. Check out the photos below!
I had to start somewhere, so I began mapping out the various sites, in terms of problems, opportunities for intervention, insight, needs, themes, and system challenges. Doing that over and over again, plus hours of reviewing footage and drawing from research in other refugee environments and my own interviews, I identified both lack of accessible education and lack of sustainable income as the key issues faced by the Syrian diaspora in Lebanon.
While writing, I began to form my response around the lack of education. UNHCR reported that only 20% of refugee students are in schools, in Lebanon, and while I cannot redesign the institutionalised model of education that is largely used around the world, I can draw from existing alternative models and design a system of informal education that will work for them.
First, I had to identify where an intervention, if any, would work. Because the situation was constantly changing every day, in terms of both the war in Syria, and the Lebanese response to the migrants, It's difficult to identify where any design intervention could even work. I plotted the five sites on a graph of Good/Bad Living Conditions and High/Low Morale. I figured that the combination of both factors would enable me to better identify which site was susceptible to an intervention.
From there, I decided Plage Nour was more receptive to a designed intervention.
"The settlement showed stark contrasts to the other refugee sites; there was a respected hierarchy, living conditions were significantly better than others, and there seemed to be a presence of UNHCR support (allocated tarps and UN branded items can be seen throughout the property). There was a sense of engagement with the Lebanese community, something that others seemed to stay away from. And, while facing their own problems, namely medical, they remain actively persistent to better their situation."
And so, that was the really long story of how I got to the project.
So what i'm doing is designing a system of informal community based education, built upon various and site specific skills and knowledge that is passed between members of the same community.
Think of the project as a school, but really informal. Syrians teach classes to other Syrians in order to spread knowledge and share skills. Syrians teach classes to Lebanese and the public, at a cost, to promote cross cultural engagement and a sustainable source of income.
I've (loosely) named the organisation or the service I'm designing, IREES (informal refugee education enabling service).
Facilitators are an essential support base that introduce, transfer, and spread information that directly, or indirectly, contributes to the collective knowledge and activities of the community.
Agents of Social Transformation are self-sustaining, skilled individual thinkers that are able to both spread their knowledge and instigate social change.
So what do I need from you? Your support! This project will only happen if we work together. The system is designed to self sustain as a community process, but that needs a jump starter or kickstarter of sorts. The money needed will go towards teaching equipment and spaces, materials, transportation, and payment for teachers (residents in Plage Nour). The money will be facilitated through Loula, the settlement leader.
As this is a live project, it's difficult to dictate what and where the money will go to, so I will be proposing a suggested money allocating plan to the community, but specifics are largely up to them. My role within the system is to present the platform, and do three things specifically:
First, I provide a network of contacts to the facilitators. These will be local NGOs or organisations that can offer administrative and practical support to the teachers and the community at large. For example, Ana Aqra is a NGO operating in Lebanon, setting up schools in various marginalised communities and training teachers.
Secondly, I will design a branding, of sorts, of the program, and Plage Nour especially, to both attract public engagement and promote the community as an open, cultural centre for knowledge and skill exchange.
Finally, and most crucially, WE will jumpstart the micro economy with the money needed, and will work together to maintain a sustainable education model for the people of Plage Nour.
So what classes will be given at Plage Nour? In the settlement there is a gold leafer, a sculptor, a painter, a chef, an artist, and an electrical engineer. Each of them will be teaching a class to others in the community. We also have an Arabic teacher from Syria teaching both Arabic as a main lesson and offering tutoring to others.
I worked with the community members to define and structure the sub-categories (full debrief coming soon!)
Well Being | Classes take on the role of both practical stimulation and skill building in a safe, ideologically-free, environment. Such classes include gardening or cooking- Samia, from Plage Nour, will be giving a traditional Syrian cooking workshop.
Trade | Classes that build sellable skills that aim to contribute to the socio-economic self sufficiency of an individual. For example, Nasr, from Plage Nour, is a gold-leafer, and will be giving workshops in gold-leafing to both Syrians and Lebanese.
Self Expression | Individual growth and expression is vital to the development of any young mind and as such, these workshops cater to that creative stimulation. Workshops include sculpting, painting, and textile making.
Safe Space | A stress free, politically free, safe environment, specifically aimed at younger children who's age barrier do not permit them entry into Lebanese schools. This space will aim to allow children with no form of academic or social stimulation outside their settlement, to be able to ponder and discuss their circumstances and find comfort in a skilled mentor. Loula, a strong and resourceful women herself, has taken the role in Plage Nour.
Migrants of Circumstance, the book
Risks and challenges
This project is a community centric process; as such, it's susceptible to the expected shortcomings of any project where the community, who are diverse in themselves, are at the core. On top of that, the community is a product of war- and as the situation in Lebanon is worsening for refugee communities, the tensions are rising among the entire refugee collective. This is a live project so at any time, a circumstance may change, and the project will have to adapt to that. It's a frame work that the community can tap into and make their own, to evolve alongside their fluctuating circumstances.
Many people will not, at first, be susceptible to the idea of an "alternative" schooling system, and may not allow their children to attend. We hope that when the project comes to life, and other begin to slowly engage more in the system, they will see its benefit to both them and their community.
-Fluidity of the situation-
Refugees are very fluid, they come and go where they can find work and where they will be most safe. One of the challenges we may face is one of the facilitators leaving or even the head facilitator. In such cases, the structure is designed to allow anyone to fulfil any position in the system with various workshops and debrief/ training manuals. The system is designed to be interchangeable.
We are making most of the rewards in-house as to not delay any production times; printing and binding of books will be done in advance.
-System may not work long term-
It's possible this system may not initially work and will need further iterations and redesigns along the way. That will be an inclusive, community process and will evolve accordingly.
-Timing and not reaching fundung-
I want to launch the project by May 1st, and while that may be enough time to allocate all resources for the classes and workshops, I will have all those in preparation before the date in coordination with the various facilitators.
- (54 days)