Healing and Empowering Syrian Children in the Za’atari Refugee Camp
In the midst of refugee camps and suffering from difficult journeys necessitated by war, Syrian children suffer from traumas, uncertainty and unhealthy environments for their growth. Early adversarial exposures can change the development of the brain and can lead to subsequent psychological problems that make it harder for children to effectively immerse themselves in the education process as they grow. A close look at most refugee camps around the world reveals constraints in physical environments that impose and limit the natural development of children.
This post is a summary of a thesis project titled “Oasis of Resilience.” This thesis examined the Al-Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, which is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, and proposed a design to better the environment for children in general.
Within this camp, children constitute over half of the population, yet there are few designated places to escape the camp’s stressful life and to provide safety. Safety and respite from harsh conditions are essential to childhood development. However, in order to support children to overcome their trauma and empower them to move forward, design thinking should be integrated to enrich the few opportunities they have.
The goal as landscape architects was to redesign Za’atari’s children’s places around experiences that enable them to develop necessary skills, which strengthen their resilience and support their natural growth needs. “Oasis of Resilience” is a project that aims to enhance design content and implications with an increased understanding of child development, psychology and pedagogy science. The project highlights relationships between children’s health and design and identifies needed facilitator parties in creating children’s places in refugee camps.
After visiting the Al-Za’atari camp and observing, first hand, the situation of the Syrian refugees in addition to examining several case studies regarding children of war, and studying psychology of childhood development theories and practices, the project design focused on three priorities:
- strengthen children’s resilience;
- enrich children’s imagination; and
- empower children to move forward.
Children with a high level of resilience are more capable of withstanding the stresses they face during war and continue to face as long as they are living in exile. They are also capable of rapid recovery from trauma. In addition, since imagination allows children to make sense of their surroundings and understand reality, the project design aims to provide children opportunities to form a relationship with the landscape, climate and their surroundings, in order to discover their capabilities and form their identity. Finally, when empowering children to move forward, sites should be designed to encourage specific experiences to help children mature their skills and support development.
To achieve these three priorities, a toolkit was developed to guide the design process in assessing healthy growth and development for refugee children. It identifies opportunities for improvement through the built environment and organizes the design thought process, illustrating the characteristics of living environments that stimulate and support growth and development. At the same time, it instructs designers on ways to interweave the development of a place into the process of healing and growth that children need. Moreover, the toolkit stresses the importance for designer sensitivity to what effects built environments have on children’s emotions, and what type of experiences they will have when they occupy and interact with that place. The toolkit specifies, based on clinical practice sources, the sensory factors that children should acquire to face their adversaries and move forward; those factors can be summarized as: hope, autonomy, faith, safety, morality, commitment, strong family support, reward, love, self-esteem, trust and risk-taking.
“Oasis of Resilience” proposes a practical design illustration for the research and implementation of this toolkit. The design envisions a landscape that evolves over time, and throughout its evolution provides a sequence of inspirational events. The project is a collection of small interventions that would come together, creating a more pragmatic place for children. The intention is to utilize the process of site development to mature children’s skills through engaging them in playful activities, boosting children’s self-esteem, autonomy and social virtues, and allowing them to discover their capabilities and develop their identity. The expectation from each section in the design is to strike a balance between play and effect, where the child experiences joy and is rewarded with an enchanting experience.
The site layout is structured around children’s psychology theories, and installations were oriented based on an analysis of the sun’s path. The space emphasizes no separation between function, shape, symbol and relation to nature. Mounds and valleys made from natural materials make the ground plane itself part of play and education.
Grading of the site balances cut and fill, allowing children to participate by playing with dry earth to fill small waxed cardboard boxes that would eventually, with adult supervision and assistance, form earthen dome walls. Children also would be able to help mix and plaster earth material for the domes. The entire process of digging, plastering the walls and engaging with other children and adults offers children a sense of safety, trust, love, faith and feeling of strong family support. Children’s self-esteem, autonomy and sense of commitment will also be enhanced due to participation. Additionally, when completing construction of the site, children will feel accomplished and rewarded.
Finally, working as a community enhances and strengthens social bonding, helping children develop a sense of morality, particularly while building traditional elements specific to their culture, such as earthen domes. This process can engage children and adults in discussions about the history of Syria, potentially raising pride in the community. Culture plays an important role in moral development and as a consequence contributes to enhancing the resilience of refugees, particularly the children.
The project design provides opportunities to hide, climb and express individual thoughts. Likewise, children will have the freedom to create their own adventures and worlds while climbing through tunnels between domes and under the stage, through discovering the million ways they can interact with a large art installation in the form of a dove.
The bird structure is a metal frame covered with weaved plastic sacks, creating a web-like structure capable of supporting a person’s weight. The bird art structure creates a translucent ceiling around the two existing caravans, allowing diffused, magical light to illuminate the area. The net would also move with the wind. These natural effects can enhance children’s awareness of the natural surroundings. The tail of the bird rests on the ground, providing a place for children to hang a vertical garden of their own creation. The bird construction offers another opportunity for children, parents and trainers to work together, weaving plastic sacks to create one section of the bird. The rest of the bird would be assembled and woven prior to delivery and installation. Weaving the bird presents an opportunity for other volunteers outside of the camp to take part in this process and work with NGO’s to deliver their work to the camp.
The bird will eventually become an iconic symbol of peace and collaboration in the camp. Optimistically, the bird construction project offers children a sense of pride and reward due to their involvement of constructing a beautiful and meaningful icon. Furthermore, children will feel safe, love, trust, faith, commitment, morality and strong family support from working alongside their parents and other volunteers outside the camp. Lastly, children will develop a sense of autonomy, self-esteem and risk-taking while discovering their capabilities by climbing, hiding and playing in the structure.
Outdoor environments associated with refugee camps are not highly conducive to the developmental needs of children in particular. Projects like this one, and the toolkit created for this project, will not ultimately change the difficulties and struggles children in refugee camps face. However, the hope is that despite their difficulties, through well thought-out designs such as this, children may be able to find comfort and respite for at least a portion of the day, engage in creative play and experience the joys of unimpeded imagination and creativity.
For more information about this project, read the full version of the thesis online here.
by Malda Takieddine, Associate ASLA