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A sea of tents, or how refugees live

21 of March '22

We present an excerpt from Jakub Szczęsny's book Welcome to a World Without Architects, which was published in 2021 by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Imagine it' s evening, you're eating dinner, you' re already about to get down to plum cake for dessert, and here a two-ton bomb falls on your house. You survive, recover from the initial shock, and suddenly it occurs to you that nothing is left of your house, and half of your family is not among the living. When the cloud of dust settles, you see that most of your neighborhood lies in ruins. Fires are raging, and the survivors are trying to save themselves and their loved ones. They throw the remnants of their belongings on their backs and flee the city. This is how the residents of Aleppo and Gaza, but also thousands of smaller towns and villages around the world, from Yemen to Indonesia, live.

Our present will go down in world history as an unprecedented era of migration. Wars, exploitation, hatred, fear, poverty, disease and hunger - a whole package of problems that we as a species cannot cope with - are forcing millions of people all over the world to flee their former homes and seek new, "better worlds." The problem is that a better life is difficult to achieve for most of them, and if even possible, it has to be bought with another frightening "set": the dangers of travel, separation from loved ones, incredible sacrifices and the uncertainty of tomorrow combined with insecurity, and often the stripping of dignity. Thousands of refugees1 are drawn to big cities because it's easier to get help and jobs there. Their arrival usually results in chaos2. Authorities try to hastily build camps for the newcomers; some turn into settlements and new city districts over time3. The history of such camps is as old as the world, with their builders drawing on the tradition of temporary settlements for the military and the experience of generations of planners, engineers, and administrators who had to devise and build spaces ready to accommodate masses of people on short notice and with limited resources. Large camps4, for ten thousand or more residents, are usually built on flat land (because it is easy to fence) and have their own water intakes, possibly wells. They are usually connected by road to the nearest town, but there is an undeveloped wilderness all around.

Mostly families are sent to the camps. Theoretically, each has no more than ten to twelve square meters at their disposal. In this space there must be room for a temporary home, often a tent or improvised structure made of locally available materials (architects and industrial designers have created collapsible structures5 that resemble real homes) and a small garden, allowing the camp diet to be supplemented with vegetables and fruits. According to UNHCR recommendations6, a set of toilets and showers, separate for each sex, should be set up every hundred meters, but latrines must not stand closer than six meters from the nearest house or residential tent.

The wilderness where the camps are built is usually blown by a relentless wind and warmed by the sun. The flat land is not drained, so when it rains, the entire land turns into a maelstrom. In such conditions, people notoriously overheat during the day and cool down at night, often in a single 24-hour period, because thin roofs and walls do not protect against the vagaries of the weather. Diseases, especially diarrhea, are rampant in the wet season, and the battle against waterlogged soil continues. Even with constant heating and ventilating the houses, cold, penetrating dampness under clothes and a rotten smell persist. Therefore, the layout of parts of the camp with different functions, their service and accessibility, and the quality of shelters are crucial.

refugee camp

pic: © Jakub Szczęsny

Many refugees are overwhelmed by a lack of prospects and a sense of suspension in temporariness. And it still lingers... Once an Australian carpenter, the son of emigrants from Poland who spent the first years after the war in a tin quasi-dormitory in a refugee camp7 in Western Australia, told me, "At the end of the day, it was not the war and the journey, but living for years with other unfortunates in the middle of nowhere that sucked the strength out of my parents, day after day." Suspension can turn anyone's life into a living hell: the elderly, for whom the entire world built with difficulty has fallen to ruin, and the younger, as they eagerly await a return to the world of work and development. Children living in the camps grow up in a bubble, know no other life, and later often have trouble adjusting to new realities.

Schools, sanitation facilities, also psychological assistance, places of worship, administrative offices and police headquarters are set up in the camps to prosecute all sorts of criminals, who are not difficult to find here. Non-governmental organizations are taking care of sports grounds and various forms of adult education. One of the more interesting initiatives is teaching entrepreneurship and aiming to slowly turn the camps into cities. The idea is that, over time, refugees will cease to be people in need of constant assistance and become landowners on which they will put up real homes and start businesses. The future of refugees is a challenge for the whole world, especially the wealthier countries. Their admission and integration are in the interest of Europe's aging societies, including Poland, as our country is at the forefront of Europe's aging societies. Unfortunately, in many countries populist politicians are playing with the refugee crisis to instill fear and support among naive voters. They don't want to remember that not so long ago Europeans were fleeing to Palestine, Iran or India from the turmoil of World War II.

Already the ancient Indians knew that karma returns. This should always be kept in mind by managers, engineers and workers in factories producing weapons in any of the wealthy countries of this world. Their country, beautiful villas and cellars of expensive wine can also be wiped off the face of the earth at any moment. Nor can anyone guarantee that we ourselves will have time to eat the prune pie I mentioned at the beginning before someone else's wonderful invention turns our world into a pile....

Jakub Szczęsny

1 According to the United Nations, only a quarter of today's refugees live in organized camps. A large number of Syrian refugees on their own rent apartments and houses in major Middle Eastern cities, but thousands live in settlements built in the wild. One of these was the now-defunct La Jungle near the French city of Calais. Many refugees also live in special centers in cities to help integrate with the locals.

2 In 1972, my father visited Beirut as part of a student trip. He saw a city directly flooded with Palestinian refugees; some were camping out in tents on traffic circles in the city center. He was most impressed by the absurd appropriation of space and the color TV in each tent. For a Pole raised in the poverty of a communist country, it was a shocking sight.

3 In Larnaca, Cyprus, for example, a camp for Greeks fleeing the part of the island seized by the Turkish army in 1974 soon became a full-fledged, albeit poor, housing development.

4 The largest camps are set up in wasteland and wilderness, often far from towns. The compound in Dadaab, Kenya, is home to nearly half a million people, mostly from Somalia and South Sudan.

5 One of the more distinctive "buildings" of this type is the Better Shelter of polypropylene panels set on a steel frame. It was designed and made by the Swedish furniture company IKEA.

6 The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) organization deals with refugee assistance in the broadest sense. It encompasses all kinds of activities, including assistance in maintaining camps, medical care, food aid, education, etc. UNHCR also conducts and coordinates activities to design houses, toilets, energy sources, heating and sanitation systems.

7 In many countries in the 1940s and 1950s, temporary shelters for refugees took the form of canopies made of curved corrugated sheet metal. They were erected on compacted earth and closed at the ends with slopes of tent canvas or plank walls in which tiny windows and doors were embedded.

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