Reem Charif, Mohamad Hafeda, and Joumana al Jabri, editors, Creative Refuge. Washington, DC: Tadween Books, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What is Febrik?
Reem Charif, Mohamad Hafeda, and Joumana al Jabri (RC/MH/JJ): Febrik is a not-for-profit collaborative platform for participatory art and design research projects with practicing architects, designers, and artists active in the Middle East and the United Kingdom.
Febrik’s main area of concern lies in the dynamics and practices of public spaces in relation to social and urban change, specifically in relation to negotiations of the right of space of previously unrepresented groups such as children and women and in the context of communities in refuge. We focus on the use of art-and-design-based research methodologies and processes (including architecture, art, film, photography, and text) to enhance community participation and action and to develop propositional thinking with regards to the immediate social and physical environment.
Febrik approaches projects by thinking creatively on a small scale and within existing resources. Through a process of research, educational workshops, and participatory design, the methodology facilitates site- and community-specific dialogue and knowledge, the exchange of skills and ideas with local partners, and the development of participatory tools for propositional thinking and action. These include short and long term site-specific programmatic and spatial interventions (such as exhibitions, events, installations, and permanent public structures and spaces).
Through a series of projects (primarily in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East, and more recently in marginal housing estates in London), Febrik has developed a body of research that explores and develops the notion of the social playground as a public multi-functional and intergenerational space; one that aims to generate spatial and temporal negotiations between dominant groups and previously unrepresented community groups in the public realm. These in turn, aim to question and study the link between democratic practices and the hierarchies of participation and right to space within public spaces
J: Why did Febrik write this book?
RC/MH/JJ: Creative Refuge documents art-based research and design projects carried out by Febrik in the Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon, during three consecutive summers from 2003 to 2005. The projects—Dream Project and Play Space—aim to bring attention to the spatial and contextual child-centered issues of dense urban living conditions in the camp, as well as the children’s innovative means of negotiating and existing within them. The projects also aimed to develop creative skills for the children so as to facilitate and bring forward their propositional ideas for speculating on change. The book came about in part when Febrik realized there has been little documentation of creative projects exploring the space of childhood in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. We felt that there was a gap in resources and aimed to share our experience as educational facilitators, designers, and researchers looking into the reality of childhood in refuge, specifically in relation to the bigger political and legal confinements. Through the writing of the book, Febrik aimed to relay some of the complexity of the children’s mindset and that of their families though looking at the spatial, social, legal, and political nature of their everyday practices.
The publication brings forward the experience of the workshops in three ways. The aim o each is to share resources, create awareness about the experience of living in the camp, bring attention to the formulated speculative propositions, and celebrate the children’s innovation and active participation in their environment. As such, the book works as an educational manual for facilitators working with children and art, focused on the “contextual” or “situated” creative learning; a catalogue of the children’s stories, dreams, play spaces, and games; and a documentation collating the social and spatial findings of living in refuge in the camps.
J: What particular topics and issues does the book address?
RC/MH/JJ: The workshop and the book explore issues of childhood in refuge, looking at the right to play and right to dream and their corollary spatial, social, and political ingredients. How do labor rights or land ownership rights affect what children dream about or where and how they play? There is a direct tension between the bigger pictures of political negotiations and the everyday experience of the children in the camp. The learning approach developed through the workshops focused on the mindset of children in relation to these contextual limitations. The aim was to shift the focus toward what is positive and possible on a small scale, every day, within the inhabited environment, rather than being disheartened by the lack of rights and possibilities within the bigger political context. The workshops explored the following main question: “By focusing on what we can do and what is possible and on offer in our environment, is it possible that we could have more energy, skill, and initiative to create small scale change, while consistently acting toward larger scale improvement?”
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and projects?
RC/MH/JJ: The questions posed by the projects in this book (dream space and play space) became the start of a long research interest developed through a series of projects in dense urban fabrics. In our subsequent projects, such as “play pockets” in Nahir el-Barid refugee camp in Tripoli, “edge of play” in Talbiyeh camp in Amman, and “shop of possibilities” in London, we continued to think about the link between play, public space, and the right of space of unrepresented groups such as children and women. We developed propositional ideas for re-thinking about the role of play spaces in community cohesion, and in speculating on ideas of the “social playground” as inter-generational shared public spaces for participation and for democratic practices.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RC/MH/JJ: We hope the book will be read by practitioners and educators working with participatory creative processes, in the camps and elsewhere in the world; by children and families, particularly those who live in the camps or in refuge conditions; and by the general public with interest in art, children, the camp context, and creative projects. We hope the book will offer creative participatory ideas for those working with issues of refuge and childhood and that it will encourage a propositional approach when working with children and young people. Children have a wealth of creativity in responding to complex situations, and the book aims to encourage, develop, and take seriously this innovation. Sharing this relays the successes as much as the limitations of life in the camps. We also hope the book will give a glimpse into the reality of the Palestinian refugee context through stories from the everyday, to show how limited resources such as water or electricity affect the way in which households work or the way in which dense spaces encourage the appropriation of the urban realm. These make up the reality of living in refuge, as much as UN resolutions and government regulations.
J: Why is the book presented in both Arabic and English?
RC/MH/JJ: We want to preserve the cultural specificity of the language of the workshops and of the camp context, but at the same time to invite a wider audience into the stories and research. The book’s three different parts address different groups inside and outside the camps; having it presented in both Arabic and English ensures that it can be accessed by this diverse readership. Equally, we hope the book can communicate both the reality of the camp’s everyday life and the creativity by which children exist within them, locally, regionally, and internationally. There is a need to bring forward the seriousness by which the children proposed and participated, and it is important to present the determined and innovative work of the children, as both research and proposition, to the rest of the world.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RC/MH/JJ: We will soon be commencing a project working with young asylum seekers in London, and we will be asking new questions about the experience of refuge and the ability to negotiate it creatively.
Excerpts from Creative Refuge
From the Introduction
This book brings forward the experience of the workshops in three ways: an educational manual for practitioners and educators working with children and participatory creative processes—with a focus on “contextual” and “situated” learning; a research catalogue of the children’s stories, dreams, play spaces, and games; and a documentation collating the social and spatial findings of the three workshops and in turn acts as oral history and research into the camp’s social and cultural practices and its relevance to the context around them. The book also aims to bring attention to the spatial and contextual child-centered issues of urban and dense living conditions and their innovative means of existing within them. These are brought to the forefront by working with the children using borrowed architectural principles of space combined with social and anthropological understandings and interpretations. There is a wealth of creativity in the workforce working with Palestinian children, in and out of Palestine, much of which has gone undocumented and opportunities of learning from each other and from our collective knowledge gone amiss. This publication hopes to contribute to bridging that gap by acting as both an educational manual and a collection of stories. Its creative envelope will follow the process of planning, setting up, implementing, evaluating, and concluding applied in each workshop. The learning approach developed through the workshops focuses on the mind-set of children in relation to the limitations in the camps; the aim is to shift the focus toward what is positive and possible on a small scale, every day, within the inhabited environment, rather than being disheartened by the lack of rights and possibilities within the bigger political context. The workshops explore the following main question: By focusing on what we can do and what is possible in our environment, is it possible that we have more energy, skill, and initiative to create small scale change, while consistently acting towards the larger scale improvement?
Creative Participation: Relevance of Unraveling Dreams to Identity in Transition
During the Dream Project’s first workshop in BAA the children often sang (and taught us to sing) a song about their identity. The lyrics were written by one of them in an activity that summer with a group of Italian volunteers, who helped the children put it to music and perform it collectively:
People want to know
Who we are (who we are)
Where we come from (where we come from)
So we tell them
We’re from Palestine
Pretty Pretty Palestine
If you can’t hear us
We’ll sing a little louder.
The song captures the heart of the Palestinian refugee child’s dilemma and identity, dreaming of a world s/he does not know, a perfect world, somewhere, where they have not been and about which they are reminded daily. During the first Dream Project all of the children expressed wanting to return to Palestine and seventy percent of them expressed wanting to leave Lebanon (to travel westwards). Within this context, the potential and essential role of participation is to ensure that their “lost identity” is re-identified. They must investigate who they want to be, apart from being refugees and in addition to being Palestinians, thinking of today before tomorrow and in spite of yesterday. Hammerberg, in his article “The Palestinian Refugees: After Five Decades of Betrayal—Time at Last?” states that “the main problem facing the Palestinian refugees is that they are just that—refugees” and this is felt most strongly by the youths who face limited opportunities and lack space for self expression and freedom.
This project aimed to encourage the belief in dreaming through the investigation of the process of (de/re)-constructing our dreams so as to unravel them into separate ingredients that can be expressed and visualized in several ways. The new fragments are tangible and personal, often relating directly to our body and its senses, such as sounds, actions, emotions, images, and so on. In themselves and in different combinations, the ingredients initiate endless ideas that make us see our dreams as an ongoing process that takes place all the time, and not merely as something in the future that is definitive and grand. They can change our lives on a small scale by taking part in everyday events that will enrich our moments and change our surrounding environment; these are small steps towards achieving larger goals.
The Dream Project—or process of unraveling “dreams”—was investigated in two consecutive workshops, each concerned with a different aspect and scale of “dreaming;” the first was a personal exploration, the second was a spatial and social one.
Play Space Project
Although this workshop is independent from the former two workshops, it followed a similar approach to learning and employed the method of “unraveling.” While the Dream Project focused on children’s perceptions of dreams, Play Space looked at the way the children transformed the limited camp spaces with their patterns and practices of play; but equally the way in which this specific spatial environment prompted the invention of new games and play spaces.
The workshop consisted of two parts. The first focused on researching children’s inherited and invented games. The children created a series of drawings, mind-maps, models, live interviews, and collages to “unravel” the ingredients of the game and explore how they were made possible. Each child produced a “manual of play” at the end of this part, a step-by-step narrative of the history of the game and how it is played. This included describing the physical elements needed (tall wall, hiding space, an open window, etc), the social/human elements needed for the game (the number of players/do they all know they are playing/who are they?), their age, the time of day, the location, the social practice/phenomenon by which it is inspired (e.g. electricity cuts/visits from grandma), and the way the body moved in space. In the second part of the project, the children re-arranged and combined their separate ingredients to invent new collective games and toys. These were tested in different sites in the camp and invited new players to take part. The work from both parts was displayed in Agial Gallery; the opening night was marked by an image slideshow of the working process accompanied by live narratives from the children.
[Excerpted from Creative Refuge, edited by Reem Charif, Mohamad Hafeda, and Joumana al Jabri, by permission of the editors. © 2014 by Tadween Books. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]