In Norway, a group of architects don’t take refugees’ preferences for granted – they ask.
“In the beginning I was just observing a bit, but it did not last for long. I have always liked working with wood and using the hammer, and knew that I had something to contribute with”.
Karam Kifah Thanoon was living at Torshov Transit Centre in Norway’s capital Oslo. Due to the Dublin Regulation he was in risk of being sent to Germany, and his future was uncertain.
“I met Else and Maria when they had a workshop at the transit centre where I resided at the time. Back in Mosul I had been used to work as a physics teacher, and I used to work a lot, often 12 hours a day. Now I found myself in Norway and was not working at all. Becoming involved with Makers’ Hub was such a relief and it kept me busy in a time of uncertainty”, Karam explains.
Else Abrahamsen and Maria Årthun are two out of the four architects who started Makers’ Hub in December 2015. They wanted to explore how their profession as architects could contribute to something good for the greater society. Their work quickly started to focus on helping refugees in Norway, and on improving their well-being, especially for those living in asylum centres.
The third architect, Jack Hughes, explains that they have two main goals. To help marginalised groups and to contribute to what they call a mission of integration. One essential approach is that they prefer to meet and work with the asylum-seekers shoulder-to-shoulder, instead of only meeting them face-to-face.
“By working together, shoulder-to-shoulder, we are at the same time levelling with one another, performing the same tasks and creating a feeling of unity, instead of an us-and-them way of thinking”, he says.
As architects, the founders of Makers’ Hub strongly believe that architecture and design can have great impact on the quality of life for the individuals accommodated at asylum centres. The reason for why participation from the residents themselves is so important for the architects is because they strongly believe that it creates engagement – they also want to anchor the individual and communal sense of belonging. Makers’ Hub is essentially created by the architects and designers on one hand, and the asylum-seekers on the other.
“We aim, through our projects, to create a sense of achievement and ownership, which we believe are key factors of identity and belonging. Volunteering for a communal purpose grows community and self-worth, and by having a participatory process it reinforces a message of inclusion, tolerance and dignity,” Else Abrahamsen says.
Now that Karam has been granted protection in Norway, he continues to volunteer for Makers’ Hub. He has been settled in a municipality in the northwest part of Norway, but goes to Oslo as often as he can. His engagement can prove to be valuable in other ways too.
“It means that I have a reference I can show to others, for instance when applying for a job”.
Karam says he is happy when he teaches and gets the opportunity to share his knowledge.
“My background from Iraq is absolutely relevant. Now I function as a team leader and can guide others”, he says.
The effort to prevent exclusion is realised by making the asylum-seekers do as much as they can themselves. They are given responsibility and more influence over their own surroundings. In that way, the asylum centre can potentially become much more than just a shelter.
Involving a community in not only dialogue, but also participation, is a cornerstone of UNHCR’s work – through involvement, asylum-seekers and refugees can contribute and feel part of the solutions and improvement they make for themselves. Initiatives like the one initiated by Makers’ Hub strengthen resilience, integration and cooperation between host communities and refugees. Karam is positive that his involvement with Makers’ Hub and the architects who now have become his friends will have long term advantages for him not only professionally but also personally, he is grateful that he found them.
“I was in a tunnel without light. Makers’ Hub was my train out of the tunnel”.