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'Design To Live' details refugees' ingenuity in creating life in camps


There are now more than 80 million refugees around the world, according to the United Nations, many who live in refugee camps where conditions can be cramped and mean and pitiable. But if you go through "Design To Live: Everyday Inventions From A Refugee Camp," a new book in Arabic and English from the MIT Press, you can see the ingenuity and spirit inside the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan and marvel and be inspired. Syrian refugees living there and creating gardens, ovens, baby swings and chess sets, people living and, in a way, thriving.

Azra Aksamija is one of the editors of the book. She's an artist and architectural historian and founding director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab. She joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

AZRA AKSAMIJA: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: In many ways, the designs are just a testament to the human spirit, aren't they?

AKSAMIJA: They really are. When you go to these camps, it's such a desperate environment. It is in the middle of the desert, surrounded by literally nothing. There is not a single tree. In the summer, it reaches around 118 degrees Fahrenheit. And in that unbearable heat, these people are living and thriving and producing incredible designs and works of art to really create and carve out forms of life that are not just possible, but also to imagine better forms of life as they can be.

SIMON: Yeah. Let me ask you about something I think I've seen in a few places around the world - vertical gardens. And I didn't quite understand until reading your book they are carefully crafted to, I'll say, rise above the rules.

AKSAMIJA: Exactly. So in these camps and the way camps are conceived is usually as a temporary settlements. Of course, we know that this is not the reality. Many people end up living there for more than 10 years or even longer. But the local government regulations don't want people to, you know, consider themselves set in (ph). For that reason, they don't allow things to become permanent, and part of that logic is not allowing gardening and planting and making people not feeling - kind of taking, literally, roots in a certain area.

So planting in the camp for many years was not allowed. It is also for water scarcity purposes, of course. And for that reason, people started planting along the walls of their sheds, of their caravans using plastic containers, yogurt scraps, food packages to plant seeds and from, you know, places where they are coming from and also to be able to cook and, you know, remind themselves of the home cooking and places where they come from.

SIMON: And pigeon breeding is a passion for many Syrians. And they manage it in the camp, don't they?

AKSAMIJA: That was a big surprise for me. When I first saw the pigeons, I didn't understand what was going on because I was not familiar with the custom. But in fact, this is a local sport both in Jordan and in Syria, and it's really important for people. And it's a luxurious sport, actually. It can cost up to - you know, a very good pigeon can cost up to $5,000. In cities like Damascus or in Amman, you know, people have these - in the evening, there are all these sport occasions where pigeon holders letting them fly, and occasionally they also kind of managed to get each other's pigeon.

And you have something like this happening in the camp, too, but, of course, in very improvised ways. So some of the designers will use, again, scraps of corder, leaf (ph) items like the readymade caravans, an old door, pieces of furniture, pieces of wood to create landing platforms on their sheds for pigeons to land. Yeah, it's just a wonderful way to kind of claim to your tradition and carve out that life worth living, at least through these kinds of continuations of traditions as much as possible.

SIMON: And families and individuals have constructed some beautiful coffee and tea sets, which really touched my heart. It reminded me of when I've been a reporter in refugee camps. And it's just very important to many of the people you meet that they give hospitality to you and to each other.

AKSAMIJA: But what is also touching about this is that, you know, there are no spaces for social gathering because, you know, there are minimal provisions for people in displacement. So everyone, every family gets maybe one shelter, and everyone lives in the same space. And sometimes if people move away, occasionally there will be a shelter empty. And in one of these empty shelters, a whole community of people kind of claimed it and created this social space where they can host guests and, you know, bring guests, basically bring foreign people to host them.

SIMON: Yeah.

AKSAMIJA: And to facilitate that, one of the men created this wonderful coffee set using recycled food cans.

SIMON: Yeah.

AKSAMIJA: But I think it's also important not to exoticize these inventions. I mean, this is brutal reality, right? And...

SIMON: Yeah.

AKSAMIJA: ...For me, you know, what's so powerful about them is they visualize, on the one hand, this ingenuity of human spirit, yes, and resilience but, on the other hand, really, what is missing because people invent what is not provided, and what is not provided are basic ideas of what constitutes human - essential human needs.

SIMON: Yeah. I guess there are more than 30,000 people in the Azraq camp, many for a number of years. And the more intricate and engaging the design, the more it raises in your mind a question. When does living in that refugee camp become a way of life?

AKSAMIJA: The first idea was to call the book "Book Of Life" and have one book of problems. But we had this debate of whether we should call it "Book Of Life" because our colleagues were saying, well, this is not what life should be. This is not how life is. This is an artificially created environment and context which creates dependencies, victimization of people. It's a prison, right? And should this be even called life?

So we play now in the final version of the book title, "Design To Live," with this notion of what is life, right? And we also use the notion of life as a structure for the book. So the designs show us how refugees claim their own agencies in these circumstances that absolutely deprive them of it.

SIMON: Azra Aksamija is one of the editors of "Design To Live: Everyday Inventions From A Refugee Camp." Thank you so much for being with us.

AKSAMIJA: Thank you for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.