After six years of working together with UNHCR and the refugees of Zaatari Refugee Camp, on the Jordan/ Syria border, we have just begun to expand our collaborative work to four African countries. We began with a scoping mission to Maratene Refugee Camp in Nampula, the only refugee settlement in Mozambique, in May 2022 and will continue to Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia in the coming months.
This comes at a time when war and what it means to flee for your life are now much closer to home – Ukraine makes our understanding of this kind of devastation real and makes turning away from the horror, complexity, and consequences of war, impossible.
But just as we can only take in so much news of destruction, refugee crises all around the world are forced to take turns in holding the media’s attention and therefore our gaze, empathy, and response. Whilst deep human suffering is simultaneous everywhere, it is often only made different by the histories, culture, and politics of where refugees are able to flee to.
Long term displacement needs long term relationships – over time, it can turn anger and rage into an embedded part of a person’s identity. Trauma is the enemy of imagination and to have any chance of improving lives, there must be a constant living humility around what form any betterment might take.
The people of Zaatari are now in their 12th year of displacement, in Maratene, it’s their 22nd.
Despite chronic poverty and long-term neglect, Maratene is a lesson in integration with the host country. It’s more a settlement than a camp; no wired fences, or heavy border defending police presence – shocking life circumstances in common, refugees and the local populations move freely inside and out. It has the only school in the area, attracting Mozambican children through its doors too.
Maratene is home to refugees from Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and with irony and despair, (given the UK Government’s decision to break humanitarian law and send UK arriving refugees to Rwanda), Rwandan refugees as well.
I have a sense that it has taken being in Maratene to see, from a distance, what I have fully learned whilst working in Zaatari - experience to compare, whilst holding much in common.
The recent years have shown me how academia is sometimes perceived by others in the humanitarian sector. Research, even as a word, is often unwelcomed both by NGO’S and refugees, who experience it, no matter how sensitively positioned, as something being ‘done to them’ – refugees are already amongst the most queue forming, monitored, interviewed, documented, and interrogated populations on earth.
Knowledge Exchange on the other hand, is far closer to how things can work - it proposes mutual respect and understanding and is received as less ‘weaponised’. Knowledge Exchange is full of an openness to the relational, where you may change me, and I may change you – something more warp and weft is made.
In the context of collaborating with highly vulnerable people, those with an unimaginable expertise that life has forced upon them, (through the need to flee war and persecution), learning what doesn’t work, might be considered a gift and an opportunity to reorientate and enhance what the role of research and knowledge exchange can now be.
Beyond the ethics we currently apply to such work, there is an acknowledgement required by us, that our own expertise in the gaining of new knowledge needs reimagining. We cannot apply our own history, or existing research methods to the escalating world of forced migration.
Our current academic priorities are not theirs – but therein lies a new opportunity for research and its contribution to social purpose.
Anticipating the role a designer may have to play in what is now a certain trajectory for our species, (100 million people have now fled war and persecution last year alone) can lead to self-doubt for working in this way, but we should instead consider any self-doubt, as intuition knocking. For there is much new knowing for us – new hybrid languages to be found, new ways of relating and because we can never truly see the complexity of the whole, or every lived perspective, an elevation of intuition’s value as a rigorous, and to be trusted guide, even, if it is not immediately clear why.
Academia, meanwhile, values the capacity for objectivity, but in these environments, working alongside refugees, objectivity alienates you from their truth. By crude analogy, researching, or writing on mental illness for example, is not the same as suffering from it. Though there can be a price to pay, as much as possible, it is better to work emotionally unguarded.
You need to feel it. When working ‘in the field’, your practice is not more important than their suffering, or hardship, but if you let it in, your future practice, what’s truly needed, will begin to show itself.
Conversely, if, as an outsider, you can’t, or chose not to stay sensitive, or vulnerable to seeing and feeling all that is within people and their surroundings, if you insist that your
deadlines are the ones that matter, your ideas, whether co created, or not, will miss the mark, and sometimes even do damage. Worst of all, you will let people down.
What we need now is knowledge that can heal and puts human wholeness, at the centre of everything.
A return to wholeness - and the local weaving of tangible and sustainable infrastructures of hope, lies at the heart of what people need. With this trip has come the reminder that we all came from Africa once and with it, all the connections to the historical wisdoms that come from indigenous knowledge - knowledge and ways of being which could powerfully feed our own much needed inner development to meet the needs of all our futures. We cannot ‘save’ other people and we should never imagine we can, instead we can finetune into reality as it presents itself and let it determine what needs expression, making, changing, inventing, or letting be, together.