CEC WEEKLY TIES – Refugees in a pandemic

Dear colleagues, 

Europe’s largest migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Moria, has been devastated by massive fires early Wednesday. Greek authorities believe that the fires were started by Moria camp residents expressing dissatisfaction with coronavirus-related lockdown measures after 35 people tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this week. The refugee camp is home to an estimated 13,000 people, more than six times its maximum capacity of 2,200 people. More than 4,000 children, including 407 unaccompanied minors, live in the camp, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

As a refugee myself, I can testify to the detrimental effects of being a refugee. In 1974, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, plunged 200,000 Greek-Cypriots into the murky turbulent waters of displacement. Losing my house and home ruptured my way of being, and I embarked on life as a 10-year old child of war, rootless, fearful, and apprehensive, with a gap in my heart that could not be closed. I set out to quench my thirst for a sense of what home means by focusing my doctoral studies on connecting with other refugees in Cyprus, particularly people who, like me, had children born after the war. Exposing myself to the stories of 200 parents and their children (see The Making of a Refugee), I believed could help me heal and rebuild my broken self.

Home, I learned, matters; and it matters because home is fundamental to human existence and because the physical, emotional, mental, social, political, economic, and cultural costs of suppressed meaning-making processes carry forward for generations. The same finding kept coming to the surface after I connected with Hmong, Somali, Mexicans, Ojibwe, and African Americans in Minnesota (see The Right to Home), communities also touched by displacement. 

Below, I share stories of how residential design intersects with the lives of Greek-Cypriot, Somali, and Hmong refugees.Tasoulla Hadjiyanni, Editor
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Conventional House And Estate Apartment Graphic View

“Refugees re-housed in government-provided housing faced problems due to a cultural clash with either the design of brand new units or existing structures. Government estates did not meet the cultural requirements in terms of separating public from private areas. Instead of having the kitchen towards the back of the unit as dictated by the culture, government estates had the kitchen in the front of the unit which meant that one had to pass from the kitchen to enter the living room.” (p.191)

(Excerpt from The Making of a Refugee – Children Adopting Refugee Identity in Cyprus)

Image credit: Tasoulla Hadjiyanni


Arrangements Of Appliances In House

Thousands of Somalis came to the Midwest and Minnesota in the early 1990s to escape a devastating civil war that destroyed the small nation in the Horn of Africa.

“The top shelf of Karina’s closet gave the 2’x 5’ corridor carve-out an ethereal presence. She neatly folded every one of her shawls, with their bright colors and translucent silky fabrics, and placed them in piles on the shelf. On the rod below, she carefully hang all her shirts, dresses, and work-pants, the clothes she counted on to exude and position herself as an educated, independent Somali woman. In a smell-less society, one where deodorants and air fresheners erase all forms of scents from both bodies and spaces, her efforts to maintain a pristine look and appearance were threatened by unwanted odors:
 “American food is very plain; we use spices and they make the smells very strong. We use a lot of oil, our food is rich food, we have meat everyday. Back in Somalia, it was fresh, you don’t keep food in the refrigerator or in containers, you shop everyday so everything is fresh. So if your bedroom is close to the kitchen, all your clothes and everything will smell.”
 The standard exhaust fans in Karina’s kitchen could not handle the smoke generated from the frying oils and spices in her open-plan apartment. Her closet was right next to the kitchen and all her clothes ended up with an unpleasant odor that in her eyes, made her stand out.” (p.112)

Excerpts from The Right to Home – Exploring How Space, Culture, and Identity Intersect with Disparities

Image credit: Tasoulla Hadjiyanni


Hmong Stories - Cec Design

Almost 300,000 Hmong now live in the U.S., close to 80,000 in Minnesota. Hmong refugees fled Southeast Asia to escape persecution after the Vietnam war. The Hmong religion of Shamanism is pivotal to the establishment of the Hmong collective identity. Shamanism prescribes the belief that natural or man-made objects contain spirits, which are the guardians of a family’s welfare, some of whom are ancestors.

“In Sai’s home, the living room wall hosted the altar, which dominated the space in spite of its relatively small size. At about 18” x 24”, the altar transformed the home into a sacred space, a shared, collective site of experience and remembrance (Rennie, 2017): “I believe in my parents, that they live and will help me,” Sai declared. Both of his parents were deceased for many years, since the family’s time in Laos, but ocean crossings are inconsequential to spirits. Souls can reside everywhere and anywhere, including private domestic spaces and the altar on the wall was a medium for the dead to reach and support the living and vice versa.” (p.49).

“Exacerbating Sai’s ability to foster connections were the social spaces of his house. Social relationships with friends and family have the potential for both health promoting and health damaging effects in older adults (Seeman, 2000) and therefore, a better understanding of the impact of home spaces on these relationships can be the source of design interventions. Sai’s basement size and shape restricted the number of people he could invite to Shamanist celebrations in his home. Basement spaces are common in Minneapolis and are an affordable way to expand the home’s capacity for different activities and for housing larger families. Homes are typically priced according to the number of bedrooms and bathrooms above ground and therefore, the square footage of finished basements comes at a much lesser cost. Sai’s basement, which included two bedrooms, a furnace room, and an open space was where Sai would prefer to host celebrations. But the location of the furnace room made the left-over living space inadequate. Jutting out into the open space, the furnace room intercepted flow and limited how tables and chairs could be laid out. Moving the furnace room was an expensive alteration, one that Sai could not afford.” (p.51)

 Excerpts from The Right to Home – Exploring How Space, Culture, and Identity Intersect with Disparities

Image credit: Tasoulla Hadjiyanni

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