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Building a Hub for Refugees to Exchange Skills and Labor

In the second of our interviews with Ideation Summit finalists, we spoke to architect and urban designer Luis Torres about his team’s design of a digital marketplace in Berlin to help refugees resume work.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A Syrian refugee works at a train factory in Berlin as part of a training program for refugees, March 14, 2017. Soeren Stache/dpa

Berlin is both Europe’s startup capital and home to Germany’s largest refugee camp, in the former Tempelhof airport.

An interdisciplinary team of experts has come up with a proposal to bring these two aspects of the German capital together. They have designed a marketplace consisting of a digital platform and a physical hub to be located close to the Tempelhof camp for refugees, local volunteers and entrepreneurs to exchange skills, services and recycled products.

“Re:Berlin, a Platform for integration” is one of three finalists of the Place and Displacement competition hosted by social innovation lab Ideation Worldwide. The San Francisco-based organization asked students and young professionals in the fields of architecture and public administration to design a marketplace for refugees living in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, Kenya’s Kakuma camp and Berlin. The interdisciplinary teams were challenged to come up with a three- to five-year plan for a project that wouldn’t cost more than $100,000 to build and operate.

The five-person team behind “Re:Berlin” consists of architect and urban designer Luis Torres, architect Hyder Mohsin, architectural designer Joshua Broomer, political economist Sahar Rad and historian Kostas Korres. Torres told Refugees Deeply what they’ve learned throughout the design process, and what it will take to make the idea work.

Refugees Deeply: How did you get the idea for your innovation, and what problem does it set out to solve?

Luis Torres: When learning more about refugees in Berlin, we found that the situation there is different from other European cities. Berliners and Germans in general had more welcoming attitudes: We saw that they wanted to help refugees in need. We could see a lot of potential to rethink how mass immigration is handled, and a possibility to test a model for other cities in Europe to follow.

We know that many refugees have backgrounds with strong elements of community and family support. In addition to the trauma of having to leave their homes and the distressing journeys they’ve had to go through, they then face the risk of isolation and not knowing how to rebuild their lives.

To address these problems, we make the case for immediate connectivity, by employing digital tools to overcome the physical boundaries and issues of separation. Based on our experience, we know that there’s huge potential for digital tools to spark the formation of a community and promote social interaction cost efficiently. We also seek to provide a springboard for refugees to become self sufficient while feeling part of society. We studied research, such as that by the Refugees Rights Data Project, which has shown that many refugees in Berlin are from educated backgrounds and have a high level of literacy and vocational skills.

There’s also a large number of students who had to interrupt their university education to flee for their safety. That means that we are engaging with a community of people who have intellectual as well as economic ambitions. We wanted to address the immediate need of learning new skills, potentially in exchange for existing ones.

Our innovation, Re:Berlin Platform, combines digital means with a physical infrastructure. Here, refugees can exchange support and vocational training such as learning the German language in exchange for coding, cooking or other universal skills training; they can find volunteering opportunities and an environment for innovation and entrepreneurship. The platform is not only aimed at refugees but also seeks to engage local volunteers and entrepreneurs who are interested in this growing pool of talent.

Refugees Deeply: What did you learn about the importance of the marketplace to refugees during the course of your research?

Torres: Marketplaces have a remarkable ability to dissolve barriers, stereotypes and misconceptions. They are places of interaction, exchange and trade; they welcome variety and the diversity of cultures. In many more long-term refugee camps, marketplaces have developed naturally. We have to look at how the principles of the free market have succeeded in restoring autonomy to the displaced, and see how this could be applied in Europe.

Often, however, we see that domestic legislation in Europe is an obstacle to economic freedom and autonomy, and that refugees are not allowed to work and support themselves. Instead they’re being condemned to spend their lives waiting and depend on humanitarian aid. Besides prohibiting growth and sustainability, this can be extremely detrimental to people’s well-being and mental health.

Refugees Deeply: Have you learned anything while working on this project that really surprised you?

Torres: We’ve learned a lot from working as a multidisciplinary team. Our team members have different educational and professional backgrounds: architects, a political economist and a historian/filmmaker. We all have a background in thinking about and working with disadvantaged communities in one way or another, and felt we shouldn’t waste an opportunity to do something about this pressing situation.

We’re also surprised to see the variety in refugee responses across the world, how some countries view refugees compared to others. It raises questions about our liability towards each other as human beings. A more pleasant surprise was to find how many organizations around the world are actively engaged in trying to make a positive impact.

Refugees Deeply: How can the discipline of architecture be harnessed to better protect the autonomy and creativity of refugees?

Torres: We think our main responsibilities and duties as architects are centered around improving society and creating environments that we can all enjoy together in a dignified way. We think that architects have the educational and methodological background to provide solutions. Those solutions don’t necessarily have to be expressed as walls or fashionable buildings. We’ve been engaged in different co-design and co-making workshops, and our experience is that a more hospitable environment is created when people are collaborating with each other. We see ourselves as facilitators, and believe this is the role architects should be playing in a more pluralistic society. Architects have opportunities that go beyond creating financial capital they can use their skills to create a more resilient social capital.

Refugees Deeply: What are your next steps to transform design into practice?

Torres: We’ll continue knocking on doors of private and public initiatives and gathering interest to secure economic sustainability of our project. Berlin is a hub for transnational networks of volunteer and support organizations, some of which we have already approached.

Refugees Deeply: What do you expect to be the main challenges and risks to the implementation of the project?

Torres: First, we’ll need to awaken the interest and trust of the refugees. Then there are legal challenges in terms of allowing them to engage in economic activities. Although the “we can manage it” attitude of the German government has helped to pave the way for refugees to work, there are still significant obstacles for them to move forward, and that is why our main strategy is to focus on immediate training and education.

Refugees Deeply: Do you see opportunities to scale the initiative?

Torres: That’ll be another challenge. As the initiative expands, we want the organization to one day take the form of a cooperative, owned by the people it supports.

This interview was conducted by email and has been edited for length and clarity.

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