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A Marketplace Solely for Women to Provide Space for Taboo Breakers

In the third of our interviews with Ideation Competition finalists, we spoke to architect students Maria Årthun and Nicole Lilly Gros about their design for a marketplace in Jordan’s Zataari camp that aims to break taboos and integrate women into the workforce.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Syrian women walk around the tents in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, June 3, 2014. Salah Malkawi - Anadolu Agency

For Syrian refugee women in Jordan’s Zataari camp, home to 80,000 Syrians, it can be taboo to work outside of the home. But as women often head their households and money is tight, many have to provide for their families.

Two architecture students have designed a radically straightforward solution, a “Women’s Bazaar” exclusively for women. At this “introverted arabesque marketplace,” women can trade, share childcare, learn from one another and socially engage without being scrutinized by men.

The women’s bazaar 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.

Maria Årthun and Nicole Lilly Gros are both graduate students at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. They 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?

Maria Årthun: When we started collecting information about Zaatari camp, we soon realized that life there can be tough for a woman, especially if she’s alone and has to provide for her family. Money is scarce, and there are few job opportunities within the camp, so they only survive on what is provided for them by the U.N. Also, men are dominating the camp, and women prefer to be in places where there is no mixing with males. This is partly because of cultural reasons, but also because of safety reasons, since women are a very vulnerable group in settlements of this sort. So we decided to design a protected space for women that would provide livelihood opportunities and enable them to interact with the community as a whole, but on their own terms.

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

Nicole Lilly Gros: We learned that in almost every setting, no matter if it’s a short- or long-term stay, trade is developing almost immediately after people settle somewhere. It’s a deeply rooted human desire to be able to swap, sell and buy things. Trade is also especially necessary in settings like Zaatari, where the ability to bring goods in and out, so close to the war zone, is very limited.

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

Årthun: Besides gaining a greater knowledge about the site itself, the host community and the needs of the refugee community, we’ve had the chance to analyze the architectural solutions usually provided within refugee camps.

Gros: We were surprised by the creativity and problem-solving skills among the residents of Zaatari. The camp has been built with white trailers and tents provided by the UNHCR; it’s all set up very uniformly. People transform these boxes to meet their personal needs and make them into a home fit for living in. So they create collage structures with different materials and other components they can find or buy in the camp. It’s pretty amazing when you stumble upon a fully functioning fountain in the atrium of a prefab trailer.

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

Gros: We believe the Women’s Bazaar shows how you can give an architectural answer to better protect the autonomy and creativity of females and minors through a well-designed solution and a thoughtful organization of space.

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

Gros: Within our operational vision, we emphasize the cooperation with existing partner organizations, so getting in contact with potential partners is the first strategic step. When it comes to the design and construction, we need to hammer out details and also would prefer to team up with a local scaffolding company to benefit from their expertise.

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

Årthun: One of the main challenges might be that it excludes the male population of Zaatari. However, we believe that this is also the reason why the Women’s Bazaar has a chance to succeed: By providing women with a chance to be self-reliant, strengthening their social networks, and increasing their purchasing power, we aim for an immediate social impact in terms of improving the well-being of entire families. And that then will lead to benefitting the whole Zaatari market’s economy, we hope.

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

Årthun: Not only is our programmatic solution scalable, we’ve also chosen a construction system that is expandable and can be assembled to form different spatial configurations.

The construction system is simple: Scaffolding will be used as the load-bearing construction system, with gabion walls as the main cladding material. The scaffolding is low-cost, locally available, durable and highly efficient in its double function as a traditional tool for the erection of the gabion wall, as well as a finished architectural element in itself.

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

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