Oriana Fenwick

The Global Design Initiative for Refugee Children (GDI), chaired by Nathalie Beauvais, Intl. Assoc. AIA, Patti Seitz, AIA, and Gretchen Rabinkin, AIA, was co-founded in 2016 with Stephen Gray, an assistant professor of urban design at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, to help design safe places for refugee children around the world to play—an effort that has earned the initiative a Collaborative Achievement Award. Here GDI responds to our architect’s version of the Proust questionnaire.

What led to the formation of the initiative?
Global displacement today has surpassed anything witnessed since the wake of World War II, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are as many as 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. In the aftermath of such devastation, humanitarian organizations have developed very effective responses to the immediate human needs, and planners and designers have learned to quickly re-establish water, electricity, housing, transportation, and other services. But communities are defined by more than services, and the focus of peace builders, planners, and designers has so far stopped short of rebuilding societies themselves—mending the divisions and social breakdowns that accompany war and devastation.

What is the initiative’s greatest achievement?
First and foremost, we have built two playgrounds in Lebanon for refugee children who have nowhere to play. Our ambition was to provide a place for children to escape from their harsh reality, and for parents to have hope for some normalcy by seeing their children play.

Why should architects care about the issue?
The sad truth is that more than 50% of refugees are children, and the average stay for refugees is now well over the UNHCR figure of 17 years (which itself is an entire childhood). This means that children often spend their critical developmental years in conditions of hardship, disease, and at risk of physical and emotional harm. Due to the temporary nature of camps, local governments and landowners often restrict the construction of any permanent structures or public spaces, leaving many children to be raised in temporary dwellings without places to safely play or gather.

What is the role of collaboration in your work?
As we are all doing this pro bono off hours, there is always work in progress with everyone putting in extra effort when time allows and when their specific skills are required—in fabrication, in detailing, and in overall public space organization. GDI involves a collaboration between members of the Boston Society of Architects (BSA), BSA Foundation, Boston Society of Landscape Architects, as well as the wider Boston design community, in partnership with many NGOs. These include the Karam Foundation, Sawa for Development and Aid, the Kayany Foundation, and Lena Park Community Development Corporation, local and international practicing architects, as well as faculty and students from Boston area design schools including Harvard University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and the Boston Architectural College.

A GDI meeting with (from left to right) Nathalie Beauvais, Patti Seitz, Harvard professor and former Boston Society of Architects board member Stephen Gray, and Gretchen Rabinkin
Tony Luong A GDI meeting with (from left to right) Nathalie Beauvais, Patti Seitz, Harvard professor and former Boston Society of Architects board member Stephen Gray, and Gretchen Rabinkin

What role can design play when it comes to refugees?
The exodus and diaspora caused by the civil war in Syria has led to a heightened sense of urgency for developing new tools, processes, and methods for taking on critical challenges at the nexus of humanitarian response and design. Can designers effectively contribute during international humanitarian crises? Would the design of better public spaces in refugee camps address a real need? What would a scalable and replicable model for designing and constructing public space for refugees entail? GDI was formed with an aim to answer these questions.

What’s the best way to describe the personality of the initiative?
Highly adaptive. For example, our first design was almost ready to be built when we found out that the camp had to be relocated within three weeks due to a newly expanded Lebanese army military zone. Expecting to build when we arrived on site, we spent time in family interviews, working with the local designers, and assisting in selecting and adapting the design for a new site.

How has the initiative grown?
Since completion of the first playground in summer 2018, we have supported three new projects: a new partnership with a local NGO in Lebanon running schools for refugee children; an ongoing relationship with an existing partner in Turkey providing innovative education, entrepreneurial development, and community-driven aid to refugee children; and a collaboration with a Boston nonprofit to develop safe spaces for immigrants and families of color in the Dorchester neighborhood through Community Preservation Act Funds.

What projects does the initiative hope to pursue?
We are looking at developing more playgrounds in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and in Turkey, which has become so overcrowded as additional waves of Syrians flee war zones. We are also working toward developing new playgrounds in Venezuela, at the Mexican/U.S. border in response to immigration controls, as well as projects for Rohingya refugees in the U.S. and in Bangladesh.

What do you hope the initiative’s legacy will be?
One of the initiative’s central goals is to increase national and international awareness of an innovative collaborative process, and encourage other professional, institutional, and civil society organizations to adapt and repeat it.

What is the greatest ambition the initiative has yet to achieve?
Continue building more playgrounds and safe places for children to be raised when in migration or under temporary status. Presently we are looking to partner with groups that work within art and expressive therapy fields, to empower and engage with children on site, and through art, design, and the educational/design opportunities created through play, bring emotional solace, healing, and laughter.

What is the biggest change coming to the initiative in the next year?
COVID-19 and the inevitable economic and social isolation that will follow. This will exacerbate the challenges through an increase in the number of refugees, and will stretch available resources, both in dollars and in professional expertise.

What does winning the Collaborative Achievement Award mean to you?
This award will increase national and international awareness of the dire state of refugees, raise awareness about the need for public spaces at all scales of design intervention, and provide access to an innovative collaborative process. The award is a daily encouragement for us to continue the effort to build more playgrounds.

This article has been updated to reflect that Stephen Gray, AIA, is a co-founder of GDIRC.