Last year, the Van Alen Institute held a flash competition that caught my eye. It called for ideas for a mobile structure to be located in a local park in Malmö, Sweden. A gateway city to Scandinavia, Malmö receives numerous migrants, refugees and asylum seekers every year. The mobile structure will be placed in the park during warm seasons, where the new arrivals could come for job information and skill development. It will also be a place for advocating social inclusion and creating community.
My personal experience as a migrant from China to Australia 15 years ago affords me some understanding of the loneliness and frustration one has to face in a new country. In the first a couple of years after arriving in Australia, I had a great deal of trouble communicating in English as well as getting my head around social, political and cultural expectations in school. Fortunately, I met many genuine and open-minded people, who made me feel like a member of that country. No matter how broken my English was, they always listened patiently and gave thoughtful comments. They invited me into their families, shared their personal stories, showed me a multifaceted nation, and influenced my views of the relationships between people. Kindness and open-mindedness have the potential to touch the innermost heart and endure for life. Their hospitality and kindness provided me with a sense of fundamental acceptance that allowed me to build my own way and identity within a new culture and, ultimately, gave me the ability to provide the same to others.
That is how the idea of a mosaic carpet came about, a place that conveys a welcoming message. Carpet-making is common and familiar to both Middle Eastern and Scandinavian regions. In many Middle Eastern countries, a carpet is not only a decoration, but an essential item that defines a shared space, where people socialise, eat, rest, and worship together. Even painted carpet patterns representative of different global regions communicate the commonality as well as the diversity of cultures.
For many refugees and asylum seekers, the lack of employment skills is the biggest barrier to their full integration into a new society. “Unemployment, not radicalization, is the biggest obstacle facing young Somali men,” reads a recent story in The Atlantic that quotes a community leader from Minnesota, one of the top destinations for refugees coming to America. The lack of a sense of belonging propels many young people to seek personal identities through extreme ideologies.
Alex Lahti, my co-designer in The Carpet submission, shared the story of his great grandfather, Alec, who immigrated to the Copper Country of Upper Michigan in the late 19th century. He fled famine in hopes of finding prosperity in America; he spoke little to no English and the only job he could find was as a labourer in the copper mines. After observing how constant mechanical failures caused delays in the mine, he taught himself how to carve replacement castings for broken components. His skills gave him a job above ground, and eventually, served as a springboard for his future success as a respected member of the community. In fact, this success was multi-generational; his son, Leonard, served as mayor of their small town.
Gaining employment skills is critical for new families to get established and grow. However, many new migrants fail to seek help because of the intimidating formality of the process, which is so unlike the less formal cultural practices they are used to. To that end, The Carpet replaces the formal nature of desks with conversation pits that allow people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a familiar and homely conversational setting.
Women often take on the role of primary child carers, and therefore experience more obstacles in job seeking and social activities. We wanted to make a place for families, for everyone. More flexible than fixed structures, the individual elements and play blocks can be easily rearranged for a variety of uses, and their highly adaptable layout means the same Carpet that serves as a playpen in the morning can serve as a meeting venue in the afternoon.
According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) report, “During 2014, conflict and persecution forced an average of 42,500 individuals per day to leave their home and seek protection elsewhere.” In 2015, more than a million migrants entered Europe. The challenges of integrating the new arrivals will continue over many years.
Globally, the interest of designers providing proposals to address immigration underlies its importance as one of the major social forces at work today. In 2016, Johan Karlsson and IKEA Foundation made the flat-pack refugee shelter from recyclable plastic. The marquee-like shelter can accommodate a family of five; it also provides necessary thermal insulation that was often neglected in early versions and can be assembled in as little as four hours.
For design to begin to address the enormity of this issue, designers will need to look to affect it at many scales. Our proposal focuses on triage–or immediate intervention when an immigrant arrives–in order to provide them with the resources they need to integrate into society. Welcome Home.
Lei Zhang is a designer in the Houston studio.