There’s nothing more natural for parents than the desire to give their children a safe home. But how do families who flee war zones begin to rebuild their kids’ sense of security? For this year’s IKEA catalogue we visited our partner UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in Greece to see how our support is helping refugee children. This story is featured in the 2017 catalogue on page 161.
Outside each plastic-panelled shelter, you see pairs of shoes. Many are muddy and dusty, evidence of the long journey taken to get here. They sit lined up outside door after door, a glimpse of the people within – parents, children, aunts and infants, who fled their homes in fear. Taking off your shoes at the door is a familiar custom, one many of us share. And here in a refugee camp, it demonstrates something powerful – a deep respect for the idea of home, however tenuous or temporary.
For many refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war – a battle that has raged since 2011 – home is a flat-pack shelter. Initially funded by the IKEA Foundation and designed by Swedish social enterprise Better Shelter in cooperation with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), they are one-room units that offer refugees in camps more dignity, safety and privacy than the tents that have been used since World War II. They have four walls, windows, room to stand straight up – and even a lock on the door.
“Moving into a shelter means this might be your home for a while, and being able to close a door behind you – and lock it – means so much,” says Märta Terne, the communications manager at Better Shelter. “It’s something that a lot of us take for granted – those private moments and private spaces you have for yourself.” “Being able to be alone or with your family inside a controlled space is important, especially for people who have experienced such trauma,” she says. “They need to feel safe, be able to close that door, and just relax for a bit.”
Since 2015, UNHCR has ordered about 15,000 Better Shelters, which have been deployed by the refugee agency in seven countries. But two of those countries – Greece and Iraq – particularly illustrate the ways in which Syrians have responded to the crisis and how these shelters are housing refugees from just a few days up to many years.
“We consider this our house now”
Most Syrians have escaped to neighbouring countries – like Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan – where a shared culture, language and religion make the transition much easier. Thousands end up in refugee camps, like the ones in the relatively quiet northern Iraqi cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, waiting for the war to end. They live in limbo, with little freedom to move around and no access to jobs or education. And while they wait, they do what any of us would – they make their Better Shelters feel more like home.
“The camps in Iraq are a bit more permanent,” Märta says. “People have had a chance to bring more personal items and have spent more time decorating the shelter with textiles on the inside to make it more personal. They, in a sense, accept that this will be their home for a period of time and choose to make it cosy.
A few hundred kilometres east of the Syrian border, there are thousands of Better Shelters erected in the two camps here. They are far better than fabric tents, especially when the Iraqi winters turn cold. The floors are raised up to provide insulation, while the hard plastic walls stop the wind and provide a sense of privacy you can’t get in a tent.
“Of course, we can’t compare this housing unit with our real home back in Syria, but there is a huge difference compared to living in a tent,” says Noveldin, a Syrian refugee living in the Kawergosk refugee camp in Erbil, who asked that his last name not be used. “We consider this our house now.”
Outside many of these modular shelters – which can be assembled in just a few hours – you see people cleaning the panels, hanging up laundry or tending to the flowerbeds and small fences they have put up to recreate something from home.
“All of these symbolic actions and items really make you feel more at home,” Märta says. “These might be specific to certain families or cultures, but I think they’re very essential. They wash the shelter. A lot of people put rugs or carpets outside to remind themselves of home – and safety. They take pride in their home, even if it’s not one they chose.”
“Most refugees are not what you see reflected on TV, ” says Jonathan Spampinato, communications manager for the IKEA Foundation. “They’re moms and dads taking their kids across the sea, the ocean and the desert on a very dangerous journey to have a better life.”
The safety and security a lock can bring
An estimated 10 per cent of Syrian refugees have chosen a dramatically different path – one that has taken them on a perilous and sometimes deadly journey across the Aegean Sea to Europe. Many ended up in temporary accommodation facilities like Kara Tepe on the Greek island of Lesbos, a place where they can feel secure and get access to services and protection.
“It is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience,” says Boris Chesherkov, the UNHCR spokesperson on Lesbos. “It’s emotionally taxing for all of us. When you see the level of desperation they felt to take this extremely dangerous journey, you understand that your role has meaning.” Since 2015, more than a million refugees have transited through Lesbos.
People like Anouar*, a 40-year-old former taxi driver from Aleppo, Syria, who fled the city of his birth – and the family home his father built – with his wife and five children. A rocket fell just blocks from their house, causing part of it to collapse. And with Aleppo crumbling around them, they fled through Turkey and onto a smuggler’s boat to Greece.
They came with nothing but their ID cards and the clothes they were wearing, unable to salvage anything from their house – no photos, no keepsakes, no record of their lives before. “When there are no loud sounds, no planes, no shooting, I can make my kids go to sleep,” says Anouar’s, wife Amina*. “In Syria when the planes came, the kids woke up and cried and screamed. This was from the war. My kids can sleep here and relax more.” Refugees are called guests in these camps, a show of respect by the authorities, UNHCR and other organisations that facilitate a range of services. Three meals a day, hygiene items like soap and baby diapers, and a place to charge their mobile phones are all provided.
But the Better Shelter is where they spend most of their time. “Locking the door is excellent,” Amina says. “This is something that makes us feel safe and secure. My kids will not just walk out. We care about the personal belongings we have and now we keep them without worry.”
Even though they stay just a short time, they make an effort to carve out personal space for their family – likely the first safe space since their escape.
“They stay for a short time, but they instantly start making it their own home,” Märta says. “They wash their clothes and hang them up outside or inside the shelter. They create a cosy corner with blankets. And you can see shoes outside every shelter because they want to keep it clean. Finding a home and a safe space, even though it’s temporary, is very important.”
This notion of what home” is for a refugee and how it could be made better was a particularly powerful idea for the IKEA Foundation, whose mission is to create better opportunities for children.
“There are currently about 60 million forcibly displaced people in the world, and of that about 50-60 per cent are children,” says Jonathan Spampinato, communications manager of the IKEA Foundation. “That’s Canada. Imagine a country the size of Canada filled with children without a safe place to call home, living in a camp somewhere. It’s probably the single greatest need that children have – a place to sleep and a place to live.”