When we think of cities, we usually imagine buildings new and old, and the vast networks of infrastructure, transportation, and commerce that connect them. We think of places with history and a sense of home. We probably wouldn’t think of a place like this, Kiziba Refugee Camp in western Rwanda, which I visited a few weeks ago. Established in 1996 as a temporary settlement, it has grown into a small city of 16,000 inhabitants in an isolated part of the Rwandan countryside.
Of course, a camp like Kiziba is not a city in the traditional sense. It exists in a blurry space between temporary and permanent, between confinement and independence. The people who live here haven’t been able to return home because of prolonged conflict in their country of origin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And because of their physical isolation and state of legal limbo, they can’t enjoy the benefits of Rwandan civic life.
Also, a camp like Kiziba can create a considerable strain on the surrounding host region, as inhabitants have to share resources that in many cases are already scarce.
Places like Kiziba exist throughout the world. And as the number of displaced people continues to grow, the livelihood of both refugees and their broader environment is increasingly at risk. Which leads to the big research questions for this study— How can refugee settlements become a sustainable asset, rather than a burden, to the hosting region? What roles, if any, can architects and planners play in creating this mutually beneficial relationship?
But before I go further, I’ll talk briefly about how Ennead got involved in this project.
About a year ago, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, approached Stanford University for assistance in rethinking the design, administration, and support of refugee camps. This led to a workshop at Stanford headed up by Law Professor Tino Cuellar, who spoke at our office last fall. The workshop included a diverse team of professors, students, as well as professionals, like our own Don Weinreich, who got together to brainstorm innovative solutions to the growing need to protect refugees.
When Don invited me to collaborate in this effort, I thought, I really know nothing about refugee camps. But I remember him responding that it was precisely this lack of familiarity that Stanford wanted to capitalize on to create new ideas. So, I jumped at the opportunity, not having even the slightest idea that it would eventually lead to a journey across the globe to see an actual camp in person.
Don and I researched camp planning standards… and realized that the universal grid system, that starts from the family unit and then aggregates to community, block, sector, and module) hasn’t really changed much since the UNHCR’s founding in the 1950s. Also, it doesn’t really take into account long-term growth or connection to surroundings.
We also learned that a refugee spends on average 17 years in a camp. We analyzed existing settlements, and found that many, like Dadaab (a Somalian refugee camp in Kenya), isolate a disproportionately large population of refugees from any neighboring towns, villages, or urban centers.
Looking for inspiration, I thought back to my previous research in Medellin, Colombia, where I travelled in 2011 through a grant from the Architectural League of NY. Here architects successfully connected the previously disjointed, war-torn communities to the city’s growing stock of social and cultural resources. This happened not only through iconic designs, but also through the creation of safe, accessible pedestrian networks sensitive to the informal urban fabric of the poor mountainside neighborhoods and responsive to the voices of its residents..
So, in collaboration with Monica Noro, a Geneva-based architect and UNHCR’s Chief of Shelter and Settlement Section, we proposed an alternative way of thinking about settlement planning that identifies possiblities for linked program that meets both emergency needs of refugees and developmental opportunities of existing populations; we considered how to gradually link to surrounding areas over time; and how to facilitate the sharing of public space and mixed-use infrastructure to promote socially cohesive, locally integrated communities.
After presenting the concept to a class in Palo Alto, several conference calls, and almost going on a trip to Chad (canceled for security reasons), I was invited to travel to Rwanda by Stanford and UNHCR to inform and refine our study with field realities and concrete challenges on the ground.
I went along with a team consisting of Monica, the aforementioned Chief of the UN’s Shelter and Settlement Section, Aparna, a grad student at Stanford, Liz Gardner, a Stanford professor and Associate Director for Programs, and Mahamat Alhadi, an architect from Chad based with the UNHCR in Rwanda, who basically put together our entire trip. It was a great experience to travel with and learn from all of them.
What we hoped to understand by being there in person was how architecture and settlement planning influence not only refugee livelihood, but their interactions with local host communities. We hoped to learn if conditions on the ground could inform a systematic approach to linkages between refugee communities and their surroundings.
Rwanda is a small country, about the size of Maryland, in Central-East Africa. After political instability and the subsequent 1994 Genocide, Rwanda has rebuilt itself into a peaceful, economically stable country. For the past decade and a half it has been granting asylum to refugees who have fled military conflict in the neighboring country to the west, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We carried out our research over the course of eight days, from May 21st to May 28th, and visited all four camps in the country. I think Rwanda turned out to be the ideal place to visit, because it presents a broad spectrum of camps with varying levels of successful interaction between locals and refugees.
We documented the physical features of the refugee settlements and surrounding spaces, and investigated the organizational and operational factors at the camps by conducting interviews with officials at UNHCR field offices as well as the camps’ implementing partners. We also met with the refugees themselves, mainly through the framework of refugee committees, to hear their perspectives on the physical aspects of their camps.
In our mission report, we go into detail about our observations in the field. So you get a sense of the physical realities at the camps we visited, I’ll touch briefly on a few of these.
All camps are located on steep terrain. Driving through the country’s winding highways, and even getting pretty lost at one point, we quickly learned why Rwanda is called “Land of 1,000 hills”. Terracing and drainage construction are the primary manmade interventions at the camps to mitigate the risks of landslide and erosion. The steep slopes pose a wide range of challenges that affect not only the development of the camp but also access, circulation, and safety, particularly for children and the disabled.
Despite the relative isolation of some of the camps in Rwanda, they receive potable water from the regional system which pipes into local distribution points.
We viewed both old and new camps, and experienced the effects that time has had on layout patterns and density. Older camps have informal arrangements with extremely dense clusters of shelters. Newer ones have more ordered grid block layouts. Overcrowding, however, is an issue that permeates all the camps we viewed in Rwanda, owing in part to the steep topography and limited available land.
In one camp we visited, new arrivals temporarily stay in communal shelters while they wait to be relocated to their family shelter. Some have to stay in UNHCR tents depending on the urgency of the situation and availability of materials.
The majority of the homes that we viewed are the “semi durable” shelter type, like this one under construction, made of locally sourced wood pole framing, reed- and mud-plaster walls, and roofs of either plastic sheeting or corrugated metal. They are 4x3 meters, or about 12x9 feet in dimension, typically with one partition separating the shelter into two rooms. They provide very little space for the refugees, where many families of 6 people or more have to share extremely crowded quarters.
A civil engineer at Kiziba, the refugee camp I introduced this presentation with, showed us the public facilities that UNHCR and its implementing partners operate. They are all located within the camp and used primarily by the refugees—that, coupled with the physical isolation of the camp, makes it a less successful model in terms of local integration. These spaces include:
Educational Facilities like Early Child Development, Primary and Secondary Schools,
Multi-use spaces, where refugee committees meet to voice their concerns; A Health Center and health post, that provides treatments, medicine, and counseling to refugees; Food Distribution, where families receive rations of basic meal supplies;
And a central Market. While some interaction between locals and refugees happen at the market through the exchange of goods, the isolation of Kiziba and lack of access to already scarce community resources limit the creation of new opportunities for economic growth. One camp official I met at Kiziba expressed a desire for a vocational center, preferably outside the camp or at its edge, so that young refugees can not only learn productive skills, but also reach out to the greater region for job opportunities that could improve their livelihood in ways not possible within the camp.
In our larger report, we focus on how Rwanda’s newest settlement, Kigeme Refugee Camp, which was established in 2012, best represents the concept of local community interaction. Here, during the planning phase of the camp, the UNHCR collaborated with local authorities to include refugees in the use of existing public institutions such as schools and health care. It is important to note that the Congolese refugees share a similar culture and language with Rwandans. One camp management official at Kigeme said that the refugee and local communities “accept each other as brothers.”
UNHCR negotiated with a local church to share their existing school buildings between local Rwandans and Congolese refugees. To compensate for the extra burden posed on the host community, whose population increased by 50% with the arrival of the refugees, UNHCR and local authorities built 62 new classrooms adjacent to the existing schools. The agency hopes that if the refugees eventually return to the Congo, these classroom buildings would remain and continue to be used by the local population.
The initial planning of Kigeme Refugee Camp also includes the shared use of the local health center and hospital located in the surrounding community, about a km from the camp entrance. The hospital now serves the large influx of refugees in addition to its Rwandan patients. In return for this increased demand, UNHCR has contributed to the improvement of the hospital through equipment upgrades, new construction, and expanded personnel.
Since the camp has been in operation, the Congolese refugees and their Rwandan neighbors have also begun an ad-hoc sharing of spaces and activities.
One key example that we encountered within the camp is a Women’s Cooperative, a group of 200 refugees who set up a kind of workshop with local Rwandans and formed a micro-enterprise of crafts like soap, textiles, and clothing for sale within the refugee camp and in the greater community.They have also created opportunities for the women to engage with Rwandans outside the district, for example in a UNHCR-sponsored trip to the capital for a textile exhibition.
In addition to viewing the various sites, our team set aside time to analyze our findings and collaborate on some planning concepts. We learned that despite the harsh realities of the camps we viewed, especially the living quarters where the desire for even the slightest improvement is hindered by budget, land availability, and host government’ resistance to permanent shelter, the well functioning public spaces we saw can play an important role in improving livelihood, not only for the refugees, but for the local communities as well.
We sketched up a series of bubble diagrams that build upon the findings from the successful model at Kigeme, and seek to expand it in the form of a strategic architectural network of social, economic, and cultural spaces. We envisioned how the spatial allocation of functions can be designed to decrease refugee’s dependency on aid, widen refugees’ independence, and allow for a more comprehensive inclusion of the host communities.
What if a site is identified at the onset of an emergency that can capitalize on existing communities that already have public facilities in place to be shared in the early operation of a new settlement.
How can things like shared infrastructure and resources, like water distribution and pedestrian ways, begin to bridge these communities and promote free movement between and among them.
What if this grows into a connected ecology of sites that has at its center (what we’re currently calling) a Socio-Economic Hub, that fosters the shared use of Educational Institutions, Vocational Training, and Technology Centers. And can remain as an asset to the local community even after the decommissioning of the camp.
Just as importantly, how can we pay particular attention to the spaces between this Hub and the communities it serves… It might be as simple as a safe pathway to walk and interact, but could also double as the framework for collective agriculture, markets, and recreation.
On our last day in Rwanda, we presented these ideas to Rwanda’s UNHCR country Representative in the capital, who expressed her strong support for this community-based planning approach. We even began to talk about the potential to pilot a more developed and site-specific version of this master planning concept in a camp like Kigeme.
Because the associative life between refugees and locals unfolds in the spaces within and around a camp, local integration is to a large degree an architectural issue. A closer look at the structuring of these relationships not focused solely on the programmatic workings of the camp but also at the space between the camp and surrounding communities has the potential to yield greater benefit not only to refugees but also to the sustainability of the host population.
The observations from the field point to an advantageous shared use of space between Congolese refugees and local Rwandans, especially at Kigeme Refugee Camp, where burden-sharing among locals and refugees was an important part of the initial camp planning and continues to be during operation. This successful interaction is also partially due to the similar cultural and language background of the Congolese refugees and hosting Rwandans.
Generally speaking, when a de jure local integration as a durable solution for refugees may not be attainable because of insurmountable legal constraints, de facto (or informal) integration is a means for improved refugee livelihood through better access to new economic and social opportunities afforded by the host community. These opportunities are otherwise not available, or available only to a limited degree, in a camp alone. A master plan for a settlement and surrounding area should carefully bear in mind a transition from emergency response to sustainable local development, in order to structure opportunities for socio-economic growth within the region and contribute to the social cohesion of all its stakeholders.
The next steps for this project will be the development of a visual planning toolkit that integrates the concepts of shared spaces into a guideline that can be used by future planners in the field. We also hope to investigate participatory models to encourage collective decision-making in the design process for all stakeholders. And of course, we hope to continue this collaboration towards the pilot retrofit project in Rwanda.
Funding, budget cycles, political structures, and inter-institutional coordination will remain challenges to overcome for practical applications of a community-based master plan. It is critical to gain a better understanding of the quantifiable benefit that a refugee population can have on the hosting region. While much data exists on the effects of emergency aid, we know little about how to measure the social and economic benefits of longer-term development in the context of refugee/host-community relations. Nevertheless, the planning concepts set forth during our mission can serve as a catalyst for future investigation and implementation on the ground. A retrofit project in the context of the Rwanda operation could be a relevant step forward in practically demonstrating these advantages.
Rwanda, following its own practice of reconciliation and its commitment to peaceful coexistence with refugees from the Congo, has demonstrated that a path to locally integrated communities is possible. It’s a path with challenges ahead, but it lays the foundation for a new paradigm of community-based architecture that views refugees not as a burden, but as an asset. As a team we’re excited about its potential and hope to continue working on the project.
In closing, I’d like to share a quote from Bill Clinton, who, when accepting an award for his work bringing health care to Rwanda, said he envisioned a world “that has the characteristics of all successful communities: a broadly shared, accessible set of opportunities, a shared sense of responsibility for the success of the common enterprise, and a genuine sense of belonging”.
In addition to our field observations and research, our team set aside time to analyze our findings and produce the groundwork for our mission report. This included sketching some master plan concepts for a refugee settlement in relation to the local surroundings.
Monica and I drew through some ideas that considered how a connected network of spaces can grow over time that facilitates social, cultural, and economic exchange among refugee and local populations.
One scheme that we sketched created a socioeconomic “hub” in close proximity to new and existing settlements. We envision this space as a catalyst for cross-cultural exchange and improved livelihood for refugees and locals alike, housing program such as education, vocational, and recreational facilities.
We proposed “connectivity spines” linking new and existing settlements to promote free movement and communal space for market exchange.
As our last activity of the trip, we presented our findings and concepts to the UNHCR Representative to Rwanda.
Gihembe Refugee Camp
[above left] view of terraced school buildings; [above right] postings regarding refugee resettlement
[above] communal water point
[above] Large ravine at the edge of the Gihembe Refugee Camp caused by recent soil erosion.
Nyabiheke Refugee Camp opened in 2005 and is presently receiving large influxes of new refugees fleeing the DRC. Our visit demonstrated this initial emergency phase: we had the chance to view caravans of UNHCR trucks transporting new arrivals to the camp, temporary hangars where refugees await registration, and tents providing additional immediate shelter.
Meeting with officials and speaking with the refugees themselves revealed the positive outcomes of interaction with the local community at Kigeme. This became apparent through health care, education, and commerce.
[above] Prefabricated health post at Kigeme
Only a health post for preliminary health screening and check-ins exists within the confines of the Kigeme camp. For more serious matters, Congolese refugees are referred to local district facilities (Kigeme Health Center and Hospital) where UNHCR and the World Health Organization have recently upgraded the buildings, equipment, and personnel in order to increase the quality of services to match the increased patient base.
[above] Kigeme Hospital
A doctor at Kigeme Hospital told us that he is happy to receive the refugees as patients. Similarly, when speaking about the positive effects of this shared use of facilities, one camp management official said that the refugee and local communities “accept each other as brothers.”
[above] New classroom buildings
To provide education for the refugees in the camp, UNHCR facilitated a relationship with the local school system to share existing facilities with the local Rwandan community. New teachers were recruited (from both the refugee and surrounding population) and 62 new classrooms were built adjacent to the existing school to accommodate the large amount of new students. The camp officials explained that they hope for the new classroom buildings to serve as a long-term benefit to the local region after the refugees are repatriated. The government of Rwanda and UNHCR see the education linkage between refugees and the local community as a model for future camp planning.
[above] Inside the textile cooperative
Some of the refugees at Kigeme formed cooperatives with members of the local community to exchange skills and provide a venue for the development of independent entrepreneurship. Within the camp, we visited the space of a small textile business where a group of refugee women produce and sell fabrics and clothing to customers both within the camp and in the greater Rwandan population. These interviews brought to light the potential for inter-community exchange to create opportunities that improve the livelihood of refugees. Part of our design team’s task is to consider how careful planning and design might better promote these cross-cultural interactions, and how we integrate these concepts into a format that is useable by UNHCR planners on the ground.
[above top] Overall view of camp; [above bottom] Shelter roofs, Kigeme Site B
[above] Space modifications to typical 4x3m2 shelter. This small wood and mud-plaster addition typically houses a kitchen.
[above] Retaining wall to provide support against erosion and landslide.
[above] garbage and compost storage
[above] construction of a temporary early education building
[above] A refugee community choir sings in a temporary multi-use hall
[left] Children follow the group up the hill; [right] Mahamat and a creative young soccer player. Mahamat seems to know everyone at Kigeme!
Liz making new friends.
Leaving Kiziba, our team drove north to the Nyamagabe diistrict of the Southern Province, about 250km from the border with the DRC, to visit Kigeme, a recently opened refugee camp.
Kigeme opened in June 2012, on the site of a decommissioned Burundian refugee camp. As with Kiziba, the first camp we visited, the inhabitants of Kigeme fled the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to ongoing armed conflict. The camp houses over 17,000 Congolese refugees, 86% of which are women and children. Walking through the camp, this became apparent as we saw so many children throughout the site.
Camp Layout and Characteristics
Kigeme is located on two hills divided by a main district road, separating the camp into two sections, Kigeme A (original Burundian site) and Kigeme B (the newer and larger section). Like we saw in Kiziba, the shelters are of the “semi-durable” construction type (wood frame and mud plaster) although at this camp, the houses are provided with corrugated metal roofing. Conforming to UNHCR minimum recommendations and as seen in Kiziba, the shelters are 4m x 3m, and land area limitations lead to overcrowding. Some families who have access to additional materials add a small kitchen to the side of their shelter.
Because much of the land in Rwanda is hilly, topography presents a challenge at Kigeme. To mitigate risk from landslide, UNHCR terraced the earth to provide flat steps of land supporting the shelters. The organization’s engineers also designed a drainage system to divert stormwater runoff away from the terraces. While this earthwork makes for safer shelter layout, the steep conditions pose tremendous difficulties to elderly refugees and refugees with disabilities.
More on Kigeme to come…
Meeting with members of some of the refugee committees at Kiziba, our team hoped to gain a better understanding of the refugees’ perspectives, especially as they pertain to the camp’s layout and design. The president of the committee spoke first and expressed gratitude to the government of Rwanda for allowing his community to seek asylum in their country, and thanked the UNHCR for their collaboration with the state in order to ensure their protection. He and other committee members went on to describe issues such as the crowded conditions, unstable housing (calling for more permanent materials like brick and metal in lieu of wood and plastic sheeting), and lack of food quantity and variety. Other members spoke about the difficulties their children face because of limited access to secondary education. Hearing these hardships was painful, although I found it insightful to witness an organized system of community participation within the camp. I could sense from the UNHCR members present in the meeting that it is their intention to respond to these concerns and do all within their means to improve the livelihood of the inhabitants.
The president of the refugee committee addresses a community group in the multi-use hall.
On a second tour of the camp, a doctor from partner organization AHA (Africa Humanitarian Action) showed us the camp’s health center. Shared between both Congolese refugees and local Rwandans, the facility is functioning well, owing much to the dedication and hard work of the staff workers. We learned that disease outbreaks were controlled, and the HIV rate for refugees within the camp was less than 1%. While some areas like the lab and dispensary were crowded, compared to the other facilities at the camp, the health center seemed to have an adequate amount of open space (including a plot for patient gardening and small livestock).
[above] two buildings within the health center cluster
[above] A doctor from AHA shows us the health center
[above] a garden behind the health center
We then met with ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency), a partner organization with UNHCR, to discuss the state of education at the camp. The camp provides nine years of basic primary and secondary education, with classroom buildings located with in the camp. However,the last three years of secondary school are not accommodated on-site, leaving young refugee students to have to leave the camp to enroll in a school in the local community, which is a challenge because not every family has access to these locations (for financial reasons as well as distance). Vocational training used to be provided within the camp by a previous partner organization, but is currently lacking. One representative from ADRA noted that a new vocational center would be helpful for the community because it might serve as a link between the refugee population and the greater Rwandan community, as well as a productive return-on-investment for the camp itself (for example, carpentry training could provide needed skills to refugees while also creating an output of new classroom furniture and construction).
[above] Secondary school building (top) and officials from UNHCR and ADRA (bottom)
Earlier in the day during the committee meeting, I asked the refugee group if there was any interaction with the local community. The committee responded that interaction occurred and it revolved mainly around the provision and exchange of goods such as textiles and food. Walking through the camp and speaking with a UNHCR field official, we learned that the local community on some occasions leased land adjacent to the camp to refugees for tending agricultural crops and selling the produce in the local market. The isolation of the Kiziba camp, however, generally limits social interaction between locals and refugees as the nearest towns are a great distance from the camp.
After our tour of the camp, Monica, Liz, Aparna and I shared our thoughts on the visit. Taking into account our observations at Kiziba, we began to identify next steps for a new set of planning guidelines that could be useful to the UNHCR in providing both aid to future settlements and development assistance to host communities.
[above] Two views of the Kiziba Refugee Camp, one from the main access road (top) and another from across a valley cutting through the middle of the camp.
[above] Map of Kiziba camp
[above] A primary, unpaved road acts as a circulation spine.
[above] The main market in the center of the camp.
[above] The food distribution center—storage and staging area (top), and distribution counter (bottom).
[above] The interior of a corner store.
[above] Continuing along the main road. Surprisingly, on the right are some local Rwandan houses directly across from the refugee shelters. The local homes are made of the same construction except that they have corrugated metal roofs instead of plastic sheeting.
[top] close-up of the plaster walls and plastic roof. [bottom] A refugee shelter under construction.
This morning we spent a couple of hours in Kigali to meet with Neimah Warsame, the UNHCR Representative in Rwanda, along with a few of her colleagues. My understanding is that a key part of Neimah’s role is to act as the UNHCR’s liasion with the Rwandan government, directly engaging the state for land use negotiations, as well as seeking out fundraising opportunities and partnerships and overseeing the budgets of the four currently active refugee camps. We talked about Kigeme, a camp in the southwest of Rwanda. Despite the challenges posed by the crowded mountainside settlement and by the recent influx of refugees in the DRC, Neimah views this camp as a model in Rwanda for UNHCR’s community-based approach. By linking health and educational resources between refugee and the local host community, she explained, the operation of Kigeme reinforces the notion of burden-sharing between the two communities and is a practice that she hopes continues.
We left Kigali on a bumpy two-hour drive west to Kibuye, the town where one of UNHCR’s field offices is located, and Kiziba, Rwanda’s oldest active camp which houses about 16,000 Congolese refugees. In Kibuye, we met with Grace, UNHCR’s field leader for Kiziba. Underlining the common message heard about refugee camps in Rwanda, she stated that the steep topography is a challenge, as well as the scarcity of available land—the camp is built out to a maximum and has no more room for expansion. Most families are limited to only 12 square meters of space total, with very little open space between them, making the camp dense and cramped. Stacking vertically is not a viable option, as it would be cost prohibitive as the current level of construction could not accommodate this type of structure. According to Grace, there is not enough available land even for an 18x18m police post, a necessary facility to maintain security at the camp.
[Above]: Kiziba camp viewed from the road.
[Above]: Eric from ARC describing the layout of the Kiziba camp.
We walked through the camp in the afternoon, down a main road that cuts through the settlement. The overcrowding soon became evident as we saw the dense packing of houses, constructed with wood posts, mud/reed plaster walls, and plastic tarp roofs. The layout of the camp seemed organic—we learned from a construction engineer from the American Refugee Committee (the ARC, the camp implementing partner that carries out most of its operation) that when the camp was founded in 1996, the land was allocated by the government but the initial inhabitants self-settled, organizing the camps in a spontaneous manner without any over-arching military grid layout. Some of the communal facilities such as a multi-use hall and healthcare center are made of cement block construction and are mostly centrally located. The healthcare building, as we learned at the UNHCR field office, is also used by local host community residents.
We learned that access to potable water is not a problem at Kiziba; the site goes well beyond the country standard of 20 liters of water per person per day, providing 38. The lack of open space, however, seemed to be a real issue on the ground. The school and market are centrally located, but a long walk for inhabitants closer to the site’s edge. The overcrowding also limits opportunities for leisure and entrepreneurial activity, although some market exchanges happen with school uniform tailoring and hand craft sales. The real impact of the overcrowding became visible when we walked through the food distribution area, where we viewed many refugees tightly cuing for their family’s rations. While Grace explained to us that recent upgrades to the distribution area helped to ease access and circulation problems, work needs to be done to improve the system.
Returning to the UNHCR field office in Kibuye, Grace explained the local committees that the camp residents formed, pertaining to camp management, water, security, conflict resolution, and other concerns. The UNHCR gets feedback from these committees, and runs an annual analysis meeting called Age, Gender, and Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM) to help contribute to the refugee population’s self-sufficiency. There is not much interaction with local communities, however, as Kiziba is in a quite isolated location, far from any neighboring town center.
more photos to come (internet connection too slow!)
After dinner, Monica, Mahamat, and I chatted a bit more about site selection. I dug into the question of the role of geographic information systems (GIS). If a host government was willing to share geo-spatial data about state-owned land, such as proximity to educational and community resources, economic activity, and existing water and waste management infrastructure, could the UNHCR run an analysis on unused territories in order to find the ideal setting for a future refugee settlement (during the contingency, or preparatory phase) in order to maximize long-term host country benefit? The answer, according to Monica and Mahamat, is a complicated one. Host governments that are willing to host refugees are often inflexible as to which sites can be used for this end; many have specific ones already in mind that cannot be changed because of a political agenda, while others try to keep them spread apart and fill district quotas to not overburden specific areas. In other words, it’s not just about proving a bottom line economic benefit. More often than not, the camp architect/planner operates within a set of assumptions about land use, focusing only on one specific site that can be developed (or in some cases a couple of sites to evaluate).
The analogy came up: what if an architect was asked to design a project for a specific property but then decided to challenge the owner that there might be a better site elsewhere. Only after a thorough exhaustion of the first site proving that it is truly not a viable place to build, could the architect then propose another site analysis showing that the alternative is more suitable. In the realm of camp site selection, this would be a challenging, politically sensitive endeavor it would have to be framed correctly and sensitively to the host government’s needs and policies. But the leveraging of GIS in contingency stages for optimizing site selection may be a scenario worth investigating in the “next steps” phase succeeding this trip.
After two long flights and a layover in Amsterdam, we arrived in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Mahamat, a Chadian-born architect now working for the UNHCR in Kigali, picked us up at the airport and took the group to a nearby hotel. The five of us, including Monica Noro, a UNHCR architect and Chief of the Shelter and Settlement Section in Geneva, Liz Gardner, CISAC’s Associate Director for Programs, and Aparna Surendra, a Stanford Master’s student, met at the hotel to discuss the plan for the week.
We hope to individually tackle particular interests during our camp visits, including political and administrative issues relating to camp planning and host country leadership, socioeconomic dynamics, physical building features and camp planning challenges, as well as opportunities for local integration. While we plan on analyzing these issues on a site-specific level (for example, all four camps in Rwanda are situated on steep topography), we will also think about systematic shifts in camp setup, such as how contingency planning (site preparation before emergency response begin) can address long-term benefits to local communities as well as serving future influxes of refugees.
In addition, we will begin to develop a larger work plan for the weeks ahead in order to coordinate the efforts of the UNHCR, Stanford, and Ennead. Tomorrow we head west to Kiziba, Rwanda’s oldest camp housing refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).