Fostering Productive Potential in Refugee Camps

An experiment to encourage spontaneous creativity for making a living as a migrant

A short brief of what we have been working on so far is this.

With the many organizations already working with refugees in Berlin, we still felt a need for an approach from a different angle and also with a different focus:

Most projects for refugees are designed to specifically help the arriving families, children and the single travelling women; but the majority of refugees is barely taken care of in the same manner: the young men. It is an illogical equation: The young male refugees are often regarded as healthy and fit, able to work and therefore are not treated as a priority in terms of care. However; of what use could these benefits be if there is nothing to do? In Germany, refugees are not allowed to pick proper work for the first three months of their stay. After that period, a working permit is needed to apply for a job. The permit, however, is only granted if the person is no longer living in a refugee camp. Needless to say, the said three months often pass without anything really happening and three months slowly turn into six months and into a year - during which there is nothing to do.

We are currently working at the Internationales Congress Centrum (ICC) in Berlin- a former congress center that has recently been turned into a refugee camp. Even with the circumstances being unfavourable, the atmosphere at the ICC is quite the opposite: The interaction between the refugees and the staff and security is remarkably free and friendly. Volunteers playing with children; refugees and security joking around and everybody is eating at the same table. There is no hint of the provider/receiver-dilemma that you would witness in other establishments. We’ve been warmly welcomed by the people and the relationships have gradually grown more personal since our first visit.

The place is led by the Malteser; we were shown around the place by one of their very nice volunteers. She then introduced us to a room of eight Syrians, four of which were ready to help us in our project and provided us with insights.

Besides stories over everyday rituals like tea and Syrian home traditions, we were shown the little gimmicks to improve the bare rooms where they are living in at the moment: How they pulled out screws and nails from the walls to make clothing hooks; how you make a wall-mounted phone holder with just duct tape and a piece of wood; where to store the food; they showed us how they hack the beds to create more privacy and how to shield the light falling onto the upper beds with merely pieces of wood and a blanket to a point where one could create an entire ceiling with just white cloth.

We learnt quickly that the ideas of how to use the space could never occur to someone who has never been in that exact position:

It was evident that they know best about the needs and necessities in their very situation and environment.

With the creative potential, the only problem lies in the lack of tools and materials. To see what would happen if material were available, we made a little experiment where we brought basics like duct tape, cable ties, string and durable cardboard and looked what they would think of building intuitively. Despite scepticism in the beginning, it was beautiful to witness the moment when everyone in the room joined to figure out the best construction for a wall-mounted shelf, built with mortise and tenon joints. The fact the project was dealt with in such a manner, shows the willingness to engage these kinds of challenges with seriousness and a certain claim to quality and that it is not only about practicality and pure function, for such a shelf could have been easily assembled withjust tape and cardboard. It was fun for us to join the working process and thinking with them about the construction and making, but more importantly, it was fun for them to be challenged in making something useful and to make that beautifully. Mohammed, who came up with the idea of using joinery, later joked saying he would love to make such shelves for the whole camp - and we hoped, it was not merely a joke, but a mentality that we could continue to work with. In fact, we left all the spare materials in their rooms and by our next visit they had built another two shelves and a small storage for clothes under one of the beds.

Work in progress: Building a shelf


Image above: One of the shelves that Mohammed made after we left.

Mohammed’s mentality is exactly what we we’re looking for.

The question is if more people in the camp would share the same enthusiasm. Ideally, a craftsman could be found to take the role of a tutor to guide the others into the basics of building. On our last visit in the camp we learnt that the the camp’s organizers are taking help of one of the refugees who used to be a tailor. He now has his working space (a table with a sewing machine) at the intern clothes depot and helps fixing the garments before they’re given out.

We feel the answer to our problem lies in establishing and expanding that very concept in other camps as well - to involve people in the daily happenings and motivate them to do what they can do best. We will research the willingness amongst the refugees to join such a program as soon as soon as Ramadan is over.

Our plan to help people improving their living situation by building their own furniture is a first step in that direction. We are working on a solution that doesn´t require proffessional skills or tools, but motivates people and gives them the feeling of doing something useful for them and the community. To establish this first step we are going to launch a fundraising campaign on StartNext in the next weeks and we are happy about any kind of support! If you have suggestions or similiar/different experiences: please share!  So we can make this happen, as good as possible :slight_smile:

The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016.


Thanks for sharing. It’s highly surprising and instructive!

I understand the context is not favorable for such thinking as there are many unmet basic needs, however it wouldn’t hurt to give it some thought: in an exercise attempting to overcome the ‘disposable culture’, here some warm-up question I came up with:

  • How might we build reusable furniture in a refugee camps?
  • How might we build long-lasting furniture in a refugee camp?
  • How might we build environmentally friendly disposable furniture in a refugee camp?
  • How might we build furniture in a refugee camp that I'll want to keep later?

I don’t mean to say these are questions to be answered, rather just using them as stimulation to get to some other question(s). Or just forget about them if you think their rubbish! :slight_smile:

I’m thinking on strong materials but it could be many things really like making it personal, giving it an emotional side to it (more than it already has), for example using pictures of friends from the camp, signatures, words. Could this become some sort of ‘souvenir’? Could this be sold to the locals? (also serving the purpose of integration). Maybe it’s something that serves different purposes (multi-functions)?

Some inspiration: - cardboard furniture (

Again, thank you for sharing! :slight_smile:

Young men and construction materials

Thanks for sharing, @Tomma , and welcome to Edgeryders. This was really inspiring!

Exactly the same point about young men not being catered to was made by @Alex_Levene in the context of The Jungle. We have been fantasizing about “emergent” refugee camps being made of only a welcome committee, fast Internet and construction material; the newcomers themselves would build what they need.

However, authorities really dislike (one could almost say fear) such an outcome. Interesting stuff was built and deployed in The Jungle (even a theatre!), but then the people in charge started searching incoming vehicles for construction material. It was completely disallowed to bring anything to make anything into the camp.

How is the situation in Berlin?

thanks for the feedback!


These are exactly the questions we are dealing with right now. We started off with honeycomb cardboard as you see on the pictures because its very easy to work with even if you dont have proffessional tools. The Problem though: it´s not long lasting. The stuff we build with the the refugees about a month ago is already loosing its shape.

Thats why we´re currently working on prototyse out of chipwood tied together with cable ties. two cheap materials that you can get everywhere. The only tool needed is a drilling machine. One Set of wood panels can be assembled in three different ways according to the needs. The cable ties can be opened if the people want to build something else.

How can we make it personal though? Are people still motivated if every Box looks the same in the end?


The Camp we are working in, is quite open. As long as its not dangerous in any ways people can bring whatever they want.

That seems to be another Problem: every camp has different rules, so its almost impossible to find a general context.

Making personalized design

@Tomma first off: congrats for completing the course work, @Nadia was nice to give me a small update and I’m happy for you guys and hope you’ll continue on this road of very thoughtful design!

For ever new, exciting and personalized design, did you try talking to commercial furniture designers or the like… a company that could help take this even forward somehow? Or maybe the team at ROC21 can help?

This is a handmade table produced by the roma community living on the outskirts of my hometown, in a rubish dump <sigh>. The table was purchased by a hip bar downtown (I think that at an auction…) and is currently under great use. Photo from Made in Pata Rat facebook page. I will see if I can get in touch with someone who can better report on this story.

Some technical ideas

If you want to personalize with few resources - try making your own paint. I recommend you use non-toxic pigment (and still use masks - just to spread awareness), and there are a bunch of non-toxic to fairly harmless liquids to mix stuff into (e.g linseed oil*). You can get a lot done with mortar and pestle for personalization scale.

Other things that help are fabrics with nice haptic properties (you can sew together patch-work style). Needle skills are nice to have anyway if you want/have to live low budget. Just make sure you get good thread. Fabric will also improve overall acoustics.

Pull broken head-phones out of the trash and fix them (9/10 are broken at the jack, you can fix them with almost nothing, if you are good you can re-use the solder that is already on them. Then you only need a lighter/candle and e.g. some liquid adhesive and string to fix things permanently. A quiet atmosphere and my (home) sounds around me help my mood a lot.

LEDs are another option for color personalization instead of paint. If you DIY, just make sure you understand what resistor you need. You will need one unless you do plug in LED-bands which are relatively expensive (but still not bad, you could also cannibalize them). If treated right LEDs will last forever though.

*Not sure how well that works on particle board though. Epoxy is the solution that will always work (and can also be used to fix a lot of other stuff) but is potentially somewhat toxic, moderately expensive (if you buy a big just past shelf life bucket), and needs some know-how and tools to avoid a utter uncleanable mess. Hit me if you want more details.

Repair Café?

You could host a RC and perhaps keep some of the pieces for parts and training. Of course you can also encourage people to donate some semi-working things or decent enough tools (no one should work with shit tools!)

Hey @Tomma - I’m really glad to see such a constructive idea being realized in Berlin. It’s absolutely essential for a myriad of reasons. I was also wondering lately if you thought of taking similar activity one step further and creating sort of economy inside the temporary shelters/housing - so that the produce of the inhabitants could be sold outside, either as affordable fixes for the houses, or maybe as crafts, if higher quality materials were provided?

Well done, very proud of you

@Tomma, @dennis, @simon.messmer and Liza. We are now starting to push this out and having discussions with a number of foundations, Charities  etc ahead of the #OPENandChange fundraising tour which includes a workshop in Berlin.

It’s starting to get interesting :slight_smile:

Thanks for the feedback!

Hey everyone! We´re really happy about the feedback! thanks a lot :slight_smile:

From September i´ll be working at the ROC21 Project ( As I already gained a little bit experience at the SAVA project, they asked me to be part of the Team. I´m looking forward to that, because now we can think in bigger scales. We will try to build up a community inside the camp, where everyone is an active part. Thinks like an Urban Garden on top of the building or an actual woodworkshop are under discussion. But there are a lot of issues to face, for example how to motivate people @Natalia_Skoczylas it could go in that direction. Would be great to find some kind of reward for peoples work, even if it´s not money. I´ll keep you guys updated!

Besides that we still want to realise our modular furniture system at the ICC Berlin. The Malteser are very interested too and already said that 30 of them will be there and help with the workshop! We might get a sponsorship, but it would still be great if we could raise the money via our startnext Campaign. We´re still happy about support :)!

Also the ROC21 Project will benefit from the experience we´ll make at the Workshop.

Very promising start!

A #win already…  Congrats for the future work!

Will try to give your start next campaign an even bigger push over the next weeks,  well done!

Continue and learn yourself some programming skills :slight_smile:

Dear lovely people :slight_smile:

We started to create an online curriculum that can teach you programming and goes from “what’s a browser” to “how to build an app”. It’s free and you can have online chat support and if you happen to be in berlin, on tuesdays and fridays you can have face2face support at a local meetup :-)

In the future you will be equipped to start your self employed career - either by bootstrapping your own app/company or working as a freelance developer for agencies/clients/customer or whatever else you have in mind. You can work from anywhere if you have a laptop with an internet connection.


  1. The Curriculum…

  1. The Support Chat

  1. The regular berlin bases support face2face meetup

Don’t count on the government to magically create jobs. Get yourself some digital skills and start RIGHT NOW! :-)

Hope to see some of you people in the chat or in person at one of our regular meetups :slight_smile:

Nice, also if you want to do engineering…

Get some fairly decent CAD skills without the cost. And share some of what you make with the rest of us. allows CAD straight from the browser (of a decent computer or notebook). Check out who is behind it, those are some of the CAD Urgestein folks, and everything is fully legit.

Yes, it is a free/commercial program, but currently the deal is extremely fair.

Here is the nuts % bolts video, it is not exactly easy to learn from 0 with 0 help though:

Learn to write the wikipedia?

I’ve made a draft outline for a German centered effort to do this with the help of the refugees:

Arabic Wikipedia with Refugee Help

(download and rename to .pdf - I could not upload easily otherwise)

Hmm… didn’t work :frowning:

PM me if you are interested.


hello @serapath!

Thanks for sharing!

what you’re doing it’s really interesting! I would like to know something more… how many refugees are already involved? Which are the main results? Refugees need to have particular skills to start?

great :slight_smile:


We currently have around a half a dozen refugees involved in our e-learning program that actually learn and some more in the community, but we are pre-launch.

The platform has already ~400 refugees signed up and regular activity.

Refugees dont need any skills to start. we start with “whats a browser” and “how to create an email account” and progress to how to build your own web app over the course of ~120 videos for now. More will follow soon to diversify what can be learned.

The main results are refugees who started to build their portfolio pages and now know some programming and design. Other results include refugees who managed to get in contact with locals for paid gigs and/or voluntary activities to get to know locals.

“Work is the best pathway to connect newcomers with locals”

Nice to meet you @serapath, and what a good match with Franca.

She was saying elsewhere, in her own words, that language is key to connect newcomers to the new setting, but also arguing for activities like the ones you propose. Do you manage to break throguh the language barrier, or have people helping with that? Either way, well done, it seems there’s a lot you have going on and quite some activity (checked your live chat, great one hehe).

we dont encounter language barriers

They all seem to speak english.

Sometimes we have beginners, but we have other refugees around who help out.

…at least when it comes to teaching and IT skills.

Sadly, in germany many people do not speak english well and feel very uncomfortable when speaking it, so they rather dont speak it and

send everyone who doesnt speak good german home.

We hope teaching digital skills will help them find remote jobs or real jobs abroad.

Now I am also here


I also joined the discussion. Will try to describe how we started and what we are doing a bit more in details and will send it to you as soon as possible. Like the community here. Will check and read about the projects and share them with the world :slight_smile:

MA, Studienfach Migration und Diversität in CAU

If you are interested, there is now University program called “Migration and Diversity” in this University:

I found that out when discussing things with the people who help out at a refugee center close to there. There ought to be some mutual interest in some of the activities… apparently it is a new thing - so there is probably a lot of learning for everyone involved.