Home, sweet Home

The last two weeks we made some research at the Refugee Camp at ICC Messe Berlin. The very nice volunteer Berivan showed us around and we had the chance to talk directly with the people.

The first time we visited I was surprised how „good“ the atmosphere was. I somehow always thought a refugee camp would be a very sad place, but children were running around playing and everyone was kind of open and nice to each other (from my point of view).

The ICC Messe is a former congress centrum which was recently rebuilt to be a refugee camp. The Big Main Hall is segmented with thin white walls into something like 40 rooms that look like roofless boxes. Instead of doors there are blankets and towels covering the entrances. There are no windows; in this main Hall the light comes from tubes in the ceiling. Inside of each room there are 4 bunk beds, so in total 8 people per room (familys are usually separated and live in private rooms, also: the rooms are separated by gender).

Usually the rooms don’t have any kind of furniture inside, but the one we were sitting in had a big picnic table and a bench and also a bunch of office chairs. We got offered very sweet black Tea in plastic cups and started sharing stories.

Firstly we asked how people organize themselves in the room.

The Camp is designed for people to stay around three months, but most of the people are staying six or more. There are only the bare necessities provided. For example there are no possibilities to unpack the backpacks or suitcases, which are probably unpacked since the beginning of the journey. Thats why the people find solutions, for example they pull out nails from the wall and hang their cloth on these nails. Or they found a piece of metal string which they also used to hang cloth from. There are also some card boxes used as bed table and chest. Hussam (who is diligently learning German) pointed at one of the card boxes saying „Kühlschrank“. We were laughing but it was true! tomatoes, cans of beans and a lot of eggs were stored there. Also under the bed was a lot of food (maybe the darkest and coldest spot in the room). The reason for that is that they don’t always like food by the caterer and of course you get hungry between the official „meals“. They boil the eggs in a water cooker by the way!

Another interesting observation was a little plastic cup full of washing powder.(they usually give the dirty cloth away to the washing and get them back clean) Hussam told us that he likes his shirts to be without creases and because there is no way to iron,he washes them with his hands and drys them in the room. That was eye opening for me because, yes they might have nothing but they have dignity and preferences! they start a living.

Also very interesting is that in the bunk beds the bottom bed is the preferred bed because they can build a little privacy by hanging towels and sheets at the upper bed. The upper bed is always dependent on the main light system which is switched off at 11 in the night.

Berivan told us that in one room they build constructions out of a broken bunk bed so that also the upper bed could shield from the light.

Another very striking construction was a piece of wood sticked to the wall with duct tape which was supposed to be a smartphone shelf, to watch movies at night.

Also they put pictures from magazines on the wall to make the atmosphere a little more cosy.

But still even if they find the possibility to hack something there is a lot of stuff just flying around in the room.

There was a lot of creativity to make the most out of the given, bit still no tools or materials. Berivan told us they used to give out tools, but because they never came back so there are no tools anymore. What if we could support the already existing creativity by opening a space for tools and materials? encouraging them with their ideas and hacks?

The tool collection should not be difficult, but…

…do you think you could get permission?

Another think that you might consider was pointed out by Alex (volunteer in Calais/ Dunkirk camps) in a response to Milan’s similar efforts: “My suggestion is first to ask them how you can help, rather than guessing. We talk to community leaders on the camp every 2 weeks and ask for suggestions so we can improve our processes”  That conversation is here, should you wish to exchange ideas.

Very excited to see you guys doing so much practical research, keep it up!

Not so much difference

Hi Tomma,

Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s fascinating to see that there isn’t a huge difference between the way people react to their spaces in an official camp and an unofficial camp like the Calais ‘Jungle’.

Noone ever likes the food that is provided.

Are residents allowed out of the camp during the day? Are they allowed to bring anything they want back in with them? Or are they basically in detention?

Because if the can leave and bring anything back in then why not provide a space nearby where they can come and collect donated items, tools etc in exchange for doing something else (e.g. cooking food for a cafe, running a cafe, teaching arabic, sharing their culture etc)


Hey Alex and Noemi!

thanks for your support. To your questions Alex: Yes they are allowed to leave the camp. Its kind of hard for them to bring friends inside who dont live there though (pretty weird feeling because it was so easy for us to enter)

We actually had a little experiment today and brought materials like duckt tape, cable ties, strings, cardboard (materials that you dont necessarily need proffessional tools for) to one room to see what would happen. Just after a little time os insecurity they started finding solutions in terms of “unpacking”. That seems to be the biggest issue… The room is a organised mess and they wanted to have items to put their stuff in. It was a really cool experience to see how everyone together was solving problems. In the end we had two really nice shelf constructions!

There is a lot of unused material inside the camp, that is going to be thrown away… if there would be better communication between the organisation and the refugees they could probably use these too… (to be fair: the Malteser who are running the camp are already having kind of good communication… so far we only good positive feedback and lots of permissions!)

But i really like the idea of going out of the camp to get materials, also because in the end its about not only having the courage to hack the “comfort zone” but to feel able and free in the “outside world” (that is really a feeling of home)

Hi Tomma,

You final comment here about wanting people to feel confident engaging not just in the ‘safe space’ but also in te wider world is something that i have been thinking a lot about.

I frequently have conversations about the idea of ‘agency’ (in the sense of action or power) within the refugee community as so many of the relationships i see created and perpetuated are unnecessarily heirarchical (e.g. we give, you take/ we teach, you learn)

Creating solutions that don’t treat displaced people like children is really important to me. I look forward to hearing what happens next for your project.



I am trying to interest the EC’s Policy Innovation Unit in the idea of a “self-organized camp”, based on the intuition by @Alex_Levene – and now this confirmation by @Tomma and others.

But, I am not holding my breath. I will keep you guys posted.

What about training volunteers to welcome next refugees

Hi there, i’m following this interesting discussion. I wonder if making possibile for the people inside the camp to be trained to welcome coming refugees (e.g.: moms helping with the arrival of next mothers in terms of understanding the needs, welcoming mothers, showing them around the camp and the area, taking contacts with the staff) and let them re-configure the camp as a collective action taken by the guests themselves to welcome better new refugees might help to overgo frustration and lack of communication. Having a daily goal -especially a shared one- might help and leaving one day the camp knowing that you did a part to make a better place of it would turn a “senseless part of my life” in a good memory of commitment and engagement.

Ideally this would happen

Alex and Tomma can of course give you a more informed view, but on the top of my head I ask myself what goes in the mind of someone who landed there and expects this to be temporary and short, only to see that days go by and turn into months. Volunteering is predicated on some sort of idle capacity - but would those trapped perceive that they have that time? with being busy to figure out their own situation and wanting to escape it… (Alex makes the point of difficulty to engage here - fyi I very much liked the idea of going through community leaders to see what possiblilities are worth trying or not).


Hey everyone,

thanks for your thoughts! The idea of an “interactive camp” whithout the usual hirachies seems like a very interesting alternative. We are staying in contact now with the people from ROC 21. They are working on new and better structures for refugee camps. Because its important not to separate the different “problems” from each other but to organize the camp differently from the very first:

“We will realize a dynamic and open space of opportunity, growth and co-creation. Everything will be developed participatively, combining the knowledge and cultural needs of refugees and the local population alike. Activating our diverse network of architects, facilitators, academics, designers and social innovators, we will draft a modern and sustainable set of interven- tions that can be combined according to the given needs.”

and as it happens they are trying it right now here in Berlin! we are going to meet next week, I will report! (check them out here: http://www.roc21.net)

The idea of using the the knowledge, the creativity that is already in the camp as the source to teach and learn is really nice. But I do get Noemis point that the people in the camps, (which are intended to be short term), probably wont be too motivated to start a big project, because actually they hope they can move to a better place as soon as possible.

But in fact people are having a lot of time! and they are really bored. But also very very worried. That must be a horrible state of mind. What can we do with it? The experience in the camp where we were building stuff all together, was really nice because we were doing something with our hands and totally forgot the situation around us.

Late to the party

Hi @tomma I wrote you a PM. If there still is something I can perhaps help with give me a ping. Regarding tools there are certain methods that use almost 0 tools but can still get a lot done. https://cocreate.localmotors.com/nowbreakit/epoxy-minimal-mess-small-footprint-approach/

Epoxy is not cheap (unless it is a day over shelf life - ask around at boat builders or wind power manufacturers, perhaps in Rostock) but it can get a lot of stuff done. If you put some glass fiber (ask the same people for scraps) on the cardboard honeycomb it becomes very strong (but only moderately so in compression).

You should not work where people live, and have good ventilation (wear glasses, gloves, read the fine print), but composites experience is very marketable, especially if you can work clean and precise.

Is there magnetic stuff around (bed frames, parts of walls)? If yes you can buy a big batch of magnets (the strong ones are neodym) and use them to fix wall paper, fabric or similar. They can be pretty small and cheap and still get a lot done, also for improvised electronics.

Do people use batteries a lot? Perhaps you can switch to rechargeable - with some help from Panasonic? You can build powerpacks for mobile electronics. A very basic kit will let you do a Repair Cafe and bring in more tools and parts (talk to Ifixit.com). A small amount of epoxy will also come in very handy there.