Refugee camps are often considered as temporary places built in response to an emergency crisis caused by wars and natural disasters. They are put in place with the view that a more permanent settlement will be provided elsewhere in the medium term for the displaced population. However, this is rarely the case as demonstrated through various previous studies which shows that they often end up being permanent as is the case of Palestinian refugees camps in Jordan for example.
Because of the urgency in providing basic shelters for a large displaced and distressed population, it is frequently the case that the design of these camps follows a ‘top-down’ humanitarian aid strategies. These strategies are frequently based on universal standardization of shelter and settlement layout, allowing for a rapid and temporary provision that will eventually be dismantled and removed. These camps have consequently often been considered as a ‘space of paradox’ because they place the forced displacement in a space that neither feels right nor is wanted by their host nation state (Huynh, 2015).
Taking as a case study the Syrian refugees Zaatari camp in Jordan, this paper illustrates the processes of adaptations and transformations that have taken place between 2012 and 2019, as initiated collectively by the residents of the camp. It illustrates how in situations of social stress, collective initiatives empower refugees to customize and adapt their environment, expand opportunities of income generating activities and social interaction and to thereby allow them to find dignity, meaning, and create a sense of place form a non-place. This paper illustrates how from an initially rigid masterplan and sterile environment, the collective spirit of self-organising and creativity, transformed the camp into a more sophisticated hybrid urban environment. It demonstrates how refugees navigate through rigid regulations to creatively transform their living environment by collectively repurposing, adjusting, dismantling, merging spaces and structures, producing patterns of urban living that resonate with their recent past. This paper argues that when refugees collectively reimagine the camp as a hybrid urban space, they can make positive changes to both their individual and collective lives.
Lessons of ‘bottom- up’ collective place making are drawn from the examination of the transformations made by refugees to the camp over a seven-year period.