Graduate student recognized design analyses of Syrian refugee camps

A photo of Dima Abu-Aridah in a headscarf, sitting in front of a computer.
A native of Jordan, Dima Abu-Aridah was named the recipient of the Graduate Student International Research Award for her work analyzing and reimagining the design of Syrian refugee camps in Jordan to improve the experiences of the displaced individuals occupying the spaces.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While refugee camps are designed with the intention of being temporary, provisional spaces, many refugees end up spending decades in the spaces due to ongoing conflicts in their home countries. Observing the toll of long-term living in short-term spaces on humans prompted a Penn State graduate student to focus her doctoral research on analyzing and reimagining the design of Syrian refugee camps in Jordan to improve the experiences of the displaced individuals occupying the spaces. Dima Abu-Aridah, an architecture doctoral candidate in the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture's Stuckeman School, was recently named the recipient of the Graduate Student International Research Award, which “promotes and supports international research and scholarship by graduate students that has potential for global impact,” according to the Penn State Graduate School website. Abu-Aridah, who is originally from Jordan, said she's always had an interest in refugee camps, particularly since about “30 percent of Jordan's population is refugees,” she said. “I've watched the refugee camps in Jordan grow from that emergency phase of just housing refugees in tents, and then developing into, basically, established, temporary cities,” Abu-Aridah said. Since 2011, more than 14 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes due to the country's ongoing civil war, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 6.8 million Syrians remain internally displaced in their country, while 70 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. Additionally, 5.5 million Syrian refugees live in the five countries neighboring Syria — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. As many refugees have been unable to return to their country for more than a decade now, Abu-Aridah focused her research on understanding how refugees have recreated their social and spatial lives, and how they reformed their physical homes and social identities while living in camps. “The title of my dissertation [‘Who Designs the Camp?'] expresses my main argument of ‘Who actually designs the camp?' Is it the governmental bodies that are taking responsibility for managing camps and telling people how to live? Or is it the refugees who are leading the social, physical and spatial life inside camps?” Abu-Aridah said. Abu-Aridah has focused her research on the camp of Zaatari in Jordan, which has become the largest refugee camp in the world. In 2022, a decade after it opened, Zaatari was still home to 80,000 people, according to the UNHCR. “That camp has grown over time, kind of in an informal way, and yet all of those growth patterns were refugee-led — they made changes according to their own social or physical needs,” Abu-Aridah said. Abu-Aridah collected data on site in July and August 2022, interviewing 65 households about their housing and living experiences in Zaatari. It was Abu-Aridah's first time visiting the camp, although she said she plans to return for more fieldwork in December. She said she was greatly impacted by the comments of many of the people she spoke to during that visit. “One refugee said to me, ‘I just want to live the way I lived in Syria,'” Abu-Aridah said. “She was explaining to me how she used to live back home, and I saw that she and her family were trying to reconstruct the same lifestyle they had, even though they don't have access to all sorts of wellbeing in the camp… or a life that provides dignity in the camp.” A pattern was noticeable of various families attempting to grasp elements of their past lives within the camp, particularly some of the “symbolic meanings of the homes they had in Syria,” according to Abu-Aridah. The temporaneous nature of resources and housing in camps is at odds with the lack of future clarity for many refugees.
“People were saying, ‘We don't know what will happen next. We're currently in a camp, and it's like an open jail. We don't know the future, but there's no future in this camp,'” — Dima Abu-Aridah
Unlike spaces designed for long-term living, the design of refugee camps ignores several key considerations, according to Abu-Aridah. For example, no thought is given to separate spaces for genders within a family unit, or providing parents with their own space. In Zaatari, the only criteria considered when giving shelters to refugees is household size. So, a household of five members receives a prefabricated unit of 15 square meters, Abu-Aridah said. Abu-Aridah's research observes how refugees have been working to cope within these confines, while also thinking of ways to avoid these problems initially through more considerate designs. “I'm exploring the patterns of [refugees] trying their best to reconstruct their lives back home, and then trying to create some kind of design system based on their experiences to help create future camps that are based on people's social, cultural and physical needs,” she said. As Abu-Aridah continues to analyze the data she's gathered, she said she hopes one of her study's contributions is to develop a generative socio-spatial design tool that can help create human-centered modular refugee settlements and transitional shelter designs. Abu-Aridah said she's focused on developing this tool for long-term use, rather than specific design ideas with this research. “This tool can respond to human physical, spatial and social needs, especially in temporary or protracted situations,” she said. Although Abu-Aridah's research for her doctoral dissertation has been mainly in relation to Syrian refugee camps, she previously conducted research on camps that are housing Palestinian refugees for her master's thesis, which she completed at German Jordanian University. “Dima has had a compassionate approach to the refugees,” Rebecca Henn, associate professor of architecture at Penn State and Abu-Aridah's dissertation adviser said. “Her aim is to acknowledge the humanness of refugees that are conceptualized as temporary residents but, in fact, spend decades in these places.” Henn noted the timeliness of Abu-Aridah's work, saying it's important to think about how refugee camps hold a significant worldwide population — “from those fleeing Ukraine to those who must flee due to an environmental disaster.” Abu-Aridah said she's benefited greatly from the support of Henn and her research committee, as well as Penn State as a whole. The university had to work with the Jordanian government and the UNHCR to make it possible for her to access Zaatari to conduct research. Also noting the ongoing need for design attention in overlooked places, Abu-Aridah said she plans to continue pursuing design projects with strong human interest after she receives her doctorate in summer 2024. “[Refugee camps are] an issue, like other humanitarian issues, that I really care about,” she said. “And shelter and habitat are a major part of any kind of humanitarian setting.” Abu-Aridah, who is a researcher in the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing, is planning to graduate with her doctorate in architecture from Penn State in May 2024. For more news from the Stuckeman School, follow us on Twitter @StuckemanNews.