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nieuws  23-03-2022 

Hospitality as empowerment for refugees


Over the past half a century and more, Europe has been a destination for refugees from many places. Due to the recent invasion of Ukraine, however, a large portion of these refugees are suddenly coming from within Europe itself. In this new development, the geographic proximity of the crisis and the rapid policy action required from neighboring countries to assist refugees fleeing the war has also raised new legal and political possibilities. How can designers react to this and work directly with refugees to help them regain control and dignity in their own lives?


Today the professional association of Dutch interior architects, BNI, introduces Ilaria Palmieri, an Italian interior designer currently attending the MA course Interior Architecture (INSIDE) at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague.


After completing her baccalaureate in Italy at the Politecnico di Milano, she decided to challenge herself by studying at an art school, keeping in mind what someone once said to her: “To be a designer within an artistic environment is a privilege—being able to find possibilities through reaching people’s hearts.” She was attracted to the Netherlands by its open-minded and developing design scene.


Ilaria Palmieri


BNI reached out to Ilaria after coming across her master’s thesis, which she submitted just a month ago, entitled “To be a host in a hosting country. Hospitality as empowerment in refugee camps.”

Her research is indeed focused on the precarious situation many people must deal with while living in refugee centres. She questions whether a spatial understanding of the notion of hospitality could lead to interesting design proposals that would empower refugees and give them more control over their lives, despite the uncertainty they face.


BNI asked Ilaria some questions to gain a deeper understanding of the motivations that brought her to undertake this path as a designer here in the Netherlands, and to discover which goals she is pursuing. It is relevant to mention that our conversation with Ilaria occurs at a stage when she is just starting to translate her research phase into the design proposal.


Why did you decide to write a thesis on this topic?


Over the last years, I finished my studies, started office work, quit it, then started studying again, since I have been asking myself where my skills and my passions could make a relevant contribution to one of the most critical phenomena of (this) time: migration and displacement. In 2017, I had the opportunity to volunteer for an asylum seeker reception centre in Sicily. At the time I had just completed my Bachelor’s in Interior Design and I was eager to understand where my knowledge could better fit. In the weeks I spent at the asylum seeker reception centre, I asked myself if there could be a possibility for me to work for these people and these situations. Much has been said to this extent. Much has been criticised. Much has also been done. When I approached my research, knowing this frightened and discouraged me from pursuing this path. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if there might be a personal way for me to step into this field and to understand how the subject of the design, meant at its wider significance, could create a relevant perspective in approaching this topic.

The two main questions I tried to investigate with my research are:
How do we move from a place of surviving to a place of belonging?

How can offering hospitality to strangers be made a basis for the narrative of citizenship?


How can design interventions benefit people living in centres for refugees?


This question is particularly relevant for me at this stage of my work. I spent the last five months digging into research and writing about it, trying to get as close as possible to an honest understanding of the dynamics in refugee centres. My research has mainly been focused on the situation in Italy, but I am now trying to achieve a design that seeks to revisit the notion of hospitality that we are used to when talking about refugees.
The current Ukrainian crisis is teaching us a lot from this point of view. New possibilities are being put on the table concerning the policy for refugees. Why can’t design follow it up?
I am interested in a design that comes from the bottom up, not the other way round. Too many are the design proposals for shelters that come top-down. How can design intervene with what we already have? I am interested in a design proposal which explores the domesticity of current shelters for refugees; be it private houses, gyms, refugee centres, churches, and so on. As you see, I don’t yet have an answer to your question, but maybe my research can formulate an additional question besides: Which kind of design can intervene within the precarious situation of refugee camps? For sure a participatory and social design is the path I am pursuing at the moment. My research speculates on the domestic environment that may emerge through processes of listening, tracing, and drawing together with those living on the front line of precariousness inside refugee camps.


Is the role of design in refugee centres just functional or can it also be aesthetical?


The debate around functionality and aesthetic in architectural design has been part of my practice for a while. I can say with regard to my research that the notion of representativeness is particularly relevant. If we understand aesthetics as something that is concerned with the production of art, then I would say that the role of design in refugee centres can also be aesthetic, because it then derives from a collective action.


Were there challenges in writing your thesis?


My research explores how an understanding of a space can help in responding to the current situation of the increasing displacement of people across the planet. Many possible solutions are being given to the extent of providing shelters for migrants in precarious situations. Many of these solutions seem to attempt to normalise this precarity. But so little attention has been given to the perception migrants have of that precariousness.
How can my response to such phenomena go beyond merely providing shelter, to understanding the relationship between displacement and belonging?


To achieve this I needed, as said, to get as close as possible to the dynamics of refugee centres. But I encountered so many barriers to get into one camp or even talk to someone living there. This tells a lot about the accessibility, visibility, and possibilities to represent and even talk about these spaces. Rather than seeing it as an obstacle in proceeding with my work, I decided to take it as a challenge. When I finally realised I was not going to enter and document any refugee camps myself, I decided to elaborate a different methodology to research those places. Interviews and drawings became the tool for me to develop knowledge on the topic I was investigating. Along with that came the necessity to be honest regarding my research. Within this kind of work it is quite easy to cross the line and pass from being a researcher to being an outsider imposing their view on something. I have to say I am happy with how I conducted my research, I learned a lot.


How do we move from a place of

surviving to a place of belonging?


What have you learned about the role of design in refugee centres that you did not know before starting to write your thesis?


I definitely discovered the necessity to operate from the inside, to understand the dynamics that each refugee centre has, and that each typology of shelter has. I learned a lot about the relevance of participatory design. My research revealed how a sense of belonging to a place does not always lay in a physical claim of territory. Rather, it showed how the use of typology of spaces could be a fundamental tool to gain control of that territory. A control that could serve as support in the uncertainty of living in refugee camps. That control passes through the notion of hospitality. I met cases where refugees are not allowed to have visitors in the place where they temporarily live. They are not allowed to have friends over for dinner, sometimes they are not even allowed to cook. Refugees do not want to feel like they belong to these temporary structures. Yet, they spend a lot of time there and being in charge of the organisation and management of the social spaces inside the structures could be the tool that would empower them, giving dignity to their precarity. It is important to remark that, even if refugees do not explicitly look for a sense of belonging, there should be a right for them to dwell in the place where they are. I am very curious to discover what people living in refugee camps would do, which spaces would they organise if they had the chance to invite someone over; to invite someone in a place that legally does not belong to them; a place that is not a public one, but a place where they, after all, live.


So little attention has been given to the perception

migrants have of [their own] precariousness.


Do you see connections between your research and the current Ukrainian crisis, in which families are opening up their houses to host refugees?
Of course, I do see a connection. At the moment I am working exactly on this. The current Ukrainian crisis is geographically so close to me, here and in Italy. What is happening, as I also said before, is revealing new legal and political possibilities for refugees. I do not know much about the situation in the Netherlands, but in Italy it is one of the first times that citizens are opening up their houses for refugees. What we had in mind so far are hotspots, hubs where migrants are being identified and situated in different places. What is happening now is showing us a different perspective, a domestic one. I asked myself what would happen if my design phase switched from having refugee centres as case studies, to rather investigating the domestic dynamics in private houses opened up to host refugees. I do hope that what I learned, and will still learn and discover with my research about the need for refugees to be empowered by being a host in a hosting country, could be a hint for all the families that are now, on the other side, hosting migrants in their houses.


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