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  • 11.03.15

This Amazing Interactive Site Lets You Step Into Life Inside A Refugee Camp

Learn where you can get a bridal dress, bake fresh bread, or meet a budding YouTube star within the complex city that is an Iraqi refugee camp.

Four years ago, the Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq didn’t exist. Now it’s home to around 60,000 Syrian refugees, with schools, mosques, taxi stands, and stores selling everything from bridal dresses to refrigerators. Entrepreneurial refugees set up a bakery so successful it now sells bread to relief agencies, rather than the other way around.

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An amazingly detailed, immersive new site tells the story of Domiz as refugee camps are rarely seen in the media–a home where people may live for decades, not just a temporary stop. Click through the hand-drawn map, photos, and recordings on Refugee Republic, and you can experience what it’s like to be there.

After working with Syrian refugees in Turkey two years ago, Dutch journalist Martijn van Tol, who created the website, realized there was something missing in the standard portrayal of camps.

“I mean, try Googling refugees on Google Images,” he says. “The images that were coming to me from the mainstream media were images of women sitting in front of tents waiting for help, children with dusty faces . . . , men standing around a UNHCR truck for the handing out of food and water. People depending on us, waiting for our help.”

While those images are obviously real–and refugees do desperately need help–it’s not the whole story. “People usually stay in refugee camps for many years and sometimes even decades,” van Tol says. “Instead of people passively waiting for help, it was very dynamic, busy, there was even a certain kind of optimism, confidence, and there were restaurants and entertainment. If you would brush the logos of relief organizations, who were everywhere, from your eyes, you could find yourself in an emerging city.”

Along with artist Jan Rothuizen and photographer Dirk Jan Visser, van Tol spent eight days in the camp trying to absorb every detail.

“We wanted to present this world with drawings and sound, and select topics that were close to our daily lives, like: Do I want to improve my house? How’s my love life? Where can I get a good bite to eat? Which bank should I go to, et cetera?” van Tol says. “And create an experience in which you walk through the camp and discover it with fresh eyes, a little bit like we did.”

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Though they wanted to stay longer, it was enough time to start to get to know some of the people living in the camp, like a 16-year-old singer trying to get famous on YouTube, or a 29-year-old talking about the middle-class life she left behind in Aleppo.

They also looked at how the camp, basically now a small city, is run. “We looked at political decision-making: on the scale of anarchy to dictatorship,” he says. “What was the camp like: Was it a democracy, or an humanitarian dictatorship? People could work, but did they pay taxes and could they also vote?”

The website walks visitors through four walks in the camp, looking at money, construction, school, and life in general. The journalists are hoping that it helps viewers rethink how they see refugees.

“By interviewing the refugees on themes that are also dominant in your life and mine, I invite people to view refugees as ordinary people like you and me that have ended up in a difficult situation,” van Tol says. “And even by focusing on their creativity and smart economic strategies to invite the viewers to ask themselves: How would I cope in a refugee camp?”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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