These Students Collaborated With Refugees To Design Sun Shelters For Their Camp

Using Skype and holding up sketches to the camera, students at Miami University in Ohio helped residents of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan shield themselves from the sun.

In the middle of the summer at the Zaatari refugee camp–the former army base in Lebanon that is now home to nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees–temperatures can soar well over 100 degrees. There are no trees. And until recently, there was no shade for refugees as they walked to get food or water or as children walked to one of the camp schools.


Earlier this year, after a university alum who lives in Jordan proposed the idea, a class of architecture and design students at Miami University in Ohio started collaborating with refugees at Zaatari, via Skype, to design sun shelters for the camp.

“The need for these structures was based both on climate as well as mobility within the camp,” says Josh Gabbard, one of the students. “Before these shelters were built, there were no public structures to block the sun around the outer ring road, so movement around the camp was likely very difficult for everyone, and especially difficult for the older folks and the disabled.”

The students spent a semester working on the designs, making regular Skype calls to a team of refugees–many of them also university students, who were forced to abandon their degrees when they fled.

“They had to ask questions,” says professor Diane Fellows, who led the studio. “They couldn’t just assume what folks need, what they didn’t need. They couldn’t assume that folks were not capable and educated–they were looking at the same websites we were.”

A student helped with translation, though both groups often communicated through sketches. “Often times, the best way to convey an idea was to have a model or drawing that could actually be held up to the screen during a Skype session,” says Gabbard. “This happened on multiple occasions and often garnered the most human response–smiles, laughter, and applause could be seen on either side of the screen.”

Andrew Hubbard

The group chose a handful of designs to pursue, each designed to be made from limited materials available, and with references to traditional Syrian design. But because camp officials chose to use the shelter-building as an educational tool–hiring 80 refugees to recycle old materials into the shelters–the end result looks much simpler than the original designs.


The 14 shelters from the project are still the only sun shelters in the whole camp.

For students, the project was an opportunity to learn about the ongoing refugee crisis. “Through Skyping and through virtual eye contact, I was better able to understand the people and pain they have gone through to be where they are today,” says student Chelsea Clark.


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.