My wife is a Mennonite. This is an actual ethnicity, not simply a religious sect.  Mennonites are pacifists. As the story goes, Europe was not into pacifism during its war with the Ottoman Empire. Nor did Germany and Switzerland want Mennonites advocating pacifism to other citizens.  The Mennonites became refugees. In Russia, Catherine the Great welcomed Mennonites into the country to work as farmers. Eventually, a government arose that did not tolerate pacifism. The Mennonites became refugees again.

When our Governor tried to ban additional Syrian refugees, I was not surprised that my wife and our Mennonite friends connected with a Syrian refugee family in Phoenix to offer support and friendship. I’ve had dinner at their home a couple of times.

Around the globe, people are adopting similar approaches to refugees. The Design Research Lab at the Berlin University of The Arts  incubated a project as a practical reponse to a three year symposium. The project is called Refugee Open Cities.


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Our goal is to unlock the vast potential of newcomers and welcoming locals alike. A holistic, sensitive approach involving the opinion, needs and skills of the migrant community is often missing.

This is why we facilitate open innovation processes to improve living conditions fast and inspire collective responsibility. We believe that change starts in the heads, but becomes a reality when it´s experienced at heart and realized with your own hands. Therefore, participants will be provided opportunities to change the space they´re living in, leading to collaborative results.


Image may contain: one or more people and shoes

We´ve started our project in the midst of Berlin-Neukölln: About 600 newcomers, 1/4 of them kids, live there in an abandoned fashion warehouse on four vast floors. Similar to many of these emergency accommodations, the living conditions are basic; with eight people sharing one room, often divided by language and religious beliefs. Waiting for their papers for six months and more, they hope to find a regular job, a home to call their own and getting their families over to Germany.

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Our first round of interviews with shelter inhabitants and the managing team have led to a multitude of opinions, challenges and potential – from quick fixing the WIFI to installing a community kitchen to changing the role pattern of women and men inside the community. Whatever the challenge ahead will be, we make sure to share our solutions and methods open source and make them accessible for others.

In 2017 we´ll take our experiences to new places and premises. We will implement our best-practices on one hand and keep learning with our partners, refugees and locals on the other.

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Open Cities Symposium 12.02.2016

Concluding symposium of the international co-operation “Community Now? Conflicts, Interventions, New Publics” (2013-2016)

In recent years, openness, self-organization and participation have become key terms in the discursive paradigm of administrations, institutions and companies. In our understanding open cities are inviting and understandable for newcommers, they cultivate negociation and participation and are flexible enough to re-adjust to changing needs.

The current refugee migration is amplifying the struggles about openness and participation. This influx has created issues concerning registration, housing, education, security and health. Numerous innovative initiatives have stepped forward where administrations have been unable to cope with these urgent needs. Simultaneously, we witness the rise of strong discourse that seeks to close borders and even suspend civil rights.

In this situation we want to rethink our role as researchers, designers or urbanist and the tools we are working with. Can fences, surveillance and deportation camps really go together with the proclaimed openness? How robust are our tools and concepts of participation? Do we need to engage in re-designing the open cities in order to stand the test of time?


Photo by Arian Zwegers

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