Wallenberg fellow: Recent graduate seeks to understand how to create better refugee camps

Bjornar Haveland didn’t want to go straight to college after high school. He wanted to seek some adventure, experience a life radically different from his own. So he volunteered in a refugee camp in the Algerian desert.

It was a tough life. He went native, living with a family of Sahrawi refugees who lost their homes in the western part of the Saharan desert four decades ago during a war with Morocco – a conflict long forgotten by most of the world.

Haveland slept on the floor in the sprawling community of tents and tin-roofed adobe houses. He suffered food poisoning. The drinking water was salty. Language barriers were formidable. But overall, the experience was amazing.

“I really felt like a part of the family by the time I left. I was taking care of the kids and going to weddings with them, eating with them every night,” said Haveland, who taught English in the camp. “If you take away the fact that there was very little food and hygiene and infrastructure, it was really a wonderful, well-organized society. I was very sad to leave.”

Now, five years later, he’s getting ready to go back to the refugee camp life after finishing his undergraduate degree at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. He will spend the next year living in some of the world’s oldest and biggest camps, researching ways to improve the quality of life for refugees. Haveland plans to talk to builders, architects, community leaders and workers about their built environment.

While he was at U-M, Haveland said his experience in the Sahrawi refugee camp had a strong influence on his architectural studies. He never forgot about the paradoxical nature of the camps and the “weird constraints” they put on architects.

On the one hand, the camps need to provide a humane living environment for people who have just survived a hellish situation. On the other hand, they can’t be too permanent because the refugees often want to return home eventually.

“You don’t want to build things that symbolize: OK, you’re stuck here,” Haveland said.

His plan is to spend 10 months living with a host family in Lebanon at the Rashidieh refugee camp, one of the world’s oldest. It was established in 1936 for Armenian refugees and later expanded in 1963 for Palestinians. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people live in the camp, which has become a dense urban area surrounded by Lebanese neighborhoods.

“I’m interested in how the different communities deal with each other—how they work together or not work together,” he said.

Next, he plans to move to the Dadaab camp in Kenya for two months. Created in 1991, the camp is the world’s biggest, with about 500,000 people who fled conflict and drought in Somalia and Ethiopia.

“Dadaab is the image of the stereotypical refugee camp, with rows of white tents lined up into the horizon,” Haveland said.

He is spending less time in Dadaab because the security situation is more tense, and he will have less freedom to move around. He will have to live in a space for U.N. employees, aid workers and foreign staff.

Haveland’s travels will be funded by the Wallenberg Fellowship, awarded in the spring each year to a graduating senior of exceptional promise and accomplishment who is committed to service and the public good. The fellowship provides $25,000 to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year after graduation.

The fellowship honors Raoul Wallenberg, one of U-M’s most illustrious graduates. As a diplomat during World War II, he helped save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

The lives of Wallenberg and Haveland have many interesting parallels. Both are Scandinavian. Wallenberg was from Sweden, and Haveland grew up in Norway.

Both men majored in architecture and had the same adventurous spirit and interest in engaging with people. Wallenberg hitchhiked across the U.S. in the early 1930s and once drove from Ann Arbor to Mexico and back with a classmate in an old Ford pickup truck.

Haveland said he was vaguely aware of Wallenberg’s story growing up in Norway, and he became more intrigued after hearing a presentation about the fellowship given by

John Godfrey, assistant dean for international education at U-M’s Rackham Graduate School.

“What I learned from him was that he was never afraid of jumping into unknown things, taking opportunities and exploring,” he said. “Taking an interest and going for it, seeing where it will take you, even though you don’t have a clear idea where it will take you.”

Haveland’s professors said that he was an excellent choice for the fellowship.

“He has a poise and diplomacy beyond his years,” said A. Melissa Harris, associate professor of architecture. “He is self-motivated, curious, open and best of all, not frenetic or tattooed to technology. He is a humanist of sorts, more invested in defining architectural results via the engagement with users than a sexy photograph of an end product.”

Keith Mitnick, another one of Havenland’s teachers, said the discussion of architecture in the U.S. tends to be far more preoccupied with the business of building. He praised Haveland’s interest in social reform, humanitarian aid and political action.

“His ambitions not only stand to improve the world, they dignify the practice of architecture,” said Mitnick, associate professor of architecture. “Bjornar is determined to use his expertise as an architect for the benefit of others.”

Haveland isn’t completely sure where his fellowship experience will take him. He can see himself working in a hybrid practice, designing buildings while continuing to work with the camps.

“The fellowship is a new adventure that will lead me somewhere else,” he said. “I will try to be completely open minded.”



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