Cultural Resilience: Experiments in Performative Preservation

Project Info
  • Theme Relocation
  • Type Built Project
  • Scale International
  • Location Jordan
  • AuthorsAzra AksamijaMelina PhilippouNatalie BellefleurLillian KologyJonathan Kongoletos
  • CollaboratorsMIT Future Heritage LabNorwegian Refugee Council, JordanNRC Tailoring UnitZaatari Refugee Camp


This project outlines a cultural approach to humanitarian intervention. The project deploys participatory design and up-cycled textiles for the creation of modular tapestries. Inspired by cultural traditions of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the tapestries can insulate refugee shelters, preserve cultural memory, and inspire hope. They can also be utilized for mobile storage, or to set up tents for social gatherings. The project introduces a culturally sensitive, socially inclusive, and environmentally conscious framework to humanitarian design. On a global scale, the project critiques the social and environmental cost of our consumer lifestyle. Through the up-cycling of discarded clothes, the project probes how the overproduction of the global textile industry could provide a resource to support the social revitalization of communities affected by war. 

Jordan currently hosts approximately 2.9 million Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, and Somali refugees. UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019, 3,  It is the second-largest refugee host country in the world after Turkey. About 85 percent of the 654,700 Syrian refugees are urban-based, with the remaining population living in camps. Ibid., 20  The Za’atari refugee camp is the largest in the country, accommodating almost 80,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan: Za’atari Camp Fact-sheet (January 2020), UNHCR Operational Data Portal (ODP),

Azraq Refugee Camp: Ninety kilometers from the Syria-Jordan border, almost 40,000 Syrian refugees found their shelter in the Azraq Refugee Camp. Jordan: Azraq Camp Factsheet (July 2020), UNHCR Operational Data Portal (ODP), It is a centrally planned, closed camp founded in 2014 as a response to the overflow of the Zaatari camp. Deep in the Eastern Desert, the camp appears from a distance as an endless grid of white containers, bordered by an infinite fence, and surrounded by nothing but sand. The barren landscape extends to the horizon as evidence of these hostile living conditions, with temperatures reaching 118 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Among the 15 other refugee camps in Jordan, Azraq is the most representative example of institutional humanitarian infrastructure. It constitutes what the humanitarian field considers an advancement in governance, security, and design. Local guidelines include forbidding permanent structures, plantation and limiting customization of interior spaces.

Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, housing 40,000 Syrian refugees since 2014

Future Heritage Lab

The Project

The Future Heritage Lab team developed this project in collaboration with MIT students, refugee learners, the host community and humanitarian workers in the USA, Europe and the MENA region. This intergenerational, interdisciplinary, and hands-on method of creation allows for transcultural exchanges across disciplines, generations, and borders.

The project delivery takes the form of university courses and creative workshops. Creative workshops at the refugee camp are part of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) tailoring program that is accredited by the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior. This approach to education is aimed at reinforcing the link of cultural heritage with the social realm, broadening the narrative around historical events, and encouraging the social cohesion between migrants and host communities.

Cultural Resilience explores different aspects of textile performance in the context of displacement: from their cultural meanings and physical insulation properties to their social, economic, and environmental footprint. The project offers a new culturally relevant and environmentally sustainable model for creative interventions in conflict and crisis–it questions the basic needs approach in humanitarian aid favoring an understanding of culture as an essential human need.

As global displacement numbers are rising due to the acceleration of climate change, it is imperative to address the increased cultural vulnerability of people fleeing from conflict and disasters. While humanitarian institutions prioritize supporting the basic biological needs, the T-Serai (Textile System for Experimental Research in Alternative Impact) outlines a cultural approach to humanitarian intervention, addressing problems of lacking cultural infrastructures in refugee camps. The project mitigates the lacking capacity of displaced populations to access means for cultural resilience. It counters the logic of the T-Shelter with alternative architectures for the displaced inspired by the nomadic architecture of the region and the creative production of displaced Syrians at the Azraq Refugee Camp.

Cultural Resilience promotes new ethical standards for socially inclusive design.  The project supports the cultural resilience of threatened communities through creative innovation in education and the vocational training of refugees.  Introducing transdisciplinary design processes and cross-generational knowledge exchange, the project provides means for the dynamic preservation of the living culture, social relations, and networks of communities in threat of cultural erasure.  Beyond collaborations with displaced Syrians in Jordan, the project advances cross-cultural understanding through co-creation involving students from the USA, Europe, and UAE.  The multi-directional knowledge exchange between participants of different generations and backgrounds offers a possibility for creative expression, self determination, and the advancement of pluralism.

Collaborative planning

Displaced Syrians, MIT and German Jordanian University students at the first workshop conducted at the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, in collaboration with Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) Jordan

Future Heritage Lab

Creative worksop at the American University of Sharjah, produced in collaboration with Alya Alzaabi, Rebecca Beamer, and Isabela Marchi Tavares de Melo

Future Heritage Lab

Through university classes the project aims at the social and academic activation of young designers to the important issue of forced migration

Future Heritage Lab

Participants of the “Foundations in the Arts, Design, and Spatial Practices” course at MIT, led by professor Azra Aksamija

Future Heritage Lab

Design and prototyping

Displaced Syrians at the Azraq Refugee Camp reveal the cultural, emotional and aesthetic needs of refugees within a context of scarcity, war trauma, constraints of confinement, and struggle for a future.  Here A Majlis made out of humanitarian textiles serves as an example of Cultural Resilience.

Future Heritage Lab

Photomontage of the concept of a T-Shelter interior with application of the T-Serai (Textile System for Experimental Research in Alternative Impact), created by students from the Future Heritage Lab

Future Heritage Lab

T-Serai, a mobile palace for populations on the move, constructed as a prototype by Future Heritage Lab at MIT

Future Heritage Lab