Two recent landscape architecture graduates have helped set up a charity that is building life-changing facilities for refugees in Europe.

When two Edinburgh alumni travelled from the UK to Greece last Christmas to help desperate refugees arriving by boat from Turkey, they discovered their true calling. By the spring they were back to stay, and by the summer had helped set up a new charity that builds facilities for refugee camps.

The Timber Project provides shelters, shower blocks, children’s play areas and other facilities such as  distribution centres for refugees stranded in Greece and along the “Balkan route” across Europe.

Chris Moore (MA Landscape Architecture 2013) speaks here with Stina Skjerdal, a current MA Landscape Architecture student. The interview was conducted for E-Scape, the Landscape Architecture students’ association.

How did you first get involved with working with refugees, and why did you decide to start your own organisation?

Originally I spent a lot of time reading about the war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis. At the same time I was very interested in the economic crisis in Greece and the election of a progressive government that I felt I could identify with. When these two crises collided I decided that I wanted to help.

My sister, Erin, travelled to Greece for similar reasons in November 2015. In December Kirsty [Kirsty Scott, MSc Landscape Architecture 2013 and fellow Timber Project founder] and I joined her for 10 days over Christmas.  We worked on the south coast of Mytilene, on the island of Lesvos, helping people from boats that had made the treacherous crossing from Turkey.

We returned to our jobs as landscape architects in Bath in January but soon made the decision to return to Greece on a more permanent basis. I returned on 26 February to join an organisation called I Am You as one of their coordinators. Kirsty followed a month later. I Am You was helping the Danish Refugee Council in the Moria reception centre, its primary role being shelter allocation for newly arrived refugees.

On 20 March when the EU-Turkey deal on migrants came into effect, I Am You was kicked out of Moria by the military and within hours the facility became a closed detention centre. I Am You moved to the mainland to begin work in a camp called Ritsona, located one hour north of Athens. We set up a school, a library and a much-loved carpentry workshop for the residents of the camp. This is where the idea for the Timber Project stemmed from.

In July 2016 myself, Kirsty, Erin and three other members of the I Am You team decided it was time to try something new. We secured work building a learning centre in Serbia and the Timber Project began.

Did you think about doing charity work while at university?

During the last few years of my degree I became interested in the idea of disaster relief and the vital role a landscape architect could play in the planning and implementation of projects in this field. I began researching the forced movement of populations due to climate change, war and persecution and decided that my aim after uni would be to use the skills I developed as a landscape architect to assist in the humanitarian sector.

Children playing on a climbing castle at Sindos Refugee Camp.

 

 

Do you feel your degree at Edinburgh has given you a good foundation for running a charity project like the Timber Project?

I think it is only with my experience at Edinburgh that this could have been possible. I learnt how to problem-solve, manage projects and most importantly communicate my ideas. My life now involves many meetings every week with various different groups. The Crit room at Edinburgh College of Art is where I developed the necessary skills to confidently deal with these situations.

We in E-scape have nothing but admiration for what you guys are doing, but can't help thinking it must be pretty tough. Are there times when you are thinking you would rather be working in a "normal" landscape architect office? What makes you keep on working?

Some days I dream of being back in an office, surrounded by friends and cups of tea and eagerly awaiting my pay cheque at the end of the month! I’m sure eventually I will return to that world but not while I can be of use here. Every day I get to design and build my own projects and watch them instantly improve the lives of others. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Every day I get to design and build my own projects and watch them instantly improve the lives of others. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Among all the projects the Timber Project has initiated, which one stand out as the most meaningful?

All of our projects have helped provide a level of dignity to people forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution. We have created a learning centre and built showers for people stranded on the border of Serbia and Hungary. We’ve built playgrounds for children stuck in camps with nothing to do each day. Our most recent project has been the creation of a 200m² Distribution Market to allow residents of Nea Kavala refugee camp some dignity and choice in their daily lives rather than being forced to rely on prescribed handouts of clothing and food.

Our next project involves hiring two refugees currently stranded in the camps in Greece to come and work with us on a permanent basis. We will provide accommodation in the city and a small daily wage. This is by far our most meaningful project to date and will offer two people the opportunity to work and live in a more dignified manner and hopefully provide them with some skills that can be used to gain employment in their new country of residence. We will be building a school with them in a camp called Sinatex.

What has been the most difficult thing to handle so far?

Seeing the gradual loss of hope on the faces of people stuck in the camps. When we first arrived in Greece the borders were open and people were finding safety in Europe. Now, many people are facing another winter in Greece, their only hope of escape being a failed relocation and reunification programme (it will take 18 years to relocate the 50,000 people stuck in Greece at the current rate).

Where is the Timber Project headed? Do you see yourselves running this for a long time?

We will be here until we are no longer needed. We have been extremely lucky to secure funding through the organisation Help Refugees who support us with all our projects. We hope to somehow improve the conditions in all of the camps in northern Greece.

For those of us back here in Edinburgh dreaming about going out to do some good in the world, what would be your advice be?

Don’t hesitate. Leap before you look!

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Greece has a particularly strong and active alumni community, and in winter 2015/16, when Greece was undergoing intense political and economic turmoil,Giorgos Christides interviewed two fellow Greek graduates about how their Edinburgh degrees had equipped them for their roles tackling the crisis in different and inspiring ways. The resulting feature, Tackling Crisis With Confidence, appeared in the winter 2015/16 printed edition of Edit, as well as online.

Back in October 2015, an Edit supplement featured the latest podcast in the University’s Big Ideas series, which focused on the refugee crisis that was building across Europe. In The Refugee Crisis, three experts from across the University look at the underlying causes for the displacement of millions of people, such as the civil war in Syria and the influence of so-called Islamic State.

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