Innovative Humanitarianism

Lina Sergie Attar | MArch 01 Architecture

For more than a decade Syrian-American activist Lina Sergie Attar MArch 01 has been devoting her energy and skills to the Karam Foundation, the Chicago-based nonprofit she founded in 2007. Named after the Arabic word for “generosity,” the organization focuses on improving the lives of Syrians throughout the world—a mission that rapidly grew in urgency in the wake of the 2011 revolution and resulting refugee crisis that has driven nearly 12 million Syrians from their homes.

Here Sergie Attar discusses the educational aspect of the Foundation’s larger mission to build a better future for Syria: Karam House, a series of ambitious design schools created to help unlock the full potential of Syrian refugee youth.

How did studying architecture in Aleppo shape the way you looked at the field?

I was born and lived in Brooklyn for 12 years before moving to Aleppo, where my parents are from. Growing up there was amazing because... I began to understand what it’s like to be in one of the world’s oldest places and have access to a city with Aleppo’s history.

[As an undergrad] at the University of Aleppo I was one of several students involved in mapping the old city for the first time. Seeing much of that work destroyed during the war has been really traumatic, on both a personal level and as an architect and designer—to know I took part in work that isn’t there anymore.

Children playing outside a destroyed school in Hama, Syria.

How did your understanding of the discipline change at RISD?
Even though I’m not a practicing architect today, my experiences there are absolutely foundational to what I do. RISD was the only grad school I applied to [because I wanted] the opportunity to look at architecture through a much more open lens than what I was used to.

One of my most powerful memories was the first day of Design Principles. There was a 25-pound bag of clay on every desk in the studio and we were told to make a building joint. I had graduated at the top of my class among the four best architecture programs in all of Syria but I stood there not knowing what to do with the clay. More importantly, I didn’t know how to think.

“Today I tell people that I went into RISD as one person and came out another, like my brain had been rewired.”

What helped you move forward?
I saw the students around me carrying their ideas with a confidence that said, “this might seem crazy but it’s possible and I can do it.” That rubbed off on me. Today I tell people that at I went into RISD as one person and came out another, like my brain had been rewired.

Part of Karam’s mission is to help resettle families that have fled the war in Syria.

How has Karam Foundation’s mission changed over time?
Karam Foundation started at a very small scale. I didn’t think it would become what I do every day—that it would take over my life. But when the revolution in Syria began we shifted our focus. We had to learn how to address the needs of people living in a conflict zone, pretty much overnight. Before then there were no Syrian refugees. Now it’s as though the word refugee is attached to the word Syria. It’s one of the worst humanitarian crises of our lifetime.

“We didn’t know how we were supposed to operate so we took an innovative approach from the very beginning.”

Has studying architecture at RISD helped you take on complex work like this?
Absolutely. Being unburdened by the typical NGO expertise has helped Karam look at problems in a completely different way. We didn’t know how we were supposed to operate so we took an innovative approach from the very beginning. And we knew that you can’t go into a traumatized community and impose a solution, which is what we saw—and still see—from typical NGO and agency responses.

What do you think is the correct response?
Karam’s has always been to listen to what the community tells us it needs and deliver what we know how to in conjunction with what we’ve learned. We build with the community.

How did Karam House start?
In 2012 we began focusing on innovative education for Syrian refugee youth. Many of us and our friends were writers, journalists, architects and artists, so we leaned on our expertise and began running creative workshops in Reyhanli, a small town in southern Turkey along the Syrian border. But we quickly realized that, for students to access these programs year-round, we needed our own space. So that's where we founded Karam House: a community innovation center where Syrian refugee youths can learn to build their ideas.

The curriculum is based on the model of NuVu [a full-time design innovation school in Cambridge, MA for middle- and high-school students]. Students have access to the internet, laptops, a library and maker spaces, and learn everything from graphic design to how to use 3D programs and present projects. We’re doing something that really hasn’t been done before: we’re providing an elite education to those who are the most marginalized.

How has the program evolved?
Establishing a second Karam House in Istanbul was a big step for us. With the first, we took our time in figuring out what we wanted to do. Building one in Istanbul tested whether the program would scale and how it works in a large urban setting.

For 2020 we want to build Karam Houses in Lebanon and Jordan. And the way we look at these projects reflects what I learned at RISD, in that they will look different according to where they will be and where refugees live in those places. We will adapt the structure according to location.

Which of Karam House’s successes have been most meaningful for you?
First is that Karam Houses are fully staffed by Syrian refugees, including the architects, engineers, scientists and teachers we hire to deliver our programs. This empowers young Syrian professionals who are not otherwise working in their fields by helping them discover a new way of teaching and innovating.

And for students?
Often when students start at Karam House they struggle to stand up and say their names or make eye contact on the first day of a studio. But by the second or third session you see kids standing up in front of the class, sharing stories and ideas and projects with their teammates. It happens really quickly and is amazing to see. They learn that what matters most is the process, not a specific outcome.

“We can create a sustainable movement that uses design and innovation and creativity to combat the bad in the world.”

I appreciate what I learned at RISD more and more as time passes. When I see students at Karam House working in their studios having the same experience that I did, for me that’s a huge victory. To be able to change the way they think is a powerful thing and we couldn’t have helped do that without RISD.

Lina Sergie Attar with Syrian children

What are your hopes for Karam Foundation and Karam House going forward?
My ultimate hope is to get to a point where an organization like Karam Foundation wouldn’t need to exist. But we understand that we don’t have the capacity or influence to make world powers stop killing people and destroying lives. So we’re concentrating on where we can make an impact.

We believe that the interventions we’re making will create a future generation of thinkers, innovators, creators and designers who know how to solve problems. If this group continues to grow with a sense of responsibility for the next generation, we can create a sustainable movement that uses design and innovation and creativity to combat the bad in the world.

interview by Robert Albanese