Reshaping the Refugee Camp: Makeshift Islamic Architectures in Ritsona, Greece

by Clemencia Garcia-Kasimirowski


Nestled in the mountains of mainland Greece, surrounded only by forest land and industrial warehouses, sits a cluster of metal containers and concrete buildings: this is Ritsona1, a refugee camp created in 2016. A temporary housing space to approximately 800 refugees from the Middle East, north Africa, and southwest Asia, Ritsona offers services provided by NGOs (food, water, shelter, medical services, and schooling), as well as administrative support provided by transnational outlets to guide residents through the asylum process. Residents2 live in predetermined and pre-fabricated (pre-fab) architectures in the isolated camp. Grouped into one residential area, the housing units for the residents are square pre-fab “containers3” arranged by humanitarian actors to create a gridded landscape. It is under these highly regulated conditions, however, that an unexpected architectural language begins to take shape amongst the residents. Equipped with tents from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), misshapen wooden posts, green mesh, and repurposed plastic, the residents of Ritsona successfully create a visual program in the residential area that extends beyond the limitations imposed by the humanitarian actors. Redrawing, repurposing, and re-configuring, the residents of Ritsona transform the residential space from the a-cultural humanitarian space into an area potent with resident identity.

Ritsona was established in March 2016 as a response to the European Union-Turkey agreement4. The agreement enacted a policy which served to slow the movement of “irregular” migration into the European territory; the policy adopted a “1:1 mechanism,” where “[for] every Syrian being returned to Turkey, another Syrian will be resettled to the EU from Turkey directly.”5 Fearing involuntary settlement in Turkey or forced immobility on the Greek islands6, refugees made the journey to the Greek mainland prior to its implementation. Reflecting the hurried conditions of the EU-Turkey deal, Ritsona primarily operated as a crisis-oriented camp7. November 2016 saw a shift in camp organization and architectural composition. In partnership with the Hellenistic Red Cross, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates donated pre-fab residential ISObox shelters to replace the emergency tents. 8

ISOboxes are pre-fab, repurposed, and rectangular metal containers. 9 The pre-fab and mobile structures are used by both NGOs as headquarters for their operations and by residents, whose ISOboxes are configured to provide shelter. The evolution from tent to ISObox architecture signaled a shift in camp timeline and circumstances (from critical to non-critical). The shift in architecture and administrative control marks the second period of Ritsona’s history; it is during the second stage that the fieldwork for the case study took place and that the following essay analyzes.

ISObox architectures serve as both a positive and negative addition in Ritsona. While the ISOboxes provide clean, safe, and relatively comfortable shelter for residents, 10their pre-determined gridded arrangement implemented by non-residential actors reflects the impersonal and uniform identity of its humanitarian designers (Fig. 1). As such, the standardized humanitarian shelters used in contemporary refugee camps fail to provide architectures that mold themselves to the cultural needs of each resident; their reliance on pragmatic housing solutions creates a landscape that upholds cultural disconnects. Modern and contemporary humanitarian architectures are purposefully designed to adopt mobile and a-cultural identities.11 In an attempt to fit everyone, the humanitarian designs often succeed in fitting no one. Despite the valiant effort on the part of humanitarian actors to create a plain and uniform architectural program, the a-cultural plan has failed. The residential area of Ritsona is not only composed of protruding tented porches, small gardens, and front yards, but street art also adorns the metal walls and inter-familial webs are created using repurposed materials. These makeshift additions all serve as a visual index of residential identity and proof of resident agency. Irit Katz dubs the personalization of pre-fab parameters in refugee camps as “[the] freely-fabricated (free-fab).12” Free-fab architectures in camps are, in contrast to the pre-fab architectures, resident-run and rely almost exclusively on materials collected, recycled, and/or repurposed by residents.13 Free-fab architectures are additions and visual expressions created by the residents. Free-fab architectures break beyond the limited boundaries imposed by pre-fab humanitarian structures. 14 The residential architectures of Ritsona reflect an alternative visual language to the pre-fab designs imposed by humanitarian outlets. These additions not only mirror familial and community relationships, but, in fact, reveal an underlying architectural standard upheld by nearly all of the 159 residential ISOboxes in Ritsona: the recreation of makeshift Islamic forms using pre-fab and ready-made materials.

Using Katz’s vocabulary and the case study of Ritsona, the following paper demonstrates how the architectures of refugee camps are not static, but instead, the residents from such camps activate the structures to expand beyond the limited plans created by camp orchestrators, the UNHCR and the International Office of Migration (IOM).15 The dichotomy between pre-fab and free-fab architectures in Ritsona is significant because it not only demonstrates how residents exercise agency in uncontrollable environments, but how, in the pursuit of this agency, they successfully transform the a-cultural humanitarian landscape into architectures that reflect cultural values. The plain ISOboxes are used as the blank canvas upon which the residents create an architectural landscape that not only echoes the vernacular of Muslim-majority cities, but perhaps most significantly, uses structural additions to and among pre-fab structures to create functional sacred spaces: a mosque that references an Umayyad Friday Mosque and inward-looking courtyard houses. The free-fab architectures of Ritsona recreate global forms that reflect the local circumstances of the camp environment.

The presence of an almost universal activation of makeshift architectures that emulate Islamic forms can be traced to the demographics of individuals that compose the camp. Although the residents originate from a myriad of nations in the Middle East, southwest Asia, and north Africa Ritsona was constructed as a response to political and social instability in Syria. As such, the demographics of camp largely mirrors the original goal; Aleppo and Damascus served as the home cities to a large portion of residents throughout the period of the fieldwork (though it is significant to note that the numbers and demographics were dynamic).16 With the aforementioned regions serving as the places of origin, it is unsurprising that approximately 98% of the residents identified as Muslim. 17This shared religious identity, especially when paired with camp solidarity gained through shared experiences, creates an identity within the camp that supersedes national borders. It is this marriage between the religious and the social that creates the collective memory of Ritsona that is reflected in the architecture; the overwhelming adoption of the adapted ISObox form into an inward-facing courtyard home, with tented additions, is a structural language familiar to all residents.

Anglophone and Francophone literature fails to consider the creation of Islamic architectures, or other makeshift religious architectures in refugee camps. There is, however, a rich scholarship on humanitarian and refugee architecture. It is only in Ayham Dalal’s brief essay on socio-cultural personalizations of pre-fab architectures in Zaatari that the disciplines of makeshift Islamic architectures and the imposing designs of refugee camps are briefly brought into conversation with one another. Using the vocabulary of the “socio-cultural,” Dalal argues that the residents of Zaatari reinforced their social values by customizing the pre-fab architectures imposed by the humanitarian actors; such values, he notes, are traced in communal structures, and, more significantly, “households that are similar in their concept and design to the traditional Islamic house.”18 Dalal, however, fails to provide a convincing visual analysis or explanation of how the household structures that he claims are “Islamic” function as sacred spaces. Although the literature on sacred spaces in refugee camps is limited, there are scholars that engage with the makeshift Islamic architectures, humanitarian architectures, and the customization of space in refugee camps. Katz’s research on “free-fab” additions in contemporary container camps acts as the linguistic foundation for this thesis. Katz, like Andrew Herscher, Alison Ledwith, Yasar Adnan Adanali, Fatina Abreek-Zubiedat, Romola Sanyal, Gudrun Kramer and Jonas Geith engages with themes of resident customizations. However, these scholars often fail to recognize how sacred spaces are created through the constructed additions of the pre-fab humanitarian architectures. While Abreek-Zubiedat, Kramer, and Geith’s articles on the cultural customizations of Palestinian refugee camps offer some similarities with Ritsona, their case studies are concentrated on long-term, multigenerational camps which transform into sprawling city-like camps, that also battle political regulations. It is for this reasons that studies that examine Palestinian urbanization offer little parallels with Ritsona, whose existence still operates in a relatively short-term and compact environment.

Research on contemporary makeshift mosques engages with the construction of sacred Islamic space. Susan Slyomovics’ research on storefront mosques in New York City illustrates how the structures not only appropriate the exterior characteristics of the surrounding urban environment, but perhaps most significantly, how worshipers employ the sidewalks of the city to create invisible and makeshift sacred spaces that expand beyond the walls of the mosque. However, in contrast to Vincent Biondo III’s scholarship on mosques in the United States and Britain, which examines how mosques built by immigrant populations adopt varying degrees of local and home-country inspiration,19 Slyomovics’ research fails to consider if the styles of the 1990’s storefronts reflect the cultures of individual creating the spaces. The photo series Hidden Islam: Islamic makeshift places of worship in North East Italy, 2009-2013 by Nicoloó Degiorgis also highlights through photographic evidence how settled Islamic communities in North East Italy are forced to use unsuspecting covers – abandoned warehouses, garages, stairwells – as makeshift mosques due to strong right-wing political parties in the region. Unlike Slyomovics and Biondo, Degiorgis’ project illustrates how makeshift sacred spaces are created under unsettled circumstances. The population activates permanent structures using temporary additions; the structures Degiorgis photographs engage with internal customizations (complete with portable stylistic and functional pieces should worshipers have to flee), though unlike Ritsona, whose sacred spaces use internal and external additions, Degiorgis’ subjects do not operate in the space or context of a refugee camp.

There is therefore a need to place scholarship on refugee architecture and makeshift sacred spaces into conversation with one another. While scholars recognize that refugee communities in camps redraw humanitarian urban plans, few recognize that these makeshift adaptations are recreations of specific cultural identities and their architectural characteristics. Only one briefly mentions the construction of Islamic courtyard houses by residents in refugee camps, and the level of analysis dedicated to their form and function is disheartening. This thesis therefore seeks to fill this void and examine the conditions under which sacred spaces in Ritsona are constructed and the identities that they reflect.

This paper first examines the identities that shape refugee camp architectures. Part I will begin with the historiography of the design of refugee camps in the twentieth-century and analyze how the socio-political goals of exclusion by nations and the transnational humanitarian community are reflected in the designs of refugee camps. This is particularly present in contemporary camps recently established as responses to instability in the Middle East and southwest Asia which has forced thousands into displacement. It will be shown that humanitarian structures and spatial designs of twentieth and twenty first-century refugee camps can best be characterized as spaces of control. The chapter will then turn to examine the residential identity that serves as the driving force behind the transformed architectural language. Sherin Wing argues in Designing Sacred Space:

[…] while aesthetics [is] an important component of architecture, there are other, equally vital forces at work. Rigor and specificity must be applied to all these areas, not only the aesthetic ones […] cultural, economic, political, and social forces that shape sacred projects are [often] ignored.20

Wing argues that “the cultural, economic, political, and social forces” which shape sacred spaces often comes secondary to the aesthetic markers; her commentary is a well-placed criticism at existing scholarship that is not ignored in the context of Ritsona.21 In fact, it is these forces that shape the aesthetics, from the pre-fab to the free-fab, of the makeshift Islamic architectures present in the camp. Identifying the “forces” that drive the crafting of sacred space in Ritsona is best identified using the theoretical frameworks proposed by Hannah Arendt and Michel Aiger. Arendt provides a critical point of reference when establishing how transnational organizations purposefully create a physical degree of separation the spaces of the “stateful” and those of the stateless, while Aiger expands upon Arendt’s argument to claim that internal identities form within these conditions through the common language of the shared trauma of displacement. Pairing Ardent’s analysis of exclusion with Aiger’s argument that a common identity forms within the boundaries of camps due to a shared experience, this paper argues that it is the marriage of socio-political exclusion, the shared experience of forced displacement, and the pre-camp religious identity that serves as the foundation for the shared collective memory that the free-fab additions in the residential area Ritsona reflect.

Next, Part II will use textual descriptions and maps to provide a detailed description of the spatial configurations present in Ritsona, both visible and “invisible.” The critical examination of the actors that contribute to the architectural landscape of the camp helps illustrate how the various spaces in Ritsona are shaped and by whom. This chapter will not only provide a concrete vision of Ritsona as a camp, but, through the use of space syntax analysis, a tool originally put forward by Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, I will examine how unspoken architectures in Ritsona are created through an analysis of how certain residential demographics are afforded to specific spaces in camp.22 While originally proposed for mapping urban planning schemes, this thesis, aligning itself to the research conducted by Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines on the accessibilities of space afforded to specific groups within Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, Soissons, 23 will apply space syntax analysis to illustrate how access to space by certain genders reinforces the sacred nature of the Islamic architectures in Ritsona. As premodern and modern Islamic traditions and architectures have engaged with gendered spaces, 24the residential area of Ritsona is examined as a reflection of such values.

Part III will examine how the residents of Ritsona, spurred by the conditions of social exclusion, trauma, and a common religious identity broke beyond the barriers of the pre-fab humanitarian architectures and, using ready-made materials, created makeshift architectural language rooted in a referencing of Islamic architectures at their most basic forms. The free-fab is therefore used as a visual outlet to mark and reinforce the sacred. This chapter will begin with an examination of the makeshift mosque of Ritsona. The case study of the mosque analyzes how the adaptation of ready-made materials through free-fab additions extend beyond the a-cultural architecture of the humanitarian pre-fab in order to create a fully-operational religious center. This analysis will be put into conversation with scholarship on makeshift mosques, notably Slymovics’ research on storefront mosques, and literature on the formal characteristics of early Umayyad mosque structures, most especially the Great Mosque of Damascus, the structure upon which the mosque of Ritsona draws upon for inspiration. This indicates that Ritsona’s mosque is not ‘universal,’ but rather, is a reflection of a specific memory within the architectural history of Islam. The second half of the chapter examines how the tented additions crafted by the residents are not formed with the sole intention of creating additional practical space, but, as evidenced by the use of makeshift draped textiles 25to create a rectangular tented space as a preface to the ISObox, the structures resemble in form and function, inward-looking courtyard homes. The investigation of the courtyard homes will also demonstrate how the ISOboxes that compose the urban fabric of the Ritsona closely aligns with scholarship that recognizes the home as a sacred space for women.26 This paper examines how the residents of Ritsona have broken the rigid, architectural models imposed by prefabricated humanitarian design through the customization of residential design. These customizations suggest that the residents have not only created an architectural environment that echoes the architectural forms common to the Muslim-majority countries from which the residents originate, but also recreate functional sacred Islamic spaces through the vocabulary of visible and “invisible” makeshift architectures. This research therefore seeks not only to expand on the literature on the adaptation of a global Islamic architectural vocabulary to local circumstances, but also illustrate how larger themes of collective memory operate within the contemporary Syrian refugee camp. Through this thesis also seeks to reveal how the residents of refugee camps are not always agents of victimhood: their careful repurposing of materials, creation of public and private spaces, and crafting of sacred spaces demonstrates a level of agency that must be respected and admired. As the residents of Ritsona await news of their socio-political status as asylum seekers in Europe, the “streets” of Ritsona pulse with the collective architectural identity of its residents.

Part I: Refugees, Humanitarian Architecture, and Control

TThe term “refugee” was defined and internationally recognized in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, known as the Geneva Convention.27 The Convention, which uses Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as its foundation and inspiration,28 dictates that an individual has the right to seek asylum and protection; the document also declares that a refugee “is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”29 The Convention, which serves to provide a clear framework for legal protection of individuals who have been forced into displacement, is exclusionary and ambiguous in defining its criteria for protection.30 Although displacement and human mobility have acted as the common thread throughout much of human history, the bureaucratization surrounding the support and infrastructure in place today finds its origins in post-World War II initiatives. 31The standard plan of official contemporary refugee camps32 established by transnational organizations is as rigid and naive to the realities of forcibly displaced persons as the document that recognizes their status. It should only be appropriate that the resulting humanitarian architecture created by host nations and transnational organizations reflects the same degree of control as the administrative and legal outlets. In order to understand how makeshift Islamic architectures are formed and reinforced in Ritsona, we need to further investigation into the planning of camps, the environment which Ritsona occupies, and the communal identity created within the boundary of the camp is warranted.

Conditions of Exclusion

In examining the conditions that create and reinforce the isolation of refugee camps, the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt proposes helpful theories on identity, assimilation, and public/private life. Arendt’s 1943 essay “We Refugees” grapples with the realities of embracing the cultural identity of the Jewish diaspora, while also attempting to integrate into new social contexts following forced displacement. The philosopher addresses the invisible attacks that refugees face once they relocate and attempt to integrate, including the loss of language and cultural habits, as well as the inability to work due to mental health or discrimination.33 Arendt argues that these pressures are heightened once the dynamics of one’s movements have shifted from migration to forced displacement.34 As such, those who have been forced to seek refuge are at the mercy of the internal policies of the sheltering nation-state; these policies mirror and reinforce the social discrimination that newcomers face. The result is a flurry of activity from the refugee, who sees stripping themselves of their “othering” cultural markers as an outlet to appear assimilated. In an attempt to erase his or her religious and cultural characteristics which distinguish them as social “other[s],” the Jew, she argues, only succeeds in reinforcing their other-ness.35 The refugee will therefore always be identified as “[a] social…pariah,” and the actions against them by a host country will reflect their status as the “other.”36

Arendt’s theory on social pariahs applies itself readily to the contemporary refugee camp. Due to the Geneva Convention’s stipulation that an individual must be out of their country of origin in order to claim refugee status, these individuals have to sacrifice the rights afforded to them by their state in the pursuit of protection. It is thus while in the pursuit of state protection that forcibly displaced persons beyond the borders of their home countries become stateless. Refugees are thus placed in geographic, legal, and habitable grey areas. No longer welcome in their home countries, refugees are often reluctantly accepted into the social and physical peripheries of host nations in camps. 37Camps both reflect the legal grey area of refugees and are used as instruments of spatial control to ensure the residents remain physically removed from the host nations’ citizens. Jacques Derrida characterizes the social tensions between guest and host established by Arendt and extends them to the political sphere with the term “hostipitality,” a combination of ‘hospitality’ and ‘hostility’.38 As guests, refugees in a host country are inherently the outsiders. The presence of a guest signals a disconnect from the norms of the host: there are linguistic divides and unspoken cultural markers that are unknown to the foreign individuals, as well as simply being an unfamiliar presence. When placed within the context of a wave of migration, hostipitality emerges and creates a clear exclusion of the guest population from the hosts. Refugees are consequently defined by the host countries as the social ‘others’; a host nation does not want to appear either hostile or overjoyed by their presence, especially when the host country is committed to upholding the Geneva Convention. This external political and social animosity towards the offending population is physically realized by the isolation of refugees from local populations.

The social and political tensions highlighted by Arendt and Derrida are reflected in the geographic locations occupied by the camps; they are spaces that are exclusionary in their intent and operations. As evidenced by the UNHCR Emergency Handbook, an online guide that provides guidelines on designing refugee camps, “refugees should enjoy exclusive use of the site in which they live, by agreement with national and local authorities.” 39Purposefully isolated, camps, as Michel Agier rightly argues, are often instruments of control for “remnant” populations and are upheld as exclusionary spaces by host nations and the humanitarian organizations that serve as the administrative backbone of refugee camps. 40The stateless and the “stateful” are therefore disconnected by the spatial boundaries created by humanitarian actors.

Designing Contemporary Refugee Camps

Refugee camps are ephemeral spaces. Designed and implemented by transnational organizations and governmental actors, the spaces created for refugees simultaneously house displaced populations and engender an administrative environment that ensures that the residents have adequate resources. Established refugee camps are composed of pre-fab architectures; these architectures must be easily constructed, transportable, and mounted, and they should function in most climates. 41 The practical requirements for humanitarian efforts render the architectures as universalist, or a-cultural. These characteristics, however, are not newly conceived. Contemporary humanitarian architectures are modern adaptations of nineteenth-century European ephemeral architectures used on colonial military expeditions which used lightweight materials, namely canvas and timber, to create mobile architectures of lasting materials. 42 Today, the majority of humanitarian architectures in emergency environments continue to use prefabricated architectures made of lasting materials, namely polyester-blend waxed cotton, that are easily packed into rolls and constructed on-site (Fig. 2).43 Depending on the host country, funding, and length of displacement, camps will use converted shipping containers, which provide safe and sustainable living conditions for residents.44 Ritsona, like most other refugee camps, is a space constructed for waiting; camps are composed of residential and administrative spaces. Planned camps, as defined by Jim Kennedy, are “places where displaced populations find accommodation on purpose-built sites, and a full services infrastructure is provided, including water supply, food distribution, non-food item distribution, education, and health care, usually exclusively for the population of the site.” 45Camps have minimum living standards set by the UNHCR. 46The UNHCR Emergency Handbook recommends the following for communal spaces:

30 Sqm per person will be necessary for roads, foot paths, educational facilities, sanit-ation, security, firebreaks, administration, water storage, distribution points, markets, storage of relief items and, of course, plots for shelter […] The remaining 15 Sqm per person is allocated to household gardens attached to the family plot which should be included in the site plan from the outset.47

The guidelines illustrate an interest in meeting minimum needs through the establishment of physical limits based on necessity. The resulting camp design is a grid-like plan that relies on numerical data rather than qualitative research to create camps in critical environments (Fig. 1).48 Upon the examination of the plans of Ritsona, Zaatari, 49 and Dheisheh50, it becomes clear that these underlying guidelines are largely upheld. The suggestions of the UNHCR Handbook are problematic because they fail to account for resident-initiated additions. Noticeably omitted from the suggestions are guidelines for creating sacred architectures.

The guidelines provided by the UNHCR clearly demonstrate that providing adequate living space is the first priority when forming these camps. It is for this reason that repurposed shipping containers are increasingly popular51. Such pre-fab structures used in “temporary accommodation facilities” like Ritsona include the containers, or ISOboxes52. Similarly to the aforementioned universalist design of refugee camps, these pre-fab architectures serve to theoretically provide for the general living needs of residents in the camp. In Ritsona, these pre-fab containers, with faux hardwood floors and metal walls, come equipped with a small bathroom (includes one toilet, standing shower, sink) measuring about 1.5 square meters, a small kitchenette, and one larger living space with two sets of bunk beds. Although the ISOboxes give the impression of providing a holistic utilitarian living space, they provide architecturally limited housing. The metal frames of the containers are not particularly malleable and encourage residents to live within their constraints. Katz argues that at their foundational cores, these pre-fab refugee architectures "often resist alteration and appropriation by their users and cannot be easily adjusted to particular human needs and habits."53 Their rectangular shape helps reinforce the grid-like humanitarian vision of the camp plan; the implementation of the rectangular shelters reinforces the similarly constrained, rectilinear humanitarian camp plan, which is ultimately a reflection of the control these camps exercise on an administrative level. The plans of refugee camps by transnational organizations, which scholars have largely noted is based on archaic design plans stemming from the mid-twentieth century, are54 problematic in two areas. The pre-planned camps fail to account for growth within the space of the camp55. The linear camp plan devised by humanitarian actors also creates a spatial disconnect between the webs of personal connections in camp56.

Resident Identity in Ritsona

Despite the rigid and a-cultural frameworks established by humanitarian planning and architectures, the residents of Ritsona, not unlike those of other modern and contemporary camps, successfully customize the plan to reflect practical and cultural needs57. The comprehensive adaptation of humanitarian planning by the residents of refugee camps can be traced to identity. Agier argues that the ever-growing mosaic of forcibly displaced individuals use the shared experience of being entitled to and controlled by humanitarian forces as the foundation for the community identity58. Glued together by the threat of outside forces (whether they be the military or humanitarian efforts), shared trauma, and the physical isolation, the residents have a solid foundation for the formation of a community whose collective identity transcends national boundaries59. Mirroring the logic humanitarian outlets use of reflecting socio-political control through architecture, the residents engage in free-fab architectures to illustrate how they appropriate and reinterpret space in order to create environments that echo familiar architectural landscapes and the camp identity; expressions of free-fab are declarations of agency rather than complete submission. The theory of political unity established by Agier, paired with Arendt’s theory of social identity, extends to both the socio-political conditions of Ritsona and to the architectural forms that are crafted by its residents under the established geographic, political, and social conditions.

While Agier and Arendt’s theories of exclusion aid in understanding the larger socio-political conditions under which refugee identities are crafted, attention must be paid to the geographic and religious backgrounds which contribute to the social and architectural identity of Ritsona. Agier’s theory of transcending national boundaries within the space of the camp applies itself well to understanding how the free-fab architectures of Ritsona are grounded in recreating Islamic spaces because the residents originated from Muslim-majority countries. Amongst these Muslim-majority countries and its regions there are, of course, stylistic differences that are unique to each area. However, neither mosques nor inward-looking courtyard houses come as a visual shock to the residents of Ritsona. Using ready-made materials, the residents of Ritsona employ an architectural vocabulary that is visually familiar, religiously functional, and reflective of family structures60 to break beyond the imposed boundaries of humanitarian design and create spaces that reflect the values of the community as a whole. The adapted frameworks of Agier and Arendt, paired with the knowledge of the residents’ religious identities, serve as the foundation for the almost universal employment of makeshift structures in the residential area of the camp.

Part II: Mapping the Visible and Invisible Ritsona

When visitors first arrive in Ritsona, they are greeted by an easily-opened gate and the sight of an IOM ISObox on the right-hand side of the road. IOM headquarters are recognizable by the flag and blue sign on attached to the exterior wall and serve as the location for incoming resident registration. On the left sits a crumbling and abandoned concrete watchtower. As a former military base, Ritsona has a handful of pre-existing concrete buildings that the residents and NGOs have inherited. This includes the wire fence that begins at the entrance and encircles the camp. The flimsy metal has been appropriated from its once protective role to symbolize the barrier between the camp and the EU (Fig. 4). Moving deeper into the camp along the small, uneven road, visitors will see a large warehouse on the right, surrounded by NGO ISOboxes not dissimilar in size from the IOM box. In contrast to the IOM and UNHCR boxes in front of the warehouse, these NGO boxes feature painted façades. Directly across the road from the warehouse and humanitarian architectures sit small commercial structures. In contrast to the clean, rectilinear forms of the ISOboxes, these structures are patched together using repurposed materials. Entirely resident-run, the businesses are small cafés for the camp’s visitors and as informal gathering spaces for residents.

Continuing forward along the straight path of “Main Street,”61 passing through the commercial space visitors are met by a fork in the road (Fig. 5). To the left, on the west side of the camp sit additional NGO spaces. Paired with these active NGO spaces are the inactive military structures that were used prior to November 2016 as humanitarian spaces and were subsequently abandoned with the shift. The space that once housed the tents during the first nine months of the camp’s history was transformed into a football pitch.62 The man-made clearing, paired with the uneven road that travels from the front gate and circles the pitch, serve as the boundaries between the residential space (on the eastern side of the camp) and non-essential NGO services. Should a visitor elect to continue along the straight path rather than diverging left at the fork, they will see the residential area on the right-hand side of the road. At first glance, the dense space appears uniform. It is only when the visitor walks deeper into the residential space that they are presented with a full view of the resident-made external personalizations of the ISOboxes: a maze of tented additions, overhanging green mesh, outdoor seating areas, and gardens. The tour of Ritsona therefore illustrates how the camp is best understood as a composition of three separate spaces: residential, humanitarian, and commercial. These spaces, however, operate in relative isolation from one another.

ISOboxes primarily compose the small urban landscape of Ritsona and are used by NGOs and residents alike. While the pre-fab exteriors between the administrative and the residential ISOboxes largely resemble one another, there are differences in floor plans. Additionally, the customization of NGO ISOboxes is largely rooted in paint-on-surface methods rather than free-fab additions. While the residents expand upon the a-cultural architecture of the ISOboxes through structural additions, the humanitarian actors continue to operate in architectures that mirror their cultural status. The disconnects that characterize the relationship between the residents and the NGOs are subsequently made clear in the architectural composition of the camp.

The residential ISOboxes are temporary, mobile humanitarian architectures that are easily assembled converted shipping containers and come equipped with faux hardwood floors, two standard-issue bunkbeds, a small bathroom, a kitchenette, and air-conditioning/heating units. Perhaps most significantly, the ISOboxes provide an adequate level of security for residents, notably younger women, than the UNHCR tents of the first period.63 The kitchenettes and bathrooms are found on the western side of the ISObox, and the rest of the converted shipping container is one large, white-walled open room with the aforementioned amenities (Fig. 6). The exteriors of the ISOboxes are plain and identical: white; rectangular; and stripped of any decorative or distinctive qualities (Fig. 1). They only become distinctive when residents or staff members alike shift their aesthetic or structural composition. Like container camps created in Turkey, Germany, and Greece, the residential ISOboxes in Ritsona are arranged in a gridded plan, with eight ISOboxes to a row, with the row in axis with the mosque serving as the exception (Fig. 5).64 The residential architectures are composed of ISOboxes and free-fab additions and are grouped on the southwestern side of the camp (Fig. 3, Fig. 5). The residential space is arranged in a predetermined gridded scheme by transnational organizations (Fig. 1). Operating in relative isolation from NGOs (the warehouse is the only exception) and numbered in sequential order, this grid reinforces the power dynamics that exist between the two main actors in camp: the stateless and “stateful,” foreign and native, the dehumanized and the dehumanizers.65 These inflexible administrative patterns are therefore reflected in the landscape of the residential area. However, it is precisely the combination of isolation from non-residents and the condensed grouping crafted by the humanitarian designs that serve as the ideal environment for residents to overwhelmingly adopt a transformative visual language that defies the predetermined architectural narrative of the pre-fab. The residential spaces disconnect from the architectures and purview of NGOs have enabled residents to engage with their unique collective identity, as put forward by Aiger, and express this through an architectural vocabulary separate from those employed by the NGOs. This visual rupture reflects the power dynamics present within the camp and points to a more significant point: the NGOs cannot appropriate the architectural language of the free-fab additions because they are not included in the collective identity that the residents assume.

Space Syntax

Understanding how the residents of Ritsona create functional Islamic architectures requires an examination of the various “invisible” and visible elements that construct sacred spaces. As Wing highlights: “Sacred spaces are not permanently, fixedly sacred –they require constant re-identification and reaffirmation by people, not theories.”66 When examining the tangible construction of free-fab sacred spaces in Ritsona, it is essential to also examine the ways in which the various demographics of residents and non-residents interact with space within the camp. Free and limited movement demonstrates how Wing’s argument regarding sacred space is activated in Ritsona. The dynamics of movement contributing to sacred space, in the case of Islamic practice and tradition in the camp, shift depending on the sex of the individual and their relationships. The free-fab additions assume their titles of makeshift architectures not only by their structural characteristics, but how individuals engage with the spaces. Tracing these “invisible” architectures is possible through the use of Hillier and Hansons’ space syntax analysis, a visual method that graphs relationship between spaces and individuals’ movements.67 Space syntax acts as a visual tool that traces how “reaffirmation” of sacred space is manifested in Ritsona through the movement and access. Like the research conducted on Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, Soissons,68 Hillier and Hansons’ analytical tool will be adapted to highlight how access to specific spaces in Ritsona is determined by gender and contributes to constructing sacred spaces.

As evidenced by Figures 7 and 8, unmarried and married male residents enjoy a breadth and depth of access in Ritsona. These individuals are able to reach into the deepest point of access in Ritsona: the mosque. Male residents also enjoy the freedom of entering the inner-sanctum of the makeshift courtyard house, the ISObox, when amongst female family members. Additionally, as opposed to female residents who seek informal gathering spaces inside the ISObox or immediately outside of their tented additions, the resident-run commercial spaces on the main street are exclusively frequented by the male population of the camp (Fig. 7, Fig. 8). Female non-residents are often the exception to this rule. As these commercial spaces operate close to the main gate of Ritsona, male residents are inherently more visible to non-residents than women. The only space in which male residents are explicitly barred from entering is the female space, a NGO-run collection of ISOboxes with a fence that serves as a barrier, is the only example of female residents entering a sanctum other than their own ISOboxes, and therefore allows them to remove the hijab. Additionally, while married men theoretically have access to spaces that are run by NGOs the spaces are used exclusively by women and unmarried men. This unlimited access is an unspoken rule that dominates the movement of men within the camp. The access made available to the men within the camp acts as a form of “invisible” architecture that supports and helps shape the identity of Islamic architectures in the residential space.

The domestic architectures of Ritsona similarly uphold this trend of visible vs. “invisible,” spoken vs. unspoken with the women’s space within the context of the humanitarian architectures. Women spend the majority of their time in the residential area where they have ready access to the ISObox kitchens and the shipping container with laundry machines, thus allowing women to engage in the domestic roles that largely compose their days in Ritsona.69 The space syntax map for female residents (Fig. 9) reveals that women do not have access to the deepest space of the camp: the mosque. Due to this limited access to ‘public’ recreational and religious spaces, women often find themselves engaging in social and personal activities within the spaces of their own ISOboxes. In contrast to the mosque, which openly operates as a dynamic space as it is constantly “re-identifi[ed]” by cycles of residents,70 the majority of aesthetic developments of the harem are visible only internally and without obvious execution to non-harem visitors. In addition to the free-fab additions, which serve to transform the a-cultural and to the cultural, the latter is also activated by its ability to assume the identity of a sacred space through “invisible” architectures. This is traced with the removal of the hijab within the space of the harem. The hijab, a “mobile extension of the house,” enables women to operate within a mobile setting, the streets of Ritsona.71 Its removal indicates that a woman has, as O’Meara notes in the case study of premodern Fez, passed through the threshold of the sanctuary of the home.

72In Ritsona, the removal indicates that the ISObox a sacred identity. The inability of a male non-family member to be in the company of an uncovered woman illustrates how non-visible customs find themselves recreated in the context of the ISObox, or makeshift harem. The emphasis on the domestic space as one synonymous with women’s recreational and religious space not only ensures for the activation and shaping of invisible and visible architectures of the home, but also points to pre-modern urban traditions being recreated in the makeshift environment of the refugee camp.73

This type of socio-architectural shaping could only manifest itself in the exclusive environment of the refugee camp; it is unlikely that this level of urban scheme would be possible in Chalika, as the majority of Greek residents are worshipers of the Greek Orthodox church. Thus, it is precisely the conditions of social exclusion and physical isolation that provides residents with the invisible agency to shape the architectures of the refugee camp. Moreover, the space syntax map illustrates that the architectures of Ritsona, especially those located in the residential areas, are not solitary; they operate in collaboration with one another to create a visible and invisible scheme of Islamic architectures in the makeshift context of the camp.

Part III: Creating a Free-Fab Islamic Architectural Language

The conditions, space, and actors of Ritsona all contribute to its architectural framework. With different goals in mind, it should only be appropriate that the structures adopt various identities and thus, aesthetic and structural compositions. The isolation of the residential architectures from the external actors in the camp (the non-residents) enables the residents to employ a visual language that is distinct from the humanitarian architectures. The collective identity of residents within Ritsona—social and physical pariahs, shared experience of forced displacement, common national and religious identities—ensures that the visual language employed by residents is almost entirely adopted by the 159 ISOboxes. This visual program is rooted in constructing Islamic forms, notably a mosque and the courtyard house, using adapted ready-made materials.

The Mosque

The mosque of Ritsona is located on the furthest most western portion of the residential area and, aligning itself with the visual program of the surrounding residential space, is composed of pre-fab containers and ready-made free-fab external extensions that break the strict line of the pre-fab boundary (Fig. 10). The structural additions created by the free-fab, however, are not haphazard. After weeks of observation and research, it became clear that the mosque of Ritsona modeled itself, to the best of its ability, on the Great Mosque of Damascus. Damascus was once the capital of the Umayyad caliphate.74 Often considered as one of the earliest mosques and a structure of architectural grandeur due to its gargantuan size and rich decoration, the Great Mosque of Damascus serves as one of the earliest examples of mosques modeling themselves on the primordial house of the Prophet.75 The deliberate parallels with the Great Mosque of Damascus can be interpreted as an act of engaging with collective memory on the part of the residents, as many hail from the former Umayyad capital. Additionally, despite the space syntax’s depiction of its exclusive access, the structure operates within the fold of quotidian life, and must subsequently be considered as an actor within the larger narrative of collective memory. Lastly, it is of interest to highlight that the Great Mosque of Damascus has its origins in Christian architecture.76 Once the Christian church of St. John the Baptist, al-Walid I enclosed the structure, the relics of St. John, and the temple of Jupiter Damascenes in the mosque.77 Marwa al-Sabouni notes that prior to 2011, urban Syrian communities functioned in co-existence between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority; this is similarly present in Ritsona.78 The visual referencing of Damascus could also serve as a signal of religious architectural recognition for the Christian minorities in the camp. Despite the lack of materials and the imposition of pre-fab architecture, a visual parallel between the Ritsona mosque and that of Damascus exists.

The mosque of Ritsona is composed of two rectangular ISOboxes that have been welded together to make one large structure (Fig. 28). It is located in the residential space of camp and is surrounded by ISOboxes on the southern and eastern sides. The western side features a community garden and fence; the latter element is employed as a utilitarian object by the residents rather viewed as a barrier—this impediment is instead achieved by Ritsona’s isolation. It is of interest to highlight that the mosque boasts about twenty to twenty-five meters of free space to the north; the space acts as a natural preface to the mosque’s entrance. The mosque of Ritsona adheres to architectural norms established by the residential community. The main structure of the mosque is composed of two pre-fab containers but relies on makeshift materials to personalize the space and extend the sacred boundary.

The exterior most prominently illustrates how the residents of Ritsona used repurposed materials to create characteristics that draw a visual parallel with the Great Mosque of Damascus. The porch and its extensions dominate the sacred landscape and serve multiple functions. While the wooden porch, composed of repurposed shipping pallets, was primarily used by the residents as a space to place their shoes before entering the mosque, it also functioned as an additional space for prayer on Fridays when the mosque was crowded. The inclusion of open-air space as an extension of the sacred is not uncommon; the practice can be traced to the interior courtyard of the Great Mosque of Damascus,79 as well as to the sidewalks of Brooklyn.80 Slyomovics’ research on contemporary makeshift examples of extending prayer space into the sidewalks of New York, and Aljazeera America’s underscoring of the practice81 demonstrates that spaces are not limited to architectural confines. Misshapen wooden posts and old UNHCR tarps create an effective cover over the porch structure, though the posts can be interpreted as providing additions beyond structural necessity. Their slightly equalized application and role of proving internal/external cover indicates that they symbolize an attempt to re-create central elements that compose the shape of hypostyle halls. Although the posts clearly serve a functional purpose, it is compelling to consider how the choice of using wood over any other vertical material could have been a conscious decision to evoke the basic style that acts as the prominent structural and decorative feature in the Friday Mosque of Damascus. However, the dimensions of the ISObox reveals that the resident-architects are limited to the boundaries of the pre-fab when crafting makeshift architectures. The presence of the miniature hypostyle addition demonstrates that there is a tension between the architectures of the pre-fab and the free-fab. This tension is also present in the interior of the structure.

Figure 11 reveals the addition of a sacred space: the women’s mosque. This space has been both the most dynamic and little-used area of the porch. Unlike the interior of the mosque, which comes equipped with a textile for prayer, the black palettes provided for the women’s mosque achieve little beyond marking the designated space and lifting individuals off the graveled ground. However, this is perhaps the function of the space. In an attempt to reference great structures attributed to the Umayyad caliphate, it is possible that the residents also turned to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The al-Aqsa’s deep tie with Umayyad identity and connection with the Prophet indicates that it is possible that the residents of Ritsona also referenced this holy site when constructing their mosque. Like the Great Mosque of Damascus, the al-Aqsa features a covered musalla (prayer hall), a hypostyle hall, and mosaic work.82 While not attributed to the original structure of Al-Aqsa, a small women’s mosque is attached to the northwest corner of the musalla.83 It is possible that the residents of Ritsona created the women’s mosque for symbolic reasons. Its status as an unused addition during the period of this research was evident by the lack of activity around the space and its ephemeral status. Fig. 11 and Fig. 12 illustrates that the floor plan of the women’s mosque was ever-changing throughout the duration of field work; at one point the surface area diminished by over 15%. The shifting of the space’s floor plan suggest that the women’s mosque operated as a symbolic space rather than as an active space for prayer. The mosque is a space used exclusively by men.

The exterior of the mosque also demonstrates how “invisible” architectures are employed to emphasize its status as a sacred space. The mosque employs the flimsy barrier of the metal fence, a characteristic from Ritsona’s former use as a military base, to activate the space surrounding the mosque and transform it into a courtyard for this religious function (Fig. 10, image of courtyard). In the pursuit of the orientation, the mosque in Ritsona, in a similar fashion to mosques around the globe, is slightly skewed at approximately a 20º angle from a central axis to achieve a directional vector towards Mecca. The mosque therefore succeeds in distinguishing itself even further from the surrounding humanitarian planning by failing to adhere to strict symmetry established by the gridded planning surrounding the religious space. The indication that the mosque employs “invisible” architectures to demonstrate its sacred nature is further reinforced by the approximately twenty-five meters of open space which acts as a spatial preface to the musalla. Furthermore, the makeshift “courtyard” of the mosque continues to successfully reference the Great Mosque of Damascus through its engagement with nature. The courtyard of the Great Mosque houses mosaics depicting scenes of paradisiac vegetation, and the fountain for wudu (absolution). The bed frames provide an intriguing element to the porch; it is not unlikely that the rectangular space is perhaps used to evoke the space where a fountain in a Friday mosque (Fig. 13), as the residents partook in absolution in their ISOboxes.

The external characteristics of Ritsona’s mosque demonstrates how the residents engage with free-fab architectures in order to create Islamic architectures from the pre-fab base. Using the legacy of Umayyad architectures as a source of inspiration, the resident-architects success-fully create a new canon of architecture, where makeshift structures are put into conversation with the traditions of initiated by premodern architectural traditions. In doing so, the residents of Ritsona successfully illustrate the tensions that arise within the experience of forced displacement and memory through free-fab Islamic architecture: permanent and ephemeral, isolated and connected, with agency and without.

The interior constructions of sacred space of the mosque are easily recognizable and leave little to the imagination. Despite limited access into the inner sanctum of the walls, photographs of the interior reveal that a carpet covers the faux-hardwood floor and that the qibla wall is marked using paint also used by NGOs (Fig. 14). Although the interior shares a similar floor plan as the NGO ISOboxes (one large, open room without running water, beds, or kitchen spaces) the open floor plan has been appropriated by the religious residential community of Ritsona to adopt the characteristics of a mosque and function as a religious center. Equipped with a musalla, or central prayer hall, a textile for prayer, minbar, qibla wall, mihrab, and windows to administer the call to prayer, the interior of the Ritsona mosque uses makeshift materials to create an operational religious center. The musalla acts as the dominating architectural feature, a decision that is largely attributed to the predetermined dimensions of the space.84 Due to pre-fab designs, the residents are forced to create a space that adopts a different visual perspective than the exterior. The residents successfully created a religious space through the active manipulation of the passive pre-fab characteristics of the ISObox. In other words, the transformed ISOboxes recognize the limitations of the two-dimensional qualities of the pre-fab and reshape the interior box into a three-dimensional space. The mosque of Ritsona aligns itself with the modus operandi of prior Islamic architectures; it demonstrates how regional styles, materials, and values shape architectures over time and space.

The level of free-fab adaptation of the pre-fab skeleton is most prominently present on and around the qibla wall. The mihrab, or the niche created in nearly every mosque, acts as the space for the Prophet Muhammad. Its presence in the qibla wall, the marker that orients individuals in salat towards Mecca, is perhaps the most religiously potent space in the mosque. As such, a mihrab is often richly-adorned to further highlight its sacred status. The addition of the sacred niche is traced to the Umayyad period.85 The residents (led by the resident Imam) engage with free-fab design to transform the flat surface of the ISObox wall into a sacred marker. Employing paint, the residents successfully manipulate the seemingly unmalleable walls of the pre-fab ISObox to create a mihrab into the shape it has assumed for over a millennium (Fig. 15) The ornamented qibla wall, complete with stylized inscriptions not unlike those of the mihrab in Damascus (Fig. 16) and the green paint, which forms a rectangular framing device over the semi-circular shape of the mihrab, extends the traditions from the Umayyad structure to Ritsona. Additionally, the residents’ embrace of the vertical grooved lines of the ISObox wall allowed for the Ritsona mihrab to adopt vertical registers to compose the form. This characteristic is also employed in the mihrab of Damascus. Paint is used on either side of the mihrab for the inscriptions, which read on the left of the mihrab: “Muhammad” then, “peace be upon him” in a smaller font. To the right of the mihrab is “God” in large letters and “almighty” slightly below it (Fig. 14). The inclusion of the “peace be upon him” following the recognition of the Prophet is common in both modern and premodern literature, as illustrated by its presence in the Hadith.86

The interior of the mosque reveals that, not unlike the limits presented to the makeshift hypostyle hall, tensions exist between the pre-fab and the free-fab. A disconnect between the two materials, and by extension, the two populations the materials represent, becomes particularly apparent due to the residents’ inability to completely modify the architecture of the pre-fab. In other words, although the residents have significantly altered the visual features of the façade, the mosque remains, at its core, an ISObox. While the floor plan of the Great Mosque of Damascus reveals that the entrance is situated in a way to direct individuals towards the mihrab, this architectural orientation is dependent on the structure provided to the residents by humanitarian actors. The mosque has manipulated the rigidity of the humanitarian architecture provided to serve in the architectural interest of the religious space. In this way, the makeshift becomes sacred.

ISObox turned Sahn: The Makeshift Courtyard

Free-fab domestic architectures in Ritsona played a central role in the architectural fabric of Ritsona during the tenure of this research. Adding tented exteriors, green mesh, and makeshift clothes railings in Ritsona was a practice widely adopted by the residents of the camp. This makeshift process enabled residents to successfully change the gridded landscape of the pre-fab humanitarian design to a residential community built on makeshift cul-de-sacs, extended familial spaces, and ISOboxes with private and semi-private spaces that extend beyond the predetermined walls.

The temporary homes afforded by ISOboxes played especially significant roles in the lives of the adults in the camp. The change to ISOboxes signaled a departure from the unsafe and unhygienic conditions of the tents, enabled for concrete gathering spaces for families and the opportunity to customize the space. This customization occurs both within the walls of the pre-fab containers and on the exterior walls of the ISOboxes. Due to the nature of the camp (a space that is temporary, but offers residents a stable housing solution during the drawn-out asylum process), many residents customize their proper living space to better meet their practical, familial, and cultural needs. Despite an individual drive by the residents of each ISObox to engage with the free-fab for practical reasons, a visitor to Ritsona cannot help but notice a pattern in this expansion: each addition featured a basic rectangular form created by repurposed UNHCR tents and other aforementioned repurposed materials found around the camp. This transformation not only affects the floorplan and shape of each individual ISObox, but successfully transforms the disjointed plan that stems from the grid of the humanitarian diagram (Fig. 1) into a landscape that better reflects the needs of the residents (Fig. 3). The re-shaping of humanitarian lines reveals how the residents collectively engage in exercising control over the imposed space. A close examination of the collective crafting and resident engagement with the structures indicates that the ISOboxes are transformed from singular square spaces into sahns, or inward-looking courtyard houses (Fig. 17).

These humanitarian shelters-turned-temporary-homes must first be recognized as ephemeral architectures. While originally designed for sleeping accommodations in mind, the open floor plan allows for the space to assume a multipurpose identity. The rectangular shape of the ISObox and the consistent materials used to construct the additions act as the foundations for the architectural identity of the residential space. It is of interest to stress that while the rectangular tented additions were popular forms of extending the walls of the ISOboxes, the repurposed tents were also used to manipulate the rigid plan and create additions in order to connect extended families.87 However, as is the case with all other ISOboxes, these vanish and re-emerge as the demographics of the camp change over time. Scholarship on courtyard homes reveals that that these domestic structures are not unique to Islam.88 Courtyard houses adapt their environments, as seen with those of Ritsona. Reem Zako provides helpful guidelines for understanding the various components that may compose a “traditional” courtyard home:

The principle identifiable spaces and rooms of the house are: The mejaz (the entrance passageway), dolan (the entrance vestibule in the larger house), salamlik (the reception room), […] iwan and talar (open rooms which widen the balcony into a usable space), the iwanchas (smaller opening off the tarma), the ursi (This is the great room of the house) […].89

Like Abidin’s essay, Zako focuses on permanent architecture (or rather, long-term structures in non-emergency zones) and offers few points of reference for Ritsona beyond the helpful architectural definitions provided above. Dalal’s study also suggests that the makeshift additions to the ISOboxes re-imagines this Islamic architecture within the context of the refugee camp. He highlights how Zaatari residents have overwhelmingly employed the pre-fab humanitarian architecture as the “core”90 of the domestic space, and have expanded beyond the borders using repurposed materials to recreate a domestic space rooted in referencing Islam through a similar makeshift architectural scheme. Although Dalal’s essay is problematic, the recognition and brief analysis of free-fab constructions in a camp created to accommodate Syrian displacement91 is critical when determining the level of activity from residents in contemporary refugee camps in re-shaping humanitarian architectures. The pre-fab plan of Ritsona has drastically shifted; instead of a grid, the sahns of Ritsona changed landscape to mirror premodern Islamic urban qualities (Fig. 17).92

That is not to say that a diversity of architectural and cultural interpretations does not exist in the camp. In contrast to the mosque, whose external free-fab markers indicated structural additions that could be put in conversation with pre-modern Umayyad Friday Mosques, the free-fab additions of the ISOboxes failed to concrete visual parallel with the specific architectural vernacular that I could identify. This, however, is appropriate for a myriad of reasons. The first is that there is not a set formula for modern, post-modern, and contemporary vernacular architecture in Syria.93 The lack of overarching aesthetic specificity beyond the shape of the free-fab additions is also attributed to the limited resources. Personal objects in the ISOboxes were used to transform the a-cultural environment of the ISObox into a cultural space. These objects were portable, and carried sentimental value, but also served as cultural markers that activated the space of the ISObox. The valuable and unique markers were thus limited to the most private inner sanctum.

The creation of large rectangular tents attached to the front elevation of each ISObox act as the overwhelming common architectural thread in this part of the camp. Composed of recycled UNHCR tents from the first months in camp, green netting, and duct tape, the rectangular spaces were often held up by repurposed wooden posts or by the metal bed frames of the bed supplied with each ISObox. Stretching above the pre-fab door frames, the additions aid in constructing spaces that extend beyond the pre-set dimensions of the ISObox. While this rectangular tented shape was present throughout the space of the residential area, no two tented additions are identical (Fig. 18). The customization of the tented additions not only reflect the individual tastes of each family or group, but also point to the larger practical roles the tented structures played. The tented additions enabled residents to create a multi-purpose space that extended beyond the limited boundaries of the one-room pre-fab container.

The crafting of tented additions also points to an effort to create private spaces within the camp. ISOboxes feature of lockable doors and screened windows indicates that the additions serve a purpose beyond security. Beyond this, however, the tents serve to instill sense of privacy and a physical boundary between the public space of the camp and the second layer of the home, the ISObox. The tented portion not only covers and protects the doorway into the ISObox, but also succeeds in creating a protective layer over the pre-fab semi-transparent windows of the ISObox, which enable passers-by to look inside the inner sanctum of the house. The drive for complete privacy within the walls of the house, paired with the multi-purpose nature of the tented addition, points to the free-fab addition adopting a role beyond practicality: instead, its form and use indicates that it is sahn, or an inward-looking courtyard house.

The residential landscape, once engaged with by the residents, does not resemble the immaculate grid planned by humanitarian forces (Fig. 17). Instead, the protruding tents act the vehicles to connect extended families and create a clear external marker to enforce the privacy of the interior. This indicates that the residents of Ritsona, just as with the mosque, engaged with the free-fab to recreate Islamic markers. These courtyards and their adjoining rooms (ISOboxes) are unable to adopt characteristics of multi-room complexes outlined in Zako’s essay due to practical limitations, access to monetary and material resources, and the status of the architectures as temporary spaces.94 The tented courtyards often do adopt many of the characteristics outlined by Zako. The flaps of tarp or wooden pallets act as the entrance into the courtyard from the streets (Fig. 17). Functioning like permanent mejaz, the repurposed entrances act as thresholds into the private space. Beyond the threshold lies the “courtyard.” The rectangular tented space adopts various personalities. Depending on the time of year and personal preference, open-top tented courtyards act as salamlik, or reception room for men, and spaces for cooking. When offering a closed roof option, women are more likely to engage with the space, through their headscarves are typically worn here. Connecting the semi-private space of the courtyard to the entirely private space of the harem, or the inner layer of the house, the ISObox, is the dolan. The dolan of the private ISObox is the same as the barrier between sacred and non-sacred in the mosque: the pre-fab door of the humanitarian architecture. It leads to the ursi, or the main room of the house, which subsequently adopts the identity of a harem.

Again, this practice is modeled on traditional practices in Islamic courtyard homes and has been adapted to the makeshift conditions of Ritsona. Zako quotes John Warren and Ihsan Feth: “He (The Oriental) divides his house into two; the diwankhana, reserved for guests and the harem, which is used by the family. Individual rooms, however, he prefers to distinguish according to whether there are more pleasant to live in during the summer or winter […]”95 The language employed by Warren and Fethi is problematic, but the larger point of multifunctional space also pertains to Ritsona. The inner walls of the ISObox serve as the harem and the makeshift “courtyard” acts as the diwankhana, though when women are not present, these spatial lines often blur. On the one hand, the ISObox acts as a social space, where personal activities take place. On the other hand, the ISObox adopts the identity of a sanctuary, the only space in which women can remove the hijab— after having passed through the threshold of the harem— and operate without the extension of the wall. The indication that the pre-fab humanitarian architectures are actively being transformed into and engaged with as Islamic homes is not only present in the architectural qualities, but like most architectures, becomes activated through movement and use; as evidenced by the access analysis maps, space and gender are intrinsically linked in Ritsona. Zako also uses space syntax to highlight how unspoken gender norms are firmly ingrained in the fabric of most Islamic domestic spaces.96 Placing the visible and invisible attributes of the Ritsona makeshift courtyard home in conversation with Zako’s research make clear that ISOboxes adopt the identities of Islamic courtyard homes. As such, the sahn’s of Ritsona operate as more than recreations of the architectural vernacular of Islamic cities, but are also sacred spaces.

Like other Islamic architectures, the harem appears throughout time and space in different forms; there is no set formula, as Marilyn Booth97 and Leslie Peirce make particularly clear. Pierce, like Booth, highlights that the harem is not a women-only space.98 Instead, it can largely be defined as a sanctuary. While Shissler notes that Peirce’s definition is largely applied to multi-room imperial structures, I employ the definition to the context of the single-room ISObox in Ritsona. I also extend the definition of the harem (when pertaining to women) to include the presence of the hijab, or the headscarf that, as O’Meara makes clear, acts as an extension of the threshold of the harem.99 O’Meara argues that that hijab acts “as a mobile extension of the house,” and as such, it enables women to operate within a mobile setting while continuing to function within the sanctity of the home.100 Wearing the hijab ensures that women residents engage in everyday activities while continuing to be protected by the walls of the domestic sanctuary. However, once within the inner walls of the sanctum, or the ISObox, women are free to remove their headscarves. The adornment of the headscarf beyond the boundaries of the ISObox and its removal within the walls of the pre-fab container must be recognized as a critical element of the Islamic identity of the ISObox. The removal of the headscarf indicates that the space of the residential ISObox enables women to use the domestic space as a sacred space. Thus, the sacred space of women in the home is less contingent on a formal set of architectural rules. The harem instead operates as a web of unspoken customs and spaces (Fig. 19).

The harem thus adopts an identity that extends beyond social boundaries and serves as a religious forum. The architectures mobilized by women for sacred purposes is simultaneously the most visible and invisible indicators of makeshift Islamic spaces in Ritsona. The Access Analysis map illustrates how the landscape of mobility dominated by the unspoken gendered traditions. Unable to access the mosque, female residents are limited to the domestic space. The women break beyond the boundaries of the pre-fab and create sacred architectures in a way that relies on the internal structure of the home rather than the external presence of the camp. Often using a textile that can be easily transported and stowed, women manipulate the interior decorations to make spaces within the harem to pray. It was also not uncommon to hear women listening to a sermon while conducting domestic tasks. However minimal these changes in comparison to the mosque, their presence illustrates how sactred makeshift architectures are formed using the pre-fab as their canvas, and making the pre-determined landscape malleable rather than adhering to its rigid design.


Ritsona, a small refugee camp in the mountains of mainland Greece, therefore acts as the unexpected place where makeshift Islamic architectures and sacred space are constructed. In contrast to existing literature which claim that free-fab transformations of and additions pre-fab architectures in refugee camps are purely practical expressions, the case study of Ritsona’s residential area illustrates how an underlying cultural pulse fuels the form and functions of the makeshift structures. The conditions of the cultural and sacred constructions can be attributed environment of social exile engenders a sense of solidarity that transcends national and regional borders amongst residents. The violent, and often unspoken, conditions of social exclusion are reinforced by the humanitarian control. The conditions of exclusion and attempted control that serves as the catalyst and structural foundation for the manifestation of a residential visual language. Using ready-made materials as their primary medium, the residents of the Ritsona successfully construct an urban plan that not only mirrors the vernacular architecture of Syria and other nations in the region, but also function as sacred spaces. In doing so, the residents illustrate how Islamic architectures adapt to the contexts in which they appear. They also illustrate how humanitarian attempts to control the residents architecturally, ultimately fails. In fact, the manifestations of free-fab architectures ultimately signal how agency is exercised by the residents in two ways: first, by breaking beyond the boundaries imposed by humanitarian aids, and second, by adding a new leaf to scholarship on how Islamic architectures are redefined and reinterpreted in new spatial contexts.



1 Approval granted by Brown University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) committee on May 18, 2017.
2 “Resident” and “refugee” will be used in this thesis interchangeably. The residents of Ritsona are refugees and use the camp as temporary housing as they undergo the trying legal process of applying for asylum. However, the term ‘resident,’ I believe, gives an individual more agency over the space of the camp, as opposed to ‘refugee,’ which implies a level of helplessness to the humanitarian forces at work.
3 Scholars and journalists alike use the language of “container camps” to describe the use of repurposed shipping containers now used as humanitarian architectures in camps for displaced persons. I, however, believe that the phrase strips the residents of Ritsona of agency and undermines their personal mobility, familial relationships, and architectural expression in the camp. I thus use the term “ISObox,” the name of the containers.
4 Interview with Evelina Eskenazi, author, FaceTime, Providence, RI, February 4, 2018.
5 European Commission, 2017, “EU-Turkey Statement: One Year On,” 2, accessed March 3, 2018,
6 Joanna Kakissis, “‘Europe Does not See Us As Human’: Stranded Refugees Struggle in Greece,” National Public Radio, March 9, 2018, accessed March 9, 2018,
7 Interview with Evelina Eskenazi, February 4, 2018.
8 Hellenic Republic Ministry of National Defence, 2016, “Inauguration of Ritsona Refugee Accommodation Centre by Alternate Minister of Defence,” accessed October 6, 2017,
9 The pre-fab structures are known colloquially as “caravans” by residents and NGO staffers.
10 Ibid.,
11 Irit Katz, “Pre-fabricated or freely fabricated?” Forced Migration Review, 55 (2017): 18, accessed October 27, 2017.
12 Ibid.,
13 Ibid.., 19.
14 Ibid.,
15Interview with Evelina Eskenazi, February 4, 2018.
16 A number of residents throughout the period of the fieldwork identified as Kurds, though they were not the camp majority. Interview with Evelina Eskenazi, February 4, 2018.
17 During the time of the fieldwork, it was gathered through casual conversations that approximately five of the 800 residents identified as Christians, and represented the only non-Muslim religion amongst residents. Ritsona’s status as a camp composed of Muslim-majority identifiers is not a secret; NGO staffers, most notably women, are notified prior to the start of their tenure of proper dressing attire, as a way of respecting the cultural needs of the residents. Furthermore, as Evelina Eskenazi, a field coordinator for Echo100Plus, noted in an interview, the expression of religion and the sharing of personal culture served as “a source of pride for [the residents.]” Interview with Evelina Eskenazi, February 4, 2018.
18 Ayham Dalal, “The Emergence of Habitat in Zaatari Camp in Jordan: Between Humanitarian and Socio-cultural order,” Trialog 112/113: Camp Cities, no. 1-2 (2013): 47.
19 Vincent F. Biondo III, “The Architecture of Mosques in the US and Britain,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26:3 (2006): 399-400, accessed October 14, 2017
20 Sherin Wing, Designing Sacred Spaces, (New York and London: Routledge, 2016), 18.
21 Ibid.,
22 Bill Hillier and Julie Hanson, The Social Logic of Space, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
23 Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines, “Ne aliquis extraneus claustrum intret: Entry and Access at the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, Soissons,” in Perspectives for an Architecture of Solitude, ed. Terryl N. Kinder, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2005), 33-34.
24 Marilyn Booth, ed, “Introduction,” in Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces, (Duham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), 5.
25 Textiles are central to Islamic practice, whether it be in the salat carpet or the hijab worn by Muslim women. Additionally, textiles have been used in premodern Islamic architectural traditions (i.e. curtains as doors). See Golobek, 1988.
26 Simon O’Meara, “Social and Religious Dimensions of Walls,” in Space and Muslim Urban Life (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), 20.
27“Introductory note by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),” in Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (2001), 3, accessed October 5, 2018,
28 Ibid., 2.
29 Ibid., 3.
30 Noticeably absent from the provision are individuals that fear persecution because of their gender, sexual identity, and environmental hazards. While Martine Denis-Linton underscores in Le Droit d’Asile that benefits are being made to the framework to make the definition of refugee more precise and relevant in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there continues to be noticeable gaps in the expansion of rights (See Dnis-Linton26-29).
31 Andrew Herscher, “Refugee Camps,” in Displacements: Architecture and Refugee, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 77-111.
32 Official refugee camps serve as temporary spaces that offer shelter for individuals that have fled their countries of origin.
33 Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, ed. Marc Robinson (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994), 111.
34 Ibid., 110.
35 Ibid., 116.
36 Ibid, 119.
37 Anthony Faiola, “Thousands of refugees stranded in Greece after wealthy EU states take just 3% of numbers pledged,” The Independent, October 15, 2016, accessed October 31, 2017; Fatina Abreek-Zubiedat,“The Palestinian refugee camps: the promise of ‘ruin’ and ‘loss,’” in Rethinking History (London: Routledge, 2015), 74.
38 Jacques Derrida, “Hostipitality,” Angelaki, 5, (2000): 3, accessed November 1, 2017,
39 “UNHCR Emergency Handbook: Camp Planning Standards (planned settlements),” UNHCR, accessed October 17, 2017,, 6.
40 Michel Agier, Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 3.
41 Katz,18.
42 Ibid.,
43 UNHCR, “UNHCR Family Tent for hot Climate: UNHCR Item No. 07424,” accessed October 17, 2017,
44 Mac McClelland, “How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp,” The New York Times, February 13, 2014, accessed February 18, 2018,
45 Jim Kennedy, “Design, Manifestation and Development in Camps for the Displaced,” Trilog 112/113: Camp Cities, no. 1-2 (2013): 8.
46 “UNHCR Emergency Handbook,” 1. The stipulations put forward by the organization, however, are recommendations, not legal requirements.
47 Ibid., 2.
48 Jim Kennedy, “Design, Manifestation and Development in Camps for the Displaced,” Trialog: Camp Cities (2013), 8.
49 Ledwith, 17.
50 Kennedy, 8.
51 Alison Ledwith, Zaatari: The Instant City, (Boston: Affordable Housing Institution, 2014),10; Franziska Laue, “Shelter Architecture- Emergency Versus Innovation, Contextualisation and Flexibility,” Trilog 112/113: Camp Cities, no. 1-2 (2013): 27.
52 Musa Shteiwi et al., “Migrants and Refugees: impact and Future Policies. Case Studies of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece,” Euromesco: European Institute of the Mediterranean, September 20, 2016, 86
53 Katz, 18.
54 Ibid.,
55 Ibid.,
56 Ibid., 7; Fatina Abreek-Zubeidat, “The Palestinian refugee camps: the promise of ‘ruin’ and ‘loss’,” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 19, no. 1, (2013): 78, accessed October 7, 2017; Ledwith, 24.
57 McClelland, “How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp,” The New York Times.
58 Agier, 16.
59 Ibid.,
60 Katz, 19.
61 Main Street is not a term used amongst the various actors in Ritsona, but rather, one that I have given the road for the purposes of this thesis.
62 What was once a football pitch for recreational use has since been transformed into an extension of the residential space. New residential ISOboxes were added to accommodate more residents in February 2018.
63 Interview, Evelina Eskenazi, February 4, 2018.
64 Jenny Hill, “Migrant Crisis: Hamburg uses shipping containers as homes,” BBC, October 6, 2015, accessed February 21, 2018,
65 Residents are often identified by their ISObox number rather than by name in the humanitarian context of Ritsona. Providing their ISObox number is paramount to accessing services in the camp (access to water, hygiene, food, milk, administrative services, etc.).
66 Wing, 18.
67 Bill Hillier and Julie Hanson, The Social Logic of Space, (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
68 Bonde and Maines, 36-37.
69 Reluctance to engage in “domestic” tasks became clear during my time as a volunteer, especially when working in the laundry room; men would often refuse to engage with domestic tasks if their female family members were present in the camp. There are, of course, exceptions to this ingrained social rule.
70 During my time in Ritsona, the mosque sustained a number of cosmetic changes. Most notable of these shifts was the addition of plastic sheets used to enclose the dies of the porch in early September, a shift that served a functional role as as temperatures began to drop and the rainy season approached.
71 Ibid.,
72 O’Meara, 27.
73 Ibid.,
74 Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Art and Architecture, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 25.
75 Hillenbrand, Hattstein and Delius all highlight the role of the conversion of Prophet’s house into a mosque in the eighth century A.D (known as the al-Maunawwara), plays a central role when considering where Islamic architectures find inspiration for their forms. The plan of al-Maunawwara features a central courtyard, hypostyle hall, and rectangular plan (Fig. 24). The architectural program of the Prophet’s home is said to serve as the solid architectural and spiritual point of reference for generations of Islamic structures around the world. The structural elements are then reinterpreted over time and by different local customs.
76 Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, ed., Islam: Art and Architecture, (Germany: H.F.Ullmann, 2015), 69.
77 Ibid.,
78 Marwa, al-Sabouni, The Battle for Home: The vision of a Young Architect in Syria, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2016), 8, 31.
79 Hattstein and Delius, 67.
80 Slymovics, 206-207.
81 Peter Moskowtiz, “Anger and Apathy from Brooklyn Muslims over NYPD spying report,” Aljazeera America, August 30, 2013, accessed February 13, 2018,
82 Henri Stern, "Recherches Sur La Mosquée Al-Aqṣā Et Sur Ses Mosaïques," Ars Orientalis 5, (1963): 31, 34.
83 Duncan, 8; Rafi Grafman and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon, “The Two Great Syrian Umayyad Mosques: Jerusalem and Damascus,” Muqarnas, no. 16 (1999): 3.
84 Photograph of the interior of the mosque is provided by a former resident of Ritsona.
85 Hattstein and Delius, 71.
86 Quoted in Finbarr Barry Flood, The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture, 39, 40.
87 August 2017 saw three prominent examples of this type of extended tent restructuring.
88 Scholars, including Atillio Petruccioli, E. Mahmoud Zein al Abidin, Magda Sibley, Arrouf Abdelmalek, Gholahmhossein Memarian and Frank Brown, have illustrated how, like all Islamic architectures, the aesthetic and structural elements that characterize courtyard homes, adapt to the contexts in which they appear.
89 Reem Zako “The Power of the Veil: Gender Inequality in the Domestic Setting of Traditional Courtyard Houses,” in Courtyard Housing: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Brian Edwards et al. (Oxford, UK: Taylor & Francis group, 2006), 67.
90 Dalal, 46.
91 Ibid., 43.
92 O’Meara, 6-8.
93 As Marwa Al-Sabouni highlights in The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria, vernacular architecture in the third largest city in Syria, Homs, is largely shaped by the “mood-anism,” or personal preference of the local authority. Al-Sabouni, 43. The resulting landscape (which she notes, “although each city has its peculiarities, there are also broad similarities that make it fair to generalize. In this sense, Homs is not a special case: its tale is the tale of all Syrian cities,”) is a mosaic of architectural styles (twentieth-century French Colonial, contemporary development projects, and Ottoman markets to name a few). Al-Sabouni, 25, 39. The author does highlight, however, that the old city, or the city center, is composed of densely-crowded courtyard houses and small, winding alleyways-- an urban plan that similarly characterizes the residential area of Ritsona. Al-Sabouni, 38.
94 Zako, 67, 68.
95 Quoted in Reem Zako “The Power of the veil: gender inequality in the domestic setting of traditional courtyard houses,” 70.
96 Zako, 71-74.
97 Booth, 5.
98 Leslie Pierce, quoted in A. Holly Shissler, “The Harem and the Middle Class,” in Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces, 322.
99 O’Meara, 27.
100 Ibid.,


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Social and Economic Sciences: Menu

1. The Illusion Through Green Colored Lenses by Suzanne Anotoniou

2. Reshaping the Refugee Camp: Makeshift Islamic Architectures in Ritsona, Greece by Clemencia Garcia-Kasimirowski