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How Design is Enabling Social Change in Southeast Asia and the Middle East

Refugee shelter
Photo courtesy of Sanjana Paramhans

I was born in Lucknow in 1994 and moved a lot while growing up—Mumbai, Delhi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kuwait and then finally Bahrain where I finished high school at The Indian School, Bahrain. By the time I got to high school, I had attended 10 schools in total. In 2012, I moved to Brooklyn to pursue my degree in interior design at Pratt Institute. It was around this time, when my mind was still forming, and opinions still developing, that I first heard and experienced what was happening in Syria.

Sanjana Paramhans
Photo courtesy of Sanjana Paramhans

I felt deeply moved by the plight of the people there. There was hopelessness attached to it; a sense of inevitability. Some of the people were escaping on boats, to any place that would accept them. They took only their most deeply personal belongings with them, never knowing if they would come back again; if they would ever be able to see their homes. In a strange sense, this resonated with me. All the moving and displacement from country to country when I was young; making friends and then losing them. It was hard and it was painful. And I probably only experienced about a tenth, hell probably not even that much, of what Syrian refugees were (and still are) going through. That’s when I knew I wanted to make a difference, big or small.

In late 2015, President Obama announced that he was going to let about 10,000 refugees into the United States. A small number but nonetheless significant. At around the same time, I had to pick a topic for my thesis project during my final year of college. I decided to create a temporary refugee shelter to provide a temporary home for those refugees resettling in different countries. Although my research was done specifically for New York, this shelter can really be used anywhere. It is a modular piece of furniture that consists of a bed, storage and a privacy panel for a single person. It can be joined with others for larger families, and most importantly, is distributed to the people flat-packed and buildable in less than 30 minutes. And so began my career as a designer for social change. A social designer.

“I created a space where the two communities can mingle with each other … My thinking is that maybe we can foster peace, love and harmony this way.”

A few months ago, I took part in a competition to create a peaceful border design at the India-Pakistan border. Instead of creating political and social tension between the two countries by not interacting, I created a space where the two communities can mingle with each other, and a façade which can house plants of the opposite country (depending on which side you’re on), all planted by the people themselves. My thinking is that maybe we can foster peace, love and harmony this way.

Currently, I am working on an app that will help the refugee youth adjust to their new life after resettlement. It is being designed in order to provide mentorship programs for the youth, to help them fit into the new environment, and is designed to be more of a psychological adjustment rather than a physical one.

In India, there is still a stigma attached to mental health. Many people still classify it under the same category as cancer or blindness. For this, I work with an NGO, Lonepack, and design campaigns in order to increase awareness and acceptability. I also work closely with an NGO in the Middle East, Sneha, that provides free education and grooming to children suffering from Down Syndrome.

I do strongly believe that design stimulates people to behave a certain way—it can condition and control their actions and reactions. Design is not just about pretty lights and wallpaper, it is an enabler of social change.

Raising awareness on current refugee crisis
Raising awareness on current refugee crisis
Photo courtesy of Sanjana Paramhans