The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.
It’s been two years since the EU-Turkey deal to stop refugees coming into Europe. Still, there are many thousands of refugees staying indefinitely in refugee camps throughout Greece. The issue is fading from public consciousness, but asylum seekers’ prospects aren’t improving. Their home countries remain embattled, and the EU is still largely closed to them.
Habibi.Works, a registered fab lab, is one bright spot in an otherwise difficult and disturbing situation. It was launched when its founders became disenchanted with more traditional, one-sided aid programs, and thought to create space where refugees could retake some control of their lives, build skills, and make what they need.
Galvanized by the urgent needs of refugee communities, Habibi.Works truly lives the makerspace ethos many aspire to. They’re totally open and generous in sharing and collaborating, and work flexibly to meet whatever needs the community has. Volunteering here for the past 6 weeks, I’ve been impressed by Habibi.Works’ culture of genuine collaboration and mutual aid.
In the early days, the space and its volunteers were working with extremely limited resources— long-term volunteers (only half) jokingly recount refugees themselves offering money to the project or particularly rough-looking individual volunteers. Today, Habibi.Works is a little more established, but still, aid is a two way street, and the space belongs as much to residents of the refugee camps as to its volunteers. Everyone works together to co-cook meals for the community, to improve the space, and to support each other’s individual projects.
Working across language divides (camp residents may only speak arabic, farsi, etc., and volunteers also come from all over the world), it’s amazing they’re able to do so much— and to do it so collaboratively. Today, they have a wood and metal workshop, about 20 public access computers, an oculus rift, several 3D printers, a laser cutter, textiles and screen printing studios, an active kitchen, art space, and a sizeable flexible area, where people might play ping pong, eat meals, or have group meetings. They’ve also expanded outside to build a (still-in-progress) library, a geodesic dome (often a site of meetings on women’s issues), and an outdoor gym and volleyball court.
In my time here, upwards of 60 people per day come to work and hang out at Habibi.Works. Located right across the street from the Katsikas refugee camp, they also receive buses from a couple camps in the surrounding area.
Today, there are 10 volunteers from around the world onsite to help run the space, facilitating workshops in everything from languages to social entrepreneurship, embroidery to digital design, and working with other organizations to secure materials, tools, money, etc.
Volunteers all live together upstairs from the workshop, which gives the space a feeling unlike any other makerspace I’ve been. It’s not just a bunch of tools in rooms, it’s a home. Its close proximity to the Katsikas camp makes it feel even more like a real living-working community— volunteers often go to the camp after hours to socialize and continue their work, and vice versa. All together, that makes it feel like a truly communal space. We all live together, eat together, and work together, which certainly contributes to the communal and co-supportive culture.
I sat down with Mimi Hapig, the space’s co-founder and project lead, to talk more about what makes the space so special, as well as to learn about the more-overlooked challenges they face. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
Before we start, how do you prefer to identify the people Habibi.Works serves? Are they community members, asylum seekers, refugees, or something else?
It depends on the context. If I’m sitting with UNHCR, it makes a huge difference whether a person is defined as a refugee or as an asylum seeker. Sometimes we also call them makers, residents of camp Katsikas, or community members, depending on who we talk to. The latter may be a little optimistic, because people living in the camp are not a community from the very beginning, but as we’ve seen in the past, they do develop to become a community.
In general, though, we usually refer to the users of our space as people, because this is what they are. They have this very special situation of living in refugee camps, but besides this hopefully temporary characteristic, they are people, just as you and me.
What led you to co-found a makerspace?
Before co-founding Habibi.Works in 2016, I hadn’t even heard about Fab Labs or makerspaces. It was Florian, my co-founder, who was a 3D printing enthusiast, and had published a book about it in Germany. When we came to camp Katsikas in March 2016, when it was freshly opened, we saw a complete lack of structure, tools, materials, platforms to allow people to get active. As Florian had this proximity to the whole fab lab movement, the maker movement, it was a very obvious conclusion to open a makerspace.
Now, we’re a registered Fab Lab, but we also have a lot of other working areas outside digital fabrication. We’ve always believed in digital fabrication technology as a door to a field of expertise that will become more and more important in the future. But we also value more traditional approaches, and think new and old techniques are both better together. People come to Habibi.Works from all different backgrounds, and we aspire to gather the resources to support all of their creative skills, goals, and collaborations.
How would you describe Habibi.Works’ mission and vision? Is it political?
Habibi.Works is about creating a more just, equitable world, living in solidarity, living eye-level on a daily basis. I’m convinced that people should have the right to decide for themselves where they would like to spend their life, where they would like to raise their kids, what career they would like to follow. And I’m convinced that people who come to Europe can enrich our communities, but their unequal access to opportunity is limiting. And this is what Habibi.Works aims to be on a small scale: a platform where people can get active; a platform for empowerment; a platform for encounter, for education, and a lived example of our social values.
And in my opinion, that is political. When we set up the organisation Soup and Socks in December 2015, it wasn’t so political. It was a charity approach. And I was very interested to change something about that. For me, it shouldn’t be so much about supporting others to make it to the finishing line, but to question the game that is being played. I think it’s really important when operating within this context to be political, to criticize, to raise awareness, to question the system we are moving within.
What’s most special about Habibi.Works?
We try to flatten hierarchies as much as possible. This is something that makes us unique among aid organizations, in my opinion, and differentiates us from those who refer to themselves as helpers, for example. We never speak about helping people, we speak about supporting people. Because to us, people in this context are not objects. They are not helpless. They are not merely victims. They are skilled persons who lack structure and support to get active and provide solutions for themselves and others. We believe this approach should not only be applied within our project or in this context but in our societies in general.
I’m curious to talk more about hierarchy. As a co-founder, project lead, and the person who has been at Habibi.Works for the duration of its operation, you’re who most people look to if they don’t know something, or for a final say. What does that natural formation of hierarchy look like, just as a product of the high rate of turnover here?
Yeah, you actually described it yourself already. At the beginning, we started in a team that was quite democratic in its decision making and had a very flat hierarchy. But the longer a person is here, the more experience that person will have, and the more logical it is to ask this person for their opinion. And as you said, when it comes to making decisions, obviously people who carry out and live with these decisions need to have more say than people who are only volunteering here for three weeks and will never see the consequences.
As long as this is openly addressed, it is fine in my opinion. The more sensitive factor is access to information. If people don’t have equal access to information, they don’t have equal chances to make and support a decision. So even if we don’t all have an equal say in decisions all the time, we’re always transparent about the process. Of course, there I’m talking about big strategic decisions. When it comes to the day-to-day, I think we’re all quite eye-level, and share equal responsibility for decision making.
The other day you were talking about a clocktower that the last generation of Katsikas Camp refugees made. Do you want to share that story or a different favorite thing made in Habibi.Works?
Yeah for sure the story of the clocktower is extraordinary. It was a three or four meter tall replica of a clocktower in Homs, Syria. The clock was not working, and had a plaque that read, “time stopped when we entered Camp Katsikas,” because people were (and still are) condemned to wait until decisions were made for them, about their lives, and their future. The creation of the clocktower happened outside Habibi.Works, when we were just getting started, and it showed clearly how eager people were to build. It is a really impressive example of how a community got together to somehow create themselves a visible identity.
This is one story that is very impressive. But there are many more. We have accompanied more than 1,000 people, and have seen incredible personal developments, community growth, and improvements in relations between different groups.
Do you think there’s a connection there between giving people the resources they need to make, work on, and improve things externally, and to do the same for themselves?
Besides the practical products made here, I think Habibi.Works has a big impact on people’s mental health for this very reason. Here they are able to get rid of this stigma of being a refugee, of being passive, of being helpless, of being powerless. And they can be or become experts in specific fields, can prove their talents and their skills, and exchange experience. This has a huge impact on mental health, on self confidence, and also on the motivation of people to be open-minded and to make a step towards others.
That resonates a lot. What are some challenges Habibi.Works faces?
Yeah, I really don’t want to romanticize the experience we’re having here. There’s lots of situations that are really difficult— on every level. Especially when it comes to communication. On a very practical level we are constantly confronted with language barriers. Even more challenging is the lack of transparency we sometimes experience when it comes to communication between different actors. It’s hard to change paradigms, but we believe transparency is essential for good communication and the creation of trust.
Then there is a whole challenge when we talk about the financial resources of Habibi.Works. The project depends almost 100% on private donations, mostly from individual people. Obviously this model gives us a lot of flexibility and independence because we’re not responsible to big corporate or institutional influence. At the same time though, we don’t have a lot of security when it comes to planning the next months. We never know how much money we will get three months from now. And that’s challenging on many fronts, but especially for our volunteer team— it’s hard to retain really experienced, skilled people when we can’t do much to support them financially.
I’m actually so impressed by how strong the volunteer team has been while I’ve been here. I think it speaks to the importance of the project that so many amazing people donate their time and energy.
More on that: How do you properly vett volunteer candidates? In this case, doing a good job seems really important, since 1) you’ll not just have to work with them but also live with them, and 2) because you’re working in such a unique context requiring technical skills, different language skills, and working with people with trauma continuing to live in difficult situations.
Yeah, that’s a really interesting question because obviously, working in this context requires completely different skills than working anywhere else. And we see it. We see new team members struggling with the flexibility, or the freedom that they have here. I would say in most other contexts, maybe studying or working, you have a specific set of tasks and you have a very clear limit within which you can move. But here there is a lot of flexibility, we require a lot of initiative. Obviously people need to have skills in some working area, but in the end it is not just about people’s hard skills. It’s about their soft skills: communication; empathy; being aware of the different contexts people come from and taking these into account.
Volunteers also have to be a good fit with the team, because as you were saying, we not only work together, we also live together. This is one of the reasons why it’s never sufficient just to send a CV, but we have skype interviews with people, we try to get to know them, to understand their motivation. And moreover, we need to take into account if we would feel comfortable with having a potential new team member around us in the working hours but also in free time.
It’s again a unique context because you have such a high turnover not just with volunteers but also with people who use the space. What’s that like?
It’s really challenging and requires a lot of energy. On a professional level, everytime we get a new team member on board, it requires energy to orient them, to engage with them, and to establish a relationship of trust. The team dynamic changes with every person joining, with every person leaving, and obviously on a professional level, you have to explain many things many times. You have to make sure that people who join feel like a part of the team even if they are here for only a very short time. And on a personal level, being open to new people after saying goodbye to so many others before can be challenging.
That said, one effect it automatically has is that decisions that were made in the past are being challenged constantly. And I think it requires a lot of patience, and the ability to be critical of yourself. But it’s also a kind of automatic quality control we take as an opportunity to readjust again and again to this very dynamic context.
Another challenge that I’ve noticed at Habibi.Works: Your mission is generous, but in my time with y’all, I’ve seen people try to take advantage of that, abusing or stealing materials, space, or tools. How do you see // deal with that?
I think it’s really important to see this whole project as a process, and a lot of it depends on relationships of trust that we shape with people. It depends on whether or not people actually take ownership over this space to improve and protect it. But when people do try to take advantage of us, I try not to take it personally. I don’t think people owe me, but with the course of time, we manage to make people understand that they owe each other. Taking advantage of us or other people is definitely something that still needs to be condemned. It would be paternalizing to say in the context of Habibi.Works: “just because people are poor, stealing is okay,” for example. We communicate clearly that it’s something that hurts the space and the people who use it. And the closer a community grows together and the more ownership people take of the space, people give more and take less.
We’ve talked a little about calling Habibi.Works a makerspace, and its users Makers. I wonder, do you see Habibi.Works as part of the Maker Movement?
I think it was not so much of an active decision to be part of it, but we naturally are. We have a lot of working areas that are not characteristically fab lab, that don’t have to do with modern or digital technology, but for me, that actually augments our maker ethos. Offering people platforms where they can use their skills, find new ones and build solutions is what the Maker Movement is all about.
We also work to make those solutions accessible to a broader community in an open source kind of way. We promote sharing over ownership so people can benefit more from each other’s learning experience. This is something that’s really important to me here, and is also essential to the maker ideal.
We all presumably hope the refugee crisis will end, and the need for these camps and Habibi.Works will expire, but it’s not clear if or when that might happen. So my question is: What do you think is the future of Habibi.Works?
I think it would be the best case scenario it were no longer necessary for Habibi.Works to be here. I don’t think it’s realistic though. Even as the topic of people fleeing to the EU fades from our media, the problem is still very real.
The way things are going right now inspires a different future for Habibi.Works. Today, Greece is less often just a stop for asylum seekers on their way to Germany or elsewhere. Greece is for many, a final destination, if they want or not. As Habibi.Works needs to focus much more now on integrating people into the Greek society, (and when i say integrating I mean ensuring equal opportunities to lead a self-determined life) we need to make sure we get Greek actors on board. In the best case scenario, we’d hand the project over to Greek actors, and to people coming to Greece as refugees. Ultimately, we as international experts can only accompany the process. We can knock at the door together with people coming here as asylum seekers, but we are not the ones opening the door to Greek society.
Ok, last question: Are there any questions you wished I asked // questions that inform your work // anything else you’d still like to talk about?
I like the conversation that we had. I think we touched on a lot of ideas central to what we do here. I’d just add that I see Habibi.Works as proof that things can be changed, and that every person can have an impact. Sometimes, as challenges are so overwhelming, it can be hard to figure out where to start, and how to get active. But I think in our context, we often tend to forget that laws are made by humans, that the rules of this game we are playing are made by humans. All of them can be changed. Maybe not from today to tomorrow. But step by step with very practical examples on a small scale, like Habibi.Works, people can have an impact.
That’s really lovely. Thanks for sitting down to share your work with Make:!