Innovative Approach to Refugee Crisis in Kenya


“Refugee camps are not temporary spaces anymore,” asserts Christina Zhang SY ’17, an architecture major graduating this spring. Inspired by her Critical Refugee Studies course , Zhang is designing a new community center for the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Her budget? $80k, raised entirely by her creative fundraising efforts.

Zhang spent the summer at the Kakuma refugee camp, a haven for many Somali and Sudanese refugees not far from the Kenyan/Ugandan border. The best social entrepreneurs look for a community’s needs, not wants, and find those needs through interacting with community members. Zhang did just that by working with a community organization, running focus groups, and analyzing her findings before designing a new community center. She will return to Kenya in December, but in the meantime also helped start IDeA (International Development in Action), a nonprofit devoted to finding “innovative approaches to address international development issues.” They empower groups of entrepreneurs to delve deeply into refugee problems in order to best find solutions.

Zhang’s journey started last spring when she realized that architects could take an active role in finding solutions for refugee issues, beyond building temporary shelters. She applied for fellowships and began planning to visit refugee camps in Greece, Turkey, and Jordan. Then, Greece closed its borders to refugees and Turkey was placed on a travel warning. Jordan refused to give a visa to a single woman travelling alone. So, Zhang decided on Kenya and contacted the largest refugee run program in the Kakuma refugee camp, Solidarity and Advocacy in Crises (SAVIC).

Christina Zhang SY '17 in Kenya

Christina Zhang SY ’17 in Kenya

With over twenty staff members spanning seven different nationalities, SAVIC focuses on empowerment. They host sexual and reproductive health workshops to inspire women to re-envision their role in society as more than just caregivers, and they teach a gamut of courses, from native language literacy and English to workshops on entrepreneurship and business. Furthering this goal of empowerment, the teachers are all refugees themselves.

Zhang realized that SAVIC needed their own building, where they could focus on caring for the real needs of the Kakuma residents. She decided to design and build a new building for the school, and engage the refugees themselves in the design and building process to ensure that it would directly fulfill their needs.

The first step was how to fund the project. It was here that Zhang showed her entrepreneurial spirit.

In her words, Zhang noted that there is a trend of wealthy Chinese families looking to spend money in a “sustainable manner that is not related to their own material lives”. She also realized that the best way to reach these families was through their children. In early July she invited five 16-18 year-olds to Kenya to tour and work in the refugee camps. Upon returning to China, two students became particularly invested in the cause. One girl garnered a donation of $7,000, which was used to buy 50 bicycles for teachers to ease their commutes. Another student secured Christina a grant of $200,000 from a Beijing economic conference that his parents attended.

$80,000 of the $200,000 will go towards the new community center Zhang is designing, which she hopes to complete this winter. There will be six classrooms, small offices for administrators, and a childcare center so that mothers can focus on classes without distraction. There will also be a computer room, thanks to a donation of five computers, and a tailoring room for the 50 sewing machines donated by a Swiss organization. Lastly, there will be an adolescent consulting room where young adults can go to talk about their sexual and reproductive health.

Christina is careful to note that she is not singlehandedly designing the center. The structure will be made out of local bricks, and while she may be crafting the overall design, she wants SAVIC to make the building their own. Christina asserts that she has confidence that SAVIC will be able to maintain the center, especially because they have already been operating for six years in less than ideal conditions. In addition, thanks to additional donations from contributors such as the Siebel Family Foundation, the center has a bright future.

Bricks for the new community center.

Bricks for the new community center.

While designing the center, she realized that she should also create a platform where budding social entrepreneurs can collaborate and share potential refugee solutions. Thus, IDeA was born. She believes that architects have a place in humanitarian crises. IDeA will launch an international competition later this month where groups from around the world will submit ideas “that offer an innovative and critical insight into a specific part of the refugee solution”. A jury will select five winning groups by the beginning of February, and two people from each team will be hosted in New York for a weekend hackathon. Christina plans to find organizations to sponsor the weekend so that the remaining dollars from her $200k grant can be devoted as operational costs to make IDeA a long-term sustainable organization (after it covers the costs of the center).

When asked about the future of IDeA, Christina said that the more she works in the field, the more she realizes that she needs to establish herself as an architect before she can continue with humanitarian work. She and her team all plan on having careers separate from IDEA while still completing at least one humanitarian project per year. Her next steps are to graduate, work as an architect’s assistant, and then go to graduate school.

“Even at Yale, there are so many people working on refugee issues,” describes Christina. Her mission is to bring those people together, and many more, so that in our lifetime we can make a dent in solving global refugee crises.

Interested in learning more or joining the IDeA team? Email Christina at

Sarah Strober

Sarah is a freshman in Silliman and a prospective Economics major. She’s a member of the Yale Refugee Project and Y-Pop Up, a pop-up restaurant on campus. You can find her reading recipe books as novels to decide which cookies to bake next, and then taking pictures of said cookies for her food Instagram, @tasteslikesf.

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