A Pitstop for Refugees


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Portrait Zuhal Kocan


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Education interrupted! This headline made Zuhal Kocan stop and turn her head while studying architecture. The story was about how war turning young people into refugees ends up costing the world half a generation with no education due to the traumatisation and the difficulties of studying while consolidating yourself in a new country. Zuhal Kocan pondered the issue and now offers a solution.

During the Spanish Reconquista, culminating in the Granada War in 1492, thousands of refugees with a different heritage turned towards Istanbul as a new place to stop, rest and eventually live. Quite a few of these were actually invited by the sultan.

The buildings of this and similar historical events in the Balat quarter still stand today and act as the setting for Zuhal Kocan´s project seeking an intervention between being a refugee on the run and acting as an integrated inhabitant of a foreign country.

“I created an educational halfway house – a sort of safe haven using education as a tool for young refugees to focus on learning a new culture and strengthening their personal values in order to weave the refugees into the fabric of society in a healthier way. What my research has taught me along the way is that having smaller communities can create some of that feeling. A feeling of trust, of someone watching over you”, says Zuhal Kocan, who continues:

“Just having small communities of course does not do it alone. To create a common space with diverse usability is just as important – so people can meet, talk to one another and share their challenges and successes. Creating a social circle is the first step to ease trauma”.

Mahalle means taking care of one another

Zuhal was born and raised in Denmark by Turkish parents. Knowing the story about the Turkish sultan and his hospitality towards people in need made it easy for her to choose exactly this area as the starting point of her project:

”Not only is the area really beautiful in itself, it is also an obvious choice when it comes to being relevant. Turkey is a nearby choice for Syrian refugees, in particular, as a gateway to the rest of Europe – and when you say Turkey, it is very often followed by Istanbul”, she explains.

The rooms in the different, existing accommodations in the area are quite small. According to Zuhal this is actually a good thing:

”It motivates people to go out and meet one another. Thereby, you have the possibility to create what the Arabs and Turks call ‘mahalle’ – a micro-community that creates trust and that is a good foundation to build development upon”.

In connection to this, she also states the fact that society can benefit from her project – economically as well as in urban development – as the idea takes it´s starting point from the already-existing buildings.

Bringing life to buildings to bring life

Some of the same elements are important in the development programme GivRum Copenhagen (MoreSpaceCph. Ed.) – a Danish association working to bring new life to empty buildings. They have contacted Zuhal in order to cooperate:

”This is a huge joy for me. As I began my research and project about young refugees, the challenge of how to ensure their acclimatisation and getting an education was very isolated around Turkey and the nearby countries with borders close to the Middle East. Today, the situation is of great concern for every country in Europe – thus being contacted by GivRum means that more people care about how we can combine our resources in order to ensure a better future for the next generation”, Zuhal Kocan finishes.

Feel like watching her Master thesis all in one?


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