Research with refugees: physical context and design methods

Conducting research with refugee communities is challenging in all parts of a refugee’s journey. However, the varying transitionary stages of refugee journeys (that sometimes includes stages of protracted natures such as residing in a refugee camp) require researchers to consider the methodological approach and methods to conducting research with refugee communities and humanitarian stakeholders. This if the first of several blog posts that will discuss the different considerations for research methods and methodologies as a basis for a workshop that will be held at CHI 2017.

In developing contexts, most research is conducted in situ e.g. refugee settlements/camps. This differs greatly from conducting research and design workshops in public spaces such as libraries and university offices. The physical contexts may restrict methods to be used. For example, when doing research in informal tented settlements in rural Lebanon most of the activities are conducted in the tent of one of the community members. The tents do not have any tables nor any form of elevated seating; participants and researchers sit on cushions on the floor that is sometimes covered with a rug or is bare. The floor is not tiled and not a smooth surface, this coupled with the seating arrangement makes design activities that involve drawing, sketching and even mapping quite frustrating and cumbersome for participants. Therefore, careful consideration is needed for the length of the activities and their structures (i.e. how many participants per group, size of drawing paper etc).

Additionally, we need to consider what materials we can take with us to the field to support the activities (e.g. drawing boards). When considering supporting materials, we also need to reflect on the fact that refugee communities are resource constrained, and drawing boards would be appealing materials that the community would like to keep for their children to use. That would be great if you can give each family in the camp the board – else tensions would arise about who gets what (and of course if your budget allows you to).

This is further compounded by local ethic boards advising against leaving such materials behind as they may be coercive. Consequently, I would suggest placing thick cardboard on the floor where the drawing activities would take place, divide activities into smaller activities that are separated by discussions and conducted over longer time frames, for example dividing what you would usually do in a three-hour design workshop (not accounting for breaks) into several activities over several days that are accompanied by other form of activities including social activities.

This physical context differs from that of refugees in formal camps such as Zaatari camp, urban refugees and refugees that have resettled in host countries. Zaatari camp has several NGO centers across the 12 districts of the camps that are equipped to facilitate group activities. Similarly, urban refugees and resettled refugees are usually invited to community centres, community health clinics, public libraries and even public spaces such as parks for engagements. These facilities can be used to conduct research and design


For more information please contact Reem Talhouk.

Research with refugees in rural Lebanon

I spent two months in rural Lebanon working with Syrian refugee women residing in an informal tented settlement. We were working on using an IVR system to access healthcare services and increase refugee agency in the healthcare provider/refugee relationship.

While the results of the research were very interesting, there is more to research than just the results. Rarely do we report on the intricate, and sometimes fragile, nature of the relationships we build with the communities we work with. We also leave out in our papers conversations around “What does it mean to be embedded within a community?”.

So I will take to blogging to document all that happened!

Community customs

One of the things that hits you when you first start engaging with such resource constrained communities is the need to find a balance between respecting their customs without becoming an added strain on their already limited finances. These families are earning way below the poverty line yet their customs entail offering food and beverages to their guests. So to pre-empt that I took food with me for all of us to share and water and juice.

Despite that they would still offer me and all the other women participating drinks. I would refuse, saying, “I will drink from the juice I got for all of us”, which was fine at the start, although the woman hosting me did say to me once, “are you worried our glasses are not clean?”.

I won’t lie, I was mad at myself for making her feel that way and then quickly explained to her in a culturally appropriate way that I do not want to be drinking from the beverages that she had bought for her children. She appreciated that but insisted that I drink something.

I then altered my approach. I would drink from the beverages she offers me and give the beverages I had bought to her at the end of the day. It is these small incidents that can sometimes break the trust and familiarity that you as a researcher had spent so much effort building with the community.

Tea drinking

Similarly, the experience made me really reflect on where to draw the line when it comes to my health. During my initial engagements with the women they explained to me how they are all suffering from chronic diarrhoea and it is because the water they have isn’t clean. So when they would offer me drinks I would only drink juice, thinking that that would be the safer option. However, I soon realized, after getting sick several times, that in order to make the amount of juice enough for everyone they would dilute it with water.

I did not want to insult the host again.

I discussed it with a colleague, who has worked in similar circumstances, and she said the answer is tea because that way the water in my beverage would be boiled. Drinking hot tea in the heat of a Lebanese summer was not ideal, but it seemed to do the trick.

Research as real life

These are only some of the things I encountered while doing my field work. It is these things that we need to talk about as researchers working in such circumstances. No amount of reading can prepare you for embedding yourself within refugee communities. However, sharing our experiences may at least help researchers prepare for such engagements.


For more information please contact Reem Talhouk.