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On weaving migrating heritage – A contextualized understanding of skilled practices as a potential site of contestation

This project explores the opportunities of skilled practices in offering refugees and displaced people a space from which to start to conceptualize a critique of dominant discourses on, for example, development and social, economic and cultural rights. It includes a comparative case study in two refugee camps in Rwanda and Jordan.

The scale, scope and complexity of refugee crises has increased. At the same time, it can be observed that return rates remain low and a majority of the people involved finds itself in situations of protracted displacement with little access to viable income-generating opportunities. To start to address this situation, UNHCR tries to develop and implement programs that bridge the double aim of ensuring humanitarian assistance and contributing to long-term economic and societal development.

In this context, craftsmanship is seen as a high-potential field. Therefore, UNHCR recently founded MADE 51, an initiative that is leveraging cultural heritage to link refugee artisans to the global market. It is a new way of approaching design practices within large humanitarian agencies, which seeks to inscribe these design practices into a market-based and value chain approach. Notwithstanding the potential for refugees and their families, several issues (amongst other ones those rooted in socio-cultural structures) complicate market integration and raise broader questions about the potential unforeseen consequences of the proposed approach.

The research project ‘On Weaving Migrating Heritage’ aims to contribute to a cultural and contextualized understanding of skilled practices and explores how local craftsmanship can empower people, not so much, or not in the first place, in an economic sense, but also in terms of reinforcing self-awareness and contributing to a collective sense of empowerment rooted in local practice, that can be a basis for the involved groups to start to think critically about the dominant discourses on development and the development programs that they are being presented with.

To this end, a comparative analysis of the skilled practices of Burundian basket weavers in Mahama camp (Rwanda) and Syrian embroidery artisans in Azraq camp (Jordan) will be conducted. Insights will be used to create a contextualized understanding of design practices.

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