Stranger in a strange land

One of the issues that I have been dealing with as I spend time at the Marsa Open Centre - the site I have chosen for my thesis project - is how to observe, record, and document the place without making the refugees who live there uncomfortable.  There is no possibility of blending in - aside from two security guards and one or two government workers, I am the only white person among over 1000 African migrants.  I have accepted this as a reality and know that I will never be able to wander around unnoticed.  Many times each day men will come up to me and ask me what I am doing, where am I from, how long am I in Malta. I welcome these interactions because often this inevitably leads to conversations with the men.  I can get to know them better, hear their personal stories, and learn about their relationship with the Centre.  I have met many friendly, welcoming people this way and it feels very natural to talk to them.  However, the problem comes as soon as I whip out my sketch book or camera.  This instantly marks me as someone with something to personally gain from my presence in the Centre.  Immediately I go from being a benign yet inquisitive a visitor (which is what I will always be there) to an observer.  Perhaps the distinction is subtle and maybe it makes no different to the men but to me it feels as if I have crossed some invisible line of trust.

With my sketchbook or camera I am now passing judgement on them.  I am now representing them as something foreign and something to be studied and analysed.  I do not know if they feel the same way when they see me drawing and taking pictures in their home but it troubles me all the same.  Maybe I should accept that the fact that I am there to conduct research, that it is ok to be "using" their situation for my thesis project because I want to make it better.  It has been suggested that I act as a dispassionate observer, making lists, analyzing the migrants' behaviour.  I have been told that personal stories - and I hear many wrenching ones each day - are not appropriate fodder for architecture.  I do not think that is entirely true.  Personal stories are the way in which people relate to each other.  Through personal stories, good architects should be able to identify hopes and needs and translate these into an architecture that serves real people.

I am not sure I feel comfortable with the attitude that I have some right to be at the Marsa Open Centre in order to study the people there and I do not think I ever will. Too often, I believe, architects think in this way.  They are there to pass judgement on how other people should live without actually having a real conversation with those people, without actually making an attempt to understand a situation.  They will make detached observations and go back to the proverbial "drawing table" to make drawings that deliberately confuse the average person because they are "Architects" and architecture is fucking magic.

If there is anything I have learned in my visits to the refugee Centres in Malta, the people there are just like me and you.  They have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same beliefs, and more often than not, the same education.  They have just ended up in a very bad situation by no fault of their own.  I will not dispassionately observe them like they are animals in some zoo.  I will feel real feelings in their presence.  I will be a compassionate observer.  I will talk to them as an equal and not as an "Architect."  I will take a break from being vegetarian, drink tea, and casually sneak out my sketchbook as a guest in their space, taking pictures only when asked.  If you do not like it, you can go back to your drawing table.