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A girl holding her baby sister, with shelters in the background.
There is a long IKEA history of helping people make their homes just a little bit nicer. But what happens when there no longer is a place to call home?
Outside each plastic-panelled shelter, you see pairs of shoes. Many are muddy and dusty, evidence of the long journey taken to get here. They sit lined up outside door after door, a glimpse of the people within – parents, children, aunts and infants, who fled their homes in fear. Taking off your shoes at the door is a familiar custom, one many of us share. And here in a refugee camp, it demonstrates something powerful – a deep respect for the idea of home, however tenuous or temporary.
For many refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war – a conflict that has raged since 2011 – home is a flat-pack shelter. Initially funded by the IKEA Foundation and designed by Swedish social enterprise Better Shelter in cooperation with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, they are one-room units that offer refugees in camps more dignity, safety and privacy than the tents that have been used since World War II. They have four walls, windows, room to stand straight up – and even a lock on the door.
“Moving into a shelter means this might be your home for a while, and being able to close a door behind you – and lock it – means so much,” says Märta Terne, the communications manager at Better Shelter. “It’s something that a lot of us take for granted – those private moments and private spaces you have for yourself.
“Being able to be alone or with your family inside a controlled space is important, especially for people who have experienced such trauma,” she says. “They need to feel safe, be able to close that door, and just relax for a bit.”
65 million displaced
Since 2015, UNHCR has ordered about 15,000 Better Shelters, which have been delivered to seven countries. But two of those countries – Greece and Iraq – particularly illustrate the ways in which Syrians have responded to the crisis and how these shelters are housing refugees from just a few days up to many years.
“There are currently about 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world, and about half of them are children,” says Jonathan Spampinato, Communication manager at the IKEA Foundation. “That’s about the population of Canada. Imagine a country the size of Canada filled with children without a safe place to call home, living in a camp or temporarily somewhere.”
There are currently about 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world, and about half of them are children.
Children eating lunch.
• Designed to house refugees who have fled armed conflict, persecution or natural disaster.

• Constructed to last up to 3 years; 6 times longer than a typical refugee tent.

• Modular design: windows and doors can be placed wherever needed.

• Illuminated by a solar-powered LED light that also charges mobile phones.

• Lockable from the inside or out using a padlock.

• Offers families a living space of 17.5 square meters.
A Syrian family watching TV inside a shelter.
During the ongoing Syrian conflict, many Syrians have escaped to neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands end up in refugee camps, waiting for the war to end. They live in limbo, with little freedom to move around and no access to jobs or education. And while they wait, they do what any of us would – they make their Better Shelters feel more like home.
Trying to make it a bit like home
A few hundred kilometres east of the Syrian border, there are thousands of Better Shelters erected in the two camps here. They are far better than fabric tents, especially when the Iraqi winters turn cold. The raised floors provide insulation, while the hard plastic walls keep out the wind and provide privacy.
“Of course, we can’t compare this housing unit with our real home back in Syria, but there is a huge difference compared to living in a tent,” says Noveldin, a Syrian refugee living in the Kawergosk refugee camp in Erbil, who asked that his last name not be used.
Outside many of these modular shelters – which can be assembled in just a few hours – you see people cleaning the panels, hanging up laundry or tending to the flowerbeds and small fences they have put up to recreate something from home.
“All of these symbolic actions and items really make you feel more at home,” Märta Terne says. “These might be specific to certain families or cultures, but I think they’re very essential. They wash the shelter. A lot of people put rugs or carpets outside to remind themselves of home – and safety. They take pride in their home, even if it’s not one they chose.”
They came with nothing
An estimated ten percent of Syrian refugees have chosen a dramatically different path – one that has taken them on a perilous and sometimes deadly journey across the Aegean Sea to Europe. Since 2015, more than a million refugees and migrants have transited through Lesbos, a Greek island that has shown tremendous goodwill, compassion and generosity.
In Lesbos there are just 86.000 residents, who have welcomed refugees like Anouar* with open arms and open hearts; a 40-year-old former taxi driver from Aleppo, Syria, who fled the city of his birth – and the family home his father built – with his wife and five children. A rocket fell just blocks from their house, causing part of it to collapse. And with Aleppo crumbling around them, they fled through Turkey and onto a smuggler’s boat to Greece.
They came with nothing but their ID cards and the clothes they were wearing, unable to salvage anything from their house – no photos, no keepsakes, no record of their lives before. “When there are no loud sounds, no planes, no shooting, I can make my kids go to sleep,” says Anouar’s wife, Amina*. “In Syria when the planes came, the kids woke up and cried and screamed. This was from the war. My kids can sleep here and relax more.”
The safety and security a lock can bring.
Refugees are called guests in these camps, a show of respect by the authorities, UNHCR and other organisations that facilitate a range of services. Three meals a day, hygiene items like soap and baby diapers, and a place to charge their mobile phones are all provided. But the Better Shelter is where they spend most of their time.
“Locking the door is excellent,” Amina says. “This is something that makes us feel safe and secure. My kids will not just walk out. We care about the personal belongings we have, and now we keep them without worry.”
Even though they stay just a short time, they make an effort to carve out personal space for their family – likely the first safe space since their escape
“They stay for a short time, but they instantly start making it their own home,” Märta says. “They wash their clothes and hang them up outside or inside the shelter. They create a cosy corner with blankets. And you can see shoes outside every shelter because they want to keep it clean. Finding a home and a safe space, even though it’s temporary, is very important.”
For those who have been forced to flee, Better Shelters help families to create a safe space with the feeling of home, and begin to build the foundations for a better future.
*Names have been changed for their safety.
The IKEA Foundation is the philanthropic arm of INGKA Foundation, the owner of the IKEA Group of companies. The IKEA Foundation aims to improve opportunities for children and youth in some of the world’s poorest communities by focusing on four fundamental areas of a child’s life: a place to call home; a healthy start in life; a quality education; and a sustainable family income. The IKEA Foundation is also helping these communities fight and cope with climate change. By working with strong strategic partners like UNHCR and Better Shelter, the IKEA Foundation can use innovative approaches to achieve large-scale results for children.
A  girl climbing up a post.lineHome for a refugee Alt text: A woman holding a babyquote
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