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Study abroad inspires design student’s plan to aid refugees

Chien-Yi Chu at a war museum in Manchester, England.
Chien-Yi Chu at a war museum in Manchester, England. Chu said her asylum support app is her response to war and the refugees war creates.

When Chien-yi Chu spent a semester abroad in Liverpool in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2017, she fell in love with the city. She loved the architecture, food, and especially, the diversity.

But Chu, a master’s student in WSU’s School of Design and Construction, also noticed signs that the city’s multicultural fabric was fraying at the edges. Liverpool was taking in a refugee population from the Middle East who were fleeing war. Arriving with few possessions, many of the refugees were having trouble finding jobs, housing and adjusting to their adopted country.

“There was not much intermingling between the refugees and the host population,” Chu said.

She observed distrust and suspicion towards the refugees, and language barriers only added to the feeling of separation.

That impression stayed with her, so when Chu took a graduate-level design studio class with Ayad Rahmani, associate professor in the School of Design and Construction, she wanted to help.

With the help of Rahmani, Chu designed the concept for a mobile app that she hopes someday could help refugees assimilate in the UK, navigate their first days in a new home, and become a part of their local community.

Rahmani told the class the theme of their design project would be borders, but Chu knew that borders and walls aren’t always physical.

“I recalled the wide cultural and psychological barrier I found back in Liverpool,” she said.

Refugees who are granted asylum in the UK have 28 days before government support including cash and housing ends. After that, they’re on their own in finding a job and a place to live. A growing number of refugees are falling into poverty and homelessness days after vacating asylum accommodations.

Chien-Yi Chu
Chien-Yi Chu

“I want to turn the city itself into a classroom for migrants,” said Chu, who came up with the idea based on the notion of dérive(French for drift), which emphasizes random, playful exploration of urban space as a way to open up a city.

Specifically, the app would use augmented reality (AR) technology to guide users along unique routes around the city as they go about their daily tasks, such as going to English class or job training.

As they walk along each route, distinct tasks pop up every few minutes, like “Go into a bookstore”, “Talk to a stranger about the weather” or “Follow a red car.”

Once in a new location, the app would give users conversation starters to help them talk to the people around them.

“Our tasks will be aimed at helping them discover the city and also forge connections that can result in jobs or friendships,” Chu said.

Users can also upload their job skills and fun personal details to the app, which would help them stand out to potential employers or references that they meet, who use the same app.

The app is also adaptable to a variety of physical spaces, from small spaces like a bench or a bike rack that can create one-on-one personal interaction, to bigger ones like a grocery store or even a city block.

“Exploration through a variety of urban landscapes can make refugees feel at home and show them meaningful things to be a part of,” Rahmani said.

“I want to enable integration through organic, unplanned encounters,” Chu said. “With this app, streets and sidewalks become as complicit in the campaign for assimilation as the classroom and the home,” she added.

Chu has drawn up a list of sites that could enable interactions, like bakeries, where the aroma of cooking, warmth and coziness can draw people together.

Apart from dérive, her app idea was also influenced by the viral success of the game Pokémon Go. The game popularized physical exploration while playing, with some users crediting it with broadening their daily regimented routine and helping them get more exercise.

“My dream is for this project to break down the walls that may exist between host and refugee and build physical and psychological connections between them,” Chu said.

Rahmani and Chu have received interest from computer science students who want to help them build the app over the summer. They will also be presenting their concept at the RC21 Urban and Regional Development conference in Delhi next September.

A map-like image of different places in Liverpool, England.
A graphic depicting the types of spaces and interactions app users might encounter while exploring the city.

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