I’m seated at the dinner table with Riccardo, Joana, Odysseas, Elena, Fatma, and Aurielle: respectively, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Spanish, Moroccan, and French citizens, all in their mid-twenties. We make jokes, laugh, and play with Daabous – a furry cat. We’re in the kitchen of their shared apartment in Bar Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – less than 20 kilometres from the Syrian border. I actually didn’t want to come here. Friends had convinced me it would be dangerous. My original reason for visiting Lebanon was the Beirut Art Fair. Before heading to Bar Elias I spent my time visiting contemporary art galleries and rich private collections. But finally I stepped out of my bubble, overcame my fears, and went to see the project. This group of people had assembled to build a school for Syrian refugee children in the informal tented settlement of Jarahieh.

In Lebanon, the number of registered Syrian refugees is more than one million – a quarter of the country’s population. The camps mostly grew spontaneously, initiated by refugee families who arranged to rent land directly from landowners, at around $100 a month. A sense of transience pervades the settlements, derived partly from the refugees – who hope to go home one day, and partly from their host country, which fears the refugees might stay – like the Palestinians whose tents have since become concrete houses.

Setting out the foundations Photo: Odysseas Mourtzouchos

In Jarahieh, a tent structure was being used as a school for the children of the 300 families living in the camp. Jusoor – the Syrian NGO that manages the school – asked design studio Catalytic Action to improve the structure. “Jusoor had seen the playgrounds for refugees that we had built in Joub Jannine and Bar Elias”, says Riccardo Conti, co-founder of Catalytic Action along with Joana Dabaj and Laura Antona. “We were asked to renovate the existing school, which was built of MDF and tarp. And then Save the Children (Italy) offered us materials from the dismantled Expo 2015 pavilion in Milan.”

The construction of the school began in June, with Jusoor providing $34,000; Sawa, the NGO that pays the school’s rent, contributing $5,000; Save the Children (Italy) donating materials and paying the shipping costs; ARUP International providing engineering services pro-bono; and Catalytic Action contributing the design, the staff, and $15,000. The project has involved many additional architects, trainees, and volunteers, like Luca Astorri from Argot ou La Maison Mobile; Ronan Glynn; Elena Brunete; Maria Javaloyes; Odysseas Mourtzouchos; Claudia Muñoz and Matteo Zerbi.

A future student of the school Photo: Ronan Glynn

The school is composed of six pavilions for six classrooms and accommodates up to 350 kids from 6 to 13 years old. The children study in shifts – one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. Included in the complex are a library, a multifunctional space, a teachers’ lounge, a room for one-to-one classes, lavatories, storage space, and a courtyard with wooden benches and a climbing wall. The building shell is made of OSB panels covered externally with corrugated iron and a waterproof textile, the Expo pavilion components conceived by Argot ou La Maison Mobile to be easily readapted. So the design challenge was to make suitable temporary structures and create a model for future humanitarian aims. Interestingly, elements used in Milan for decorative purposes are used here as rain protection. For insulation, a local technique using sheep’s wool has been adopted. “It’s not because we are environmentalists”, explains Conti, “but because we want to support the local traditions and economy.” The goal is for the project to continue to sustain itself even after Catalytic Action’s departure. “All the construction workers are refugees themselves – who we pay for their work”, he adds. “We don’t want to impose ourselves but rather to help them develop their techniques.”

The name Catalytic Action expresses the office’s will to influence pre-existing situations with positive constituents. Involving the local population is crucial. Throughout the process, Catalytic Action has spoken with community leaders and schoolteachers, and it also engages the students in decorating their school. Design choices are mostly dictated by function and by the limited budget, but still the intention is to achieve a pleasant aesthetic – something that could have been built in Europe or elsewhere.

After visiting the construction site with Riccardo Conti, Joana Dabaj took me to the camp. We saw the pigeon cage (pigeon-keeping is a popular Syrian hobby), the hairdresser’s tent, and the video-game room. Later we followed Ahmed – a helper on the construction site – to his tent, where we had coffee that tasted like cardamom and took pictures together. His lives there with his family of six children, the eldest of whom just had a baby of her own, who was now lying on a cushion on the ground – just one of many children born at the camp since the beginning of the war who will need educational and recreational structures.

Volunteers painting a mural in the courtyard of the school Photo: Joana Dabaj
Sketch of the school under construction by Claudia Muñoz
Catalytic Action team Photo: Ronan Glynn Courtesy of Catalytic Action
Syrian women cleaning the wool that will be used as insulation material for the school building Photo: Odysseas Mourtzouchos Courtesy of Catalytic Action
The Jarahieh School seen from a nearby rooftop, with the mountains marking the Syria-Lebanon border in the background Photo: Riccardo Conti Courtesy of Catalytic Action
Syrian children attending classes in the new school Photo: Riccardo Conti Courtesy of Catalytic Action