The Aleppo Project

Syria's civil war has had a devastating impact. Some 220,000 people have died and many more have been injured. Almost half of all housing has been destroyed or damaged. A third of the people have fled the country or been displaced. Those left behind are struggling to survive in cities reduced to rubble by artillery fire and bombing. Fuelled by outside powers and driven by extremists, this war may continue for many years. While reconstruction may be some way off, it is important to come up with new ways to cope with urban destruction and reconstruction. Half the world's population lives in cities and violent conflict often takes place in them. Indeed it can be fuelled by urban problems. Many cities – Beirut, Sarajevo, Baghdad, Mogadishu and Kabul -- have faced devastation in the past 20 years.

The Shattuck Center on Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery's Aleppo Project aims to address three issues: How can donors better help those trying to survive in the midst of destruction and how can that aid help rebuild communities as well as cities? How can refugees maintain a voice in what happens to their cities while balancing the need to redevelop healthier communities? What can we learn from the recent reconstruction of cities such as Beirut, Kabul and Sarajevo?

The Aleppo Project aims to come up with policy tools and ideas that enhance the power of communities to determine their own futures and helps donors do more with less. The core principle is to help people, particularly refugees and women who are shut out of decisions on aid and reconstruction, find a voice.

Rebuilding Under Fire: Reconstruction aid comes too late for those living in conflict. Not only do they need to repair damaged infrastructure to survive but these processes can help build resilience in communities under threat from armed groups. By consulting Syrian communities and drawing on lessons from elsewhere, The Shattuck Center plans to improve support for embattled communities living in the midst of conflict, helping them maintain schools and healthcare.

Refugee Voices: Refugees get cut out of discussions on aid and reconstruction even though these decisions determine their future. The Shattuck Center will look at ways to ensure that refugees can maintain a voice. It will involve a pilot program to help refugees map their home towns, creating digital representations of what used to exist, what is there now and how it might be rebuilt. We will start with a pilot program in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and probably the oldest continually inhabited city on earth.

How Reconstruction Might Happen: The Shattuck Center will develop a web publication that examines the way in which Beirut, Sarajevo and Kabul have been reconstructed. Each of these three cities is now suffering from the lack of consultation and conflict-awareness in their reconstructions, which has meant new conflicts and hardened divisions. Renewed rounds of evictions of those who have returned from exile are now re-enforcing the bitterness of earlier displacements.

Refugees suffer a double dislocation when they are driven from their homes. The first is the traumatic departure in a time of conflict. The second, often many years later, is a return to a home that may have been destroyed in a city that may be unrecognisable. When reconstruction does occur, they lose any say in the process. Most often they cannot return to their previous homes as cities remain divided and broken long after the war is over. Neighbourhoods that were once diverse and welcoming harden into ethnic or religious enclaves that are treacherous to outsiders. Women are particularly cut out of planning and their needs are rarely considered. Reconstruction processes often worsen these problems. Private developers appropriate land in a way that excludes returnees and governments focus on the window dressing of the state or other apparatus of control, rather than on housing or the priorities of communities. Police stations get repaired before schools and barracks before hospitals. Reconstruction aid can even worsen the divisions as areas of cities become dominated by new elites at the expense of those who once lived there.

Given that peace in Syria is a distant prospect, it may seen as premature to think about reconstruction. But part of the process is intended to capture the relatively fresh memories of city life so that refugees remember what was important to them and their communities. The hope is also to develop ways in which links between refugees and those left behind can be maintained and that refugees can be organised to support eventual reconstruction. The aim of the Aleppo Project is to find out what works and what could be expanded across communities of refugees and the displaced. The project is not aimed at reconstructing cities as they were, indeed the problems of urbanism contributed to the conflict in many ways, particular through tensions between city dwellers and recent urban migrants.

The Shattuck Center works in a collaborative manner, bringing together faculty, practitioners and students. The Aleppo Project includes contributions from students at the School of Public Policy at CEU and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. It will involve developing links to Syrian academics and policymakers who have fled the country. The Shattuck Center is also working with the International Institute of Education to help provide a refuge for scholars in danger from Syria.

To find out more about the Aleppo Project, click here.