Wearable shelter configured as a tent. (Photo: Anne Sophie Geay)

This Shelter Transforms Into a Coat to Protect Refugees

Designers hope to help protect the vulnerable migrants from the elements with a garment that can be refashioned into a temporary dwelling.
Jul 27, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Emmanuelle Chaze is a Berlin-based journalist who works for France 24, Libération, and other European news organizations.

CALAIS, France—On a piece of wasteland nicknamed the Jungle, near the ferry landing where travelers wait to cross the English Channel from France, 9,000 migrants are camped out here waiting to make the final leg of a long journey to England. They are hoping European border controls will allow their passage so they can start a new life. They come from war- or poverty-stricken countries: most often from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan.

Almost all of them braved the Mediterranean crossing in the hope of a better life on the other side, walking and hitching rides on trains to cross the continent for this new shore.

TakePart recently visited the Calais camp with a team of innovators seeking feedback on their invention—a wearable shelter that looks like a regular jacket but, with a few folds, transforms into a tent big enough to sleep in. Created by Anne Sophie Geay from France and Gabriella Geagea from Lebanon, both of them Royal College of Art in London design graduates, the tent-jacket could help refugees find shelter from the elements. The pair hope to distribute it to new refugees on the southern shores of Europe.

(Photo: Courtesy Anne Sophie Geay)

At first, the refugees at Calais were hesitant to try on the jacket, but they quickly became appreciative of its advantages: The many pockets in particular drew their attention, as one of the main difficulties they encounter is having to carry their most precious belongings at all times. Once the jacket was turned into a tent, a few looked skeptical, but when one crawled in, the others were willing to do the same. Sudanese refugee Amjad sat surrounded by his friends outside a makeshift shelter with a plastic wall. This was where he slept. (The 22-year-old declined to give his last name for fear of repercussion because his immigration status was precarious.) In the background one of his companions played Arabic music off a USB stick, and others sipped tea.

“Of course that’s a great idea. There would have been so many times where it could have been useful,” Amjad said. “In Italy, for example, when you’re thrown off a train after an identity control, and you don’t have anywhere to sleep.”

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Amjad fled Sudan after witnessing friends and family being killed and was taken as a slave in Libya before he escaped to cross the Mediterranean and Europe. The design duo hopes to reach, and help, refugees like him.

“As a French person, I mostly follow what is happening in Calais. Here in the U.K., the problem is not the same. Especially after Brexit, everything seems to be on hold,” Geay said.

Fellow designer Geagea, born and raised in Beirut, grew up with more personal insight into the refugee crisis: “In Lebanon, I have been exposed to this situation for a long time. Refugees live in the streets. They are everywhere in the country. You see them in the city center—it’s constantly in front of you. I have a lot of Syrian friends and know people who have family there, so this project was addressing an issue close to my heart. We wanted to make the most human garment as possible and help the refugee cause as much as possible.”

After months of trials and with the help and advice of tutor Harriet Harriss and students from the textile department, Geay and Geagea came up with a waterproof, easily foldable garment.

“We’re not used to working with fabric, so we got help from students of the textile department. Then we went more into details as we started working with professionals,” Geagea explained. That's why they were thankful for what Geay called “exceptional support” from Tyvek, a DuPont line of industrial fabrics with expertise in weatherproofing. “[Tyvek] provided us with the perfect material to work with: We needed a fabric that would be light, waterproof, and resistant, and theirs was just the perfect match.”

(Photos: Courtesy Anne Sophie Geay)

From there, it was a matter of creating something wearable with the light material that they chose because it's "almost like paper," Geay said.

“It’s very flexible, and we’ve added structure in it. It was mostly a question of how to organize it so it would fold correctly without any metallic parts,” Geay said.

Once the proper material was found, another challenge was the garment’s design: Its length as a jacket had to meet the need to shelter the wearer from wind or rain and also provide enough space as a tent without becoming impractical to wear or carry around for refugees.

At the camp in Calais, Geay and Harriss were pleased with the reactions of refugees.

(Photo: Anne Sophie Geay)

“At first, I was thinking that it was just a white jacket that wouldn’t interest anyone in the camp. But then one of the men came over and began asking questions about it. He was interested in the many pockets,” Geay said.

Such testimonies are all the more reason to get the garment into production. So far, the budding designers have succeeded in creating a useful garment. They intend to sell it on a one-to-one basis, so that for each garment bought, one will be given to a participating charity. “We’re working with charities and companies interested in manufacturing the garment,” Geay said. “The festival industry has also shown interest, so that would be ideal for our ‘buy one, give one’ concept. Obviously, there is no way we would sell it to refugees.”

The wearable shelter configured as a sleeping bag. (Photo: Courtesy Anne Sophie Geay)

In the meantime, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports 65.3 million forcibly displaced people lived in dire conditions around the world as of 2015.

Many of them have stories like Amjad’s. After fleeing Africa, he paid for passage to Italy, crossing the Mediterranean on a dinghy. His friends drowned at sea, but Amjad survived and traveled through Italy and France, mostly on foot, hitching rides on trains when he could. That journey took five months.

He reached Calais in November 2015 and decided not to travel farther, as crossing the channel was too dangerous. He is learning French at a school run by volunteers and is waiting to hear from the French government about his asylum request.

Asked whether he would undertake the journey again, Amjad said, “I have lost everything and everyone. There is nothing left for me in Sudan, only war. Of course I would try again.”

See refugees react to the coat that becomes a tent:

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