Construction of a Taiwan-funded civic center in a town on Turkey’s Syrian border is expected to be completed within a month, capping nearly four years of work by the project’s leaders to bring aid to the war-scarred region.
The Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens, as the center is called, is located in Turkey’s southern Hatay Province, which has experienced an influx of some 400,000 refugees since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
Consisting of 52 multipurpose rooms built on land donated by the Turkish government, the center will serve as a type of bazaar, offering Reyhanli residents and Syrian refugees a joint space to “live and prosper together,” according to head architect Chiu Chen-yu (裘振宇).
In terms of its functionality, the center will provide space for local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), classrooms, art workshops and exhibitions, retail shops and cafes, playgrounds and even a mosque.
It will also have space reserved for the design and manufacture of traditional handicrafts, which officials, including Reyhanli Mayor Mehmet Hacioglu, hope will create jobs and boost the local economy.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the center, however, is its minimalist design: The rooms, or “units,” as Chiu calls them, lack basic interior decorations or even windows.
The concept, Chiu explained, is to allow locals to participate in the creation of their own work spaces, and in doing so, rebuild their lost sense of community and personal agency.
Quoting advice he received from the architect Hsieh Ying-chun (謝英俊), Chiu added that “anyone who goes through this kind of process is no longer a refugee.”
In 2016, when Chiu conceived the idea of building a community center in the war-torn region, it was the advice of another Taiwanese colleague that determined his path.
“Get to know everyone you can there, and let them get to know you. Give them a role in the building process, so that they can feel they are a part of it. Only in this way can you build something that meets their ideals,” the architect Liao Ming-pin (廖明彬) told him.
In the four years that followed, Chiu did his best to follow that advice.
From his base at Bilkent University in Ankara, where he works as an assistant professor of architecture, Chiu made nearly 40 trips to Reyhanli to earn the trust of local officials and the general public.
Despite initial plans to complete the project in six months, Chiu ultimately spent three years and submitted no less than 10 building proposals before the current design — which involves arches constructed from pre-cast concrete and zinc-aluminum alloys — was approved by the city government.
In addition to bureaucratic obstacles, visits to the town often brought bitter reminders of its location on the edge of a war zone, Chiu said.
In 2018, after the Turkish military launched an offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia in northwest Syria, Kurdish fighters responded with rocket fire against Reyhanli and the smaller town of Kilis.
The following year, three people died in a car bombing not far from the center, just days before Chiu and seven students arrived in the city for meetings.
Chiu said that his students, who came not only from Turkey but also Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, handled the incidents with a sort of black humor, dubbing themselves “the expendables” and urging Chiu to convert to Islam.
After four years, Chiu said, the project had become something of a personal mission. Explaining his hopes for the center, he recalled advice he received from another of his mentors — the architect Huang Sheng-yuan (黃聲遠):
Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel