Architecture saves lives – An Interview with Alumni Esther Menduiña

By July 7, 2020 Alumni, Alumni interviews, Blog

The integration and social inclusion of migrants and refugees is one of the core issues of our Master of International Cooperation Sustainable Emergency Architecture. Our former student Esther Meduiña explored her interests in the impact of mass migration in her thesis about Urban Integration of Refugees in Europe – a topic that has been central to her career since graduating from our program. We spoke to Esther about the influences in her career, her work with the Norwegian Refugee Council and UNHCR, and why architects can play a crucial role in creating more sustainable and humane environments for all

Name:  Esther Menduiña
Nationality: 
Spanish
Year of Graduation from Programme: 2015/2016
Internship placement: UN-Habitat
Current Occupation: 
Shelter Cluster Coordinator with UNHCR
Location: 
El Fasher, Sudan
Area of interest/specialty: 
Shelter

You graduated from our Master’s program in 2016 after doing your internship at UN-Habitat. You then went on to work as a Shelter Consultant for the Norwegian Refugee Council. Tell us a bit about your career path and professional experiences since leaving our university.
Thanks to the master I had the opportunity to engage in an internship with UN- Habitat, where I could learn about their city resilience profiling programme. I was specially interested in the impact of mass migration since my thesis was about Urban Integration of Refugees in Europe.  The expertise gained in the master brought me to my next mission in Greece coordinating the urban shelter response with the NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council) providing housing during the refugee crisis. Learning from this experience, I then worked as a consultant with the NRC in an innovation project to provide housing for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan designing an online platform. Then, the NRC offered me the opportunity to go to Ethiopia as Programme Developer Manager to respond to the massive migration of one million IDPs due to conflict. That was a short mission to start up the programme and build 700 houses, however, I quickly engaged with the people and decided to stay as Shelter Cluster Coordinator with IOM and coordinate the response for 35.000 houses. We provided emergency shelter for IDPs as well as reconstruction kits for returnees. After the completion of that mission, I started working as a Shelter Cluster Coordinator with UNHCR in Sudan, where we will provide shelter solutions to 1.5 Million refugees and IDPs in a protracted crisis.

In what ways did the master program influence your professional life and career path? What specific skills did you learn that are important to your current work?
Thanks to the master I learned how to write a thesis and get the opportunity to research about the topic I was most interested, the Urban Integration of Refugees. With the support of Carmen Mendoza, I participated in several conferences about my thesis. This made my work visible up to the point that I was offered to go to Greece to be part of the urban response. The master gave me an overall understanding about many interesting topics and I learned skills that are important in my current work like the overall understanding of humanitarian responses and sustainable emergency shelter typologies.

What project are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m working with UNHCR as Shelter Cluster Coordinator in Sudan. Following the Cluster Approach, I coordinate an InterAgency team in an environment that requires high standards of accountability and demonstrable leadership, coordination, negotiation and conflict resolution skills. We support 1.5 Million people in need by providing live-saving ESNFI kits for recently displaced people as well as transitory shelter for returnees and refugees.

As you mentioned, during your time with the Norwegian Refugee Council your work included the response to the refugee crisis in Greece and you also undertook research on the global and local impacts of mass migration – which you presented in a guest lecture called Urban Emergency Response to our students. Can you explain to us what this research was about?
My research was about the different urban integration strategies needed in Europe to be resilient to mass migration. Particularly, I focused my study on the massive influx of refugees during 2015-2017. Many European cities tried to host newcomers in urban settings like we did in Greece, however the cities didn´t have the services, resources and polices in place for such a situation. Even though Europe is far from being the region hosting the majority of refugees, the number of migrants arriving continue to increase. Therefore, there is a need to improve and adjust policies to deal with migration in a dignified way.

The integration and social inclusion of migrants and refugees is a central focus of our education and research. Our team actively promotes a new paradigm in urban governance and planning to develop a more flexible approach to adapt to changes like unexpected migration waves and provide sustainable spatial and social refugee integration strategies. Climate change and conflict will continue to accelerate the global refugee crisis and the migrant communities have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. In your opinion, how should architects and urban planners respond and contribute to tackle these challenges?
Well, first of all I think that there is a lack of knowledge in general and especially in the private sector about how architecture can save lives. From emergency response up to urban development there are so many different approaches to build an environment that could be much more sustainable and efficient. However, there is a huge gap between developed and developing countries that we all have to bridge, starting with education and awareness. We are all accountable of what is happening in this world regardless any borders and without a greater human consciousness we won´t be able or willing to adjust policies and support each other. I hope COVID-19 will help realizing this.

Last, but not least, a question we ask all our alumni: What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path?
I would say go for it! It´s definitely challenging and life changing, but this career gives you a huge opportunity to make the difference towards serving humanity. Enjoy the opportunity of learning about really relevant and interesting topics; focus your thesis on that what you love the most, the rest will fall into place.

 

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