Girl walking through refugee camp

What is home? What does home mean to you?

It might be the four walls of the house in which you grew up; it could be the memory of the garden of your childhood; or it may be a fragment of time with your family.

The concept of ‘home’, particularly for those who have been displaced or made to leave their homelands by conflict, war and persecution, has played a defining role in the research of Dr Sana Murrani, Associate Professor in Spatial Practice. No stranger herself to geopolitical upheaval after leaving her native Iraq in 2003 as the regime fell, Sana has worked with refugees and asylum seekers to explore the process by which they create their own sense of home in a land that is often alienating to them. 

“Refugees can face daunting personal and collective challenges when they are forced to leave their homes,” says Sana, the founder of the Displacement Studies Research Network at the University. “But beyond surviving the immediate crises of transit, their struggles have a much longer, and equally courageous but neglected dimension; how do they build a new life, one that balances the need to maintain their cultural identity, while becoming full citizens of their destination communities?”

It’s a process that has been the focus of Sana’s work for much of the past four years, primarily through the Creative Recovery: Mapping Refugees’ Memories of Home, as Heritage project (funded by the European Cultural Foundation). Working with the British Red Cross and 12 refugees from ten different countries, it posed the question of how people who are displaced and not feeling at home in the UK construct a spatial and visual understanding of the concept of home. And rather than seeking to answer that with words, it was done through objects of migration, spatial memory, maps and photographs.

At the outset, I said to them ‘I share a loss of home with you’. As an architect, my interest in the search for a representation of what home means in exile became further profound through this shared loss. And this is why I took on an interest in this search for home that is not about the recreation with bricks and mortar or how many bedrooms you had. It asks the question "what does it mean to you?"

Through one-to-one interviews and creative group workshops, the refugees shared their recollections as well as physical objects such as diaries, items they brought with them and photos of their life before coming to the UK. Over time, they created a selection of exhibits, including audio-visual material, digital maps and models, which were put on public display during Refugee Week in 2019.

“Many of the outcomes were not about the static physicality of home,” Sana says. “For example, a Syrian Kurd who was part of the project told us ‘It is not that we didn’t care when our city was destroyed, but what was really important was to be able to go back and rebuild it’. So we were more concerned with the ground belonging and the homeland than the bricks and mortar which we wanted to go back and build better. Another said it was the picture of their mother that they carried everywhere, because he knew he was a displaced person, and that home wasn’t going to exist outside of his home-town.”

For Sana, that home-town was Baghdad – with the exception of the four years she lived in Khartoum, when her father was appointed to the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development in Sudan. When the family returned in 1986, it was to a country living through the tension of the Iran-Iraq War years, and the ferment that led-up to the first Gulf War. 
“We had a very liberal upbringing and it was clear that we belonged but did not belong in Iraqi society,” Sana reflects. “We are not Muslims, but also not Christians. We are from a very small sect of people called the Sabian Mandaeans, who are the original settlers of Mesopotamia. They lived in the southern part of Iraq and because they did not have any interest in power, they were left alone. And that made us very distinctively known in society. You tended to be the only one in the school – so everyone would point the finger and say ‘this is the Mandaean!’
Dr Sana Murrani

“And we were taught in that way, we were always very hard-working because we knew we could not succeed if we weren’t. And I suppose this shaped the way I am determined to do better all the time.”

From an early age, Sana was fascinated by the process of assembling and fixing things. Describing hers as a 'visual upbringing', she was drawn to maps and puzzles, and to deconstructing and reconstructing Lego and other toys. This formative play and experimentation led her to develop an academic interest in architecture, and it was in that subject that she enrolled at the University of Baghdad (where her father was Professor of Genetics and Bio-Statistics and the head of its Doctoral College). A masters degree followed and then a move into one of the top architectural practices in the country. It did not take long, however, for her to realise that this was not a fulfilling career path.

Bricks and mortar are so ‘still’ and to some extent boring and unresponsive to those changes that people are hit with suddenly in life (and the changes that I was living through during the wars). I wasn’t challenged in the ways I was craving. What I wanted to do was something more substantial and fundamental in the way it sought to change the world.

Sana found the interdisciplinary inspiration she was looking for in the work and words of Professor Roy Ascott, Founding President of the Planetary Collegium. Roy, now an Emeritus Professor of the University, had written an article on the subject of architecture adapting to technologies and responding to people’s needs.

Sana emailed him, and having explained the nature of her masters, was offered the chance to do a PhD in Plymouth under his supervision. But in 2002, that was something easier said than done because the Iraqi regime had placed a ransom on all doctors and engineers, ensuring anyone attempting to leave the country had to pay a vast sum of money. The following year, however, with the fall of Saddam Hussein, the path was cleared for the next stage in her life.

“It was quite a big deal for a person from Iraq – a woman, on her own – to come to the UK…I broke a few stereotypes along the way!” Sana says. “It was brave to leave my parents, because while the war had just finished, sectarianism was going up and they were under threat constantly and I was worried constantly. But it was a revelation. I was the first Iraqi student to come to do a PhD after the war.”

Sana obtained a visa at the British Consulate in Jordan and arrived at Heathrow sporting a document carrier that resembled, jokingly in her words, “a bazooka”.

“I was expecting to be stopped, but everyone was incredibly welcoming and interested in what I was coming to do,” she says.

After five years, Sana applied for a position in the architecture department at Plymouth. It was, she says, ‘immensely fulfilling’ as she realised her ambition of emulating her father in becoming an academic. Two years’ later, she completed her PhD, and – with two maternity breaks in between – began to find her feet in a research context. But it was when she began to introduce her own intense personal experiences into the spatial practice realm did that side of her role truly flourish.

“People asked why I hadn’t done my PhD on Iraq, and I used to say that it was too raw,” she says. “I couldn’t face working on a subject like this and I am in awe of anyone who can come from a place of conflict and decide to do their research on it. It was not the right thing for me to do, and it was not until my parents left the country that I managed to write an article on the urban context under the influence of the blast walls.”

That 2015 article, Baghdad’s Third Space (published the following year in the Journal of Cultural Dynamics) was transformative for Sana. The piece explained how the blast walls moved around the city, closing routes and access points and forcing residents to respond and adapt through creative route-finding. Taxi drivers coordinated, school-children co-navigated, and fruit and veg stalls congregated in the shade of the imposing structures.

Getty - dark earth map with glowing details of city and human population density areas. view of middle east

“What I was interested in was how people were trying to adapt due to time and safety and other measures to get to where they needed to go,” Sana says. “And it’s fascinating to see the way the brain adapts. I looked at research on people with trauma. People who are subjected to traumatic events where they had to adopt a different way of navigating their world and environment, tend to become more spatially aware and cognitively spatially intelligent. That fascinated me. It meant that those who have been walking across Europe are incredibly good at spatial navigation. It’s a wealth we could capitalise on. It’s a form of resilience which is scarce in the west.”

Sana founded the Displacement Studies Research Network the following year, and began writing grant applications, landing the Mapping Creative Recovery project in the process. Academic papers have followed, including one published the Journal of Culture and Psychology, in which Sana drew on experiences of forcibly displaced people in the ways in which they construct meanings of home in exile.

Read more: Stay at home. Is it really that simple?

Another legacy of the research has been the development of a participatory co-design method of spatial mapping through embodied experiences, similar to that used in dealing with trauma in health and wellbeing studies. Participants are not filled with information, but instead encouraged to co-create with the researchers, to co-design and become active contributors to the study.

“One of the participants in Mapping Creative Recovery was a Palestinian, from Gaza,” Sana recalls. “He found that for whatever reason, probably security or political, you can’t find an open-source map of Gaza that is identical. Every single one looks different. And to him, they all looked different and he would challenge their accuracy. It is things like that that gave the group space to participate with confidence. By the time we conducted the one-to-one interviews at the end, they were no longer inward-looking, and scared to contribute. They knew what they wanted from the world.”

Sana is now seeking to evolve the Network, transforming it into a Justice and Imagination in Global Displacement Research Collective, bringing together different disciplines, such as architecture, art practice and psychology, criminology and English Literature, and “embedding imagination, creativity and the understanding of person-centred, co-design and experience-based approach”. This new research collective is a strategic development to the network in line with Sana’s ongoing and current research activities and consultancies as a Member of the ESRC GCRF Peer Review College, a Member of the Nahrein Network Management Committee (GCRF AHRC Iraq-centred research network based at University College London), and a Research Consultant on Made in Migration (British Academy funded project at the University of Oxford), mapping the material culture of displacement with a group of refugees in the UK, Sweden and Greece.

She is also developing a book looking at the improvised and contingent architecture and spatial practice in which people responded creatively to the Gulf Wars and the conflict that followed to protect themselves. It’s about “learning how people at times of war and conflict improvised spaces in their environment for protection and how these lessons could aid a new ways of thinking for the humanitarian fields of architecture and design ,” she says, “it will be very architectural!”

With climate change, pandemics and geopolitical instability, these fundamental questions and concepts around the fragility of home and how we can fit in when we are displaced, will, unfortunately, continue to be posed. 

The reason I become interested in the spatial dimensions of displacement and looking at the creative ways in which people respond to conflict, war or sudden changes in their environment is because I lived through that,” Sana concludes. “Living through the war taught me how to survive while solving problems very quickly, off the hoof, where you have no time to think. We should recognise and celebrate these spatial responses as forms of resilience in people more often.