Using Design to ‘Build Bridges’ at the Border

From the start, Tariq Jaber was a living incarnation of a topic that would become increasingly important to him — borders. Years later, as a 2019 Pillars Scholar at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design, the topic would inform his study and channel his focus.

Jaber visited several international borders as part of his Pillars Scholarship, a collaboration between NewSchool and the San Diego Architectural Foundation (SDAF). Through the scholarship, Jaber sought to conceptualize better solutions for U.S.-Mexico border control than simply building a wall.

Seeing the Promise for More Humane Solutions

“How can we create borders that help people rather than keep everybody out?” says Jaber, a 2020 NewSchool graduate. “That was the question I explored. How can we design a border that addresses humanitarian issues and treats its users with dignity? A lot of division arises when borders are created, figuratively and literally. I wanted to create a wiser, more humane solution for the U.S.-Mexico border than simply putting up a wall.”

In his Pillars Scholarship study, a look at comparative approaches to border control, Jaber visited the borders of Palestine and Israel; North Cyprus and South Cyprus; and Syria and Turkey. While he had saved to go to Israel, the scholarship funds allowed Jaber to explore multiple countries and push his research further. In the process, he glimpsed unexpected complexities, witnessed a refugee crisis, and felt moved.

It was all part of his quest to understand how a border impacts a community’s social, economic and moral well-being. Traveling by plane, ferry, train, bus and on foot, Jaber’s observations were striking.

“Some communities are shut off,” Jaber says. “They don’t have proper sewage, water and electrical systems. Garbage trucks can’t even access them. Those communities were hurting tremendously while others with more visitors and better access to services, such as Bethlehem and Ramallah, were thriving.”

In Cyprus, the United Nations created a buffer zone that splits the island in half. It stretches 112 miles in length and extends from 4 feet to 4 miles in width. Within that zone is a town where citizens from North Cyprus (controlled by Turkey) and South Cyprus (controlled by Greece) can visit without a visa. In that structure, Jaber saw promise for the U.S.-Mexico border. A shared zone at our southern border would allow families to interact and visit with one another.

“It would solve a lot of humanitarian issues and allow people to meet with dignity,” says Jaber, who conceptualized an architectural design based on the idea. His circular design resembles a jumbo donut or Apple’s Cupertino campus. One half would be the American side, the other the Mexican side. Jaber envisions hotels in the shared zone so families can spend additional time with each other without needing a visa.

A Mission Rooted in Personal Experience

Jaber’s quest to understand a border’s impact is as personal as it is academic. He himself is a product of one of the borders he studied — the Palestine-Israel border. Born in Jerusalem (in Israel), Jaber grew up in Palestine. At age 8, he moved to the U.S. with his family. With siblings who were born abroad and in the U.S., Jaber is acutely aware of the experiences that shape their perspectives. Making life more equitable for others always has been of interest to him, because he’s a product of inequities in his own family.

Jaber, along with two of his sisters, was born overseas. He feels an ideological divide between himself and his younger siblings, who were born in the United States and experience it as their homeland.

“Some of us are more connected to our Palestinian culture and our roots, and some of us aren’t,” he says. “My two sisters and I speak Arabic, the native language. We understand our parents better, are more tied to the issues. We also tend to be more understanding of people’s suffering. When we see that suffering on the news, it hits home for us.”

As a product of the border experience, Jaber feels compelled to create thoughtfully designed border communities that solve problems. As a designer, he feels a duty to design facilities and environments that enhance lives and bridge cultures.

“Using my talents to enhance quality of life for others has always been of interest to me,” he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.”

To learn about another NewSchool grad’s international experience, read about 2019 Pillars Scholar Jessica Patrick and her study in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

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