NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

Member of International Council of Design ico-D

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Neshan 42


Sahara: Branding a Refugee Camp

Amir Berbić

Stadium lights illuminate the ground. A flag flies the red cross from a tall flagpole at the center of the camp. A standard issue United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) field tent houses three Bosnian refugee families, and in the corner is a tiny, makeshift design studio. There, my father, Ismet Berbić, designed the visual identity for our refugee camp. The pyramidal graphic forms in his logo denoted our tapered tent dwellings. The year was 1993 and the location was Næsbyhoved-Broby, a village on the island Fyn, Denmark. Referring to the plot of sand on which our tents were erected, Ismet branded the camp Sahara. Sand is a camp-making technique used to cover the earth and shield tents from pests. It also established the camp’s territory. The fluctuating nature of sand formations echoed the refugees’ sense of baselessness. Ismet urged that the inhabitants should name the camp and that everyone should be identified by name, not by refugee number. He designed a welcome billboard for the entrance to the camp and a poster announcing the arrival of new neighbors to the village. For each tent, he created a sign that listed the names of its residents. The identity program also included a mock advertisement showing a grass field with pyramids drawn in the background and a happy family walking leisurely. Sahara became the camp’s official designation in formal documents of the Danish Refugee Council as well as the name of our self-organized school and football club.
Over twenty years later, I revisited my father’s sketches, the few remaining photographs, and video recordings from that time. My desire to tell this story was prompted by seeing media images of refugees entering Europe today. Like Bosnians in the 1990s, refugees from Syria and Iraq are shown through wide-angle shots of streaming lines of people—indistinguishable masses at border crossings. Sahara was an effort by refugees to assert a form to their identifying image.
Ismet studied graphic design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, where his work focused on pop art images of rock culture icons he saw at the famous Isle of Wight Music Festival in 1970. He worked on designing theater posters, visual identity programs, and packaging. In the 1980s, Ismet led an in-house creative studio at Svjetlost, one of Yugoslavia’s largest publishers. He also took part in graphic design work for Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympic Games. 
With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, our family was caught in the horror of war. After living under siege, my mother, brother, and I left the city of Sarajevo in an escape convoy. My father became involved in designing the first post stamps for the newly independent Bosnia and left the city to produce the specialized offset printing plates. As the war escalated, he was unable to return to the besieged city and, at that point, we became refugees traveling through Europe, eventually settling at a refugee camp in Denmark. 
In 1994, we relocated to the United States. In Chicago, our family founded a small design studio and published Zambak, a monthly magazine that supported the arriving refugees from the Balkans. Working for the magazine was my first experience in the design profession. Reflecting on my father’s experience, I still remember the tents, his makeshift studio, and how, through design, my father attempted to signal hope and opportunity for our family and our fellow refugees at Sahara.

Amir Berbić

Amir Berbić’s work explores place identity, three-dimensional typography and design pedagogy. He is a frequent collaborator with cultural organizations, arts institutions and publishers. Amir immigrated from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Chicago in the 1990s, where he completed his design education and began a career in editorial design and micro-publishing. Prior to joining UIC in 2014, Amir taught design at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates; in this role, he examined branding campaigns for Dubai’s architectural developments. Most recently, he served as Acting Director for the UIC School of Design during the 2016-2017 academic year before resuming his current role of Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs. Amir’s work, writing, and teaching output have been featured in numerous academic and professional publications, conferences, and exhibitions including Design Issues, Visual Communication, Print, Wallpaper, ICOGRADA World Design Congress, AIGA Design Educators Conference, TypeCon, and Salone del Mobile in Milan. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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