by Gabrielle Kennedy, workshop by Nikki Gonnissen

Istanbul has always been a vibrant place at the crossroads between east and west that brought both opportunities and complications. But in the current climate the city is facing a whole new set of challenges. Refugees, terrorist attacks, citizen protests, and an attempted coup have all left their mark on the city and its population. It is within this atmosphere that the twentieth edition of the annual Istanbul Graphic Design Week, or Grafist, took place.

Flagstories Istanbul Grafist 20 (Istanbul Graphic Design Week) Workshop Nikki Gonnissen together with students of the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. 18-22 April 2016.

I was invited by Grafist to contribute to their celebration and to share experiences with designers and students alike. In accepting this invitation I wanted to take on the challenges facing the city and to explore if and how design can bridge the growing gap between refugees and local communities. I had to find a medium to make this work.

On 30 November 1979 one of Brazil’s largest public demonstrations against the military took place in Florianópolis. The impact of those protests still resonates today so it felt like the right place to initiate a project to explore the power of design. We chose to work with flags, not a national flag but a personalized one.

Through my work I have discovered how these flowing yards of fabric can give people a voice and become a means for empowerment and connection. 

 For the Florianópolis project we created individual flags for individual houses based on the very characteristic and popular form and colour of the local facades. Then we asked the occupants to pose with the flags in front of their houses for a photograph. The gesture was so powerful that many participants ended up revealing all sorts of stories and anecdotes about their lives, their politics and their vision for the future. Our hope had been that something as simple as a flag would provide citizens with a voice to express themselves, which is exactly what happened.


For Istanbul we decided to use the same tool: the flag, to create “Flag Stories” – a name given to the program by the participants.

The idea was simple: I asked Turkish students from the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University to individually get in touch with a refugee and design a personal flag for him or her. The students were excited by this prospect and said: “We never met a refugee before.” The students had to listen, spend time with, and really get to know the refugees to be able to design a flag that would truly represent this person. 

Ethan Kaplan, 28, Turkey and Mohammed Ariki, 30, Yemen. Mohammed came to Turkey to run away from the war in Yemen. He decided to come to Turkey because of an explosion which was really close to him. On my flag I put a dove which carries grenade pins to to stop the war.
Arum Sentry, 21, Turkey and Zain Sokair, 18, Syria. Zain’s father has left the country with them to get away from being arrested. That’s why, each cube form is to represent to be imprisonment and darkness.
Rent Silit, 22, Turkey and Tawfik Hanan, 33, Syria. The red figure used in the centre symbolises the father, and the 3 separated dots symbolise his kids. The black behind the figures represent the war and the white lines stand for chaos.

We went to a school that offered Turkish lesson to refugees. With some shared vocabulary and improvised interpreters among the students, everybody started to talk and interact. A common language opened up a whole new level of understanding and very soon the students and refugees found each other, started to connect on Facebook, and to exchange mobile numbers. The atmosphere was terrifically positive despite the sometimes very sad individual stories of hardship and escape. 

Then the students returned to the graphic design department at the university to design a flag for the person they had gotten to know. The flag they were asked to design had to reflect the specific identity of that person.

Two days later we invited the group of refugees to the university on the banks of the Bosporus. During a ceremony, each student offered his or her flag to the refugee, explaining why he or she had made this specific flag for their newly found friend.

Gizem Kara, 23, Turkey and Aya Abotoam, 18, Syria. Aya and her famíly came to Istanbul six months ago. I used red color on my flag to represent war. The arrow and the word “hope” represent Aya’s wish to go back.
Seyit Ali Baser, 19, Turkey and Omer Sahvan, 22, Syria. Omer wanted to have a new life, so he decided to go to Greece with a boat. Because the boat sank, Omer had to swim for 12 hours to come to Turkey. I placed 12 sea waves to show that he was in the water for 12 hours.

Offering the flag was an important part of the project. This gesture was very powerful. The ceremony was emotional, happy, and intense. As if all the energy of the world’s woes came to this single peaceful moment. That’s when we decided together to make a website and call it ‘Flag Stories’.

The idea behind our flags is that they represent not a nation, but a person: “One man – One vote”. It gives people rights and a voice. It’s a project about democracy and social empowerment.

Tarik Kirpi, 21, Turkey and Mohammed Akkam, 26, Syria. Mohammed has come to Turkey from Syria cause of the war. I have designed a flag by using his name to empower his self-confidence. I have used red and black as his favourite colours.
Lukas Janke, 23, Germany and Bella, 17, Syria. Bella said that he wants to become a manager to perform better planning. In his opinion, being able to speak languages is the bridge between all people and different nations. Belal’s flag shows a balloon with a key inside. These two elements can also be seen as a bird with an eye and wings.

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