A Refugee's Creative Solution To Algeria's Housing Crisis Will Impress Any Soda Drinker

"I am very happy that I have benefited from this initiative."

In a remote portion of the desert in southwest Algeria, a Sahrawi refugee named Tateh Lehbib Breica is filling empty plastic bottles with sand to build homes that can withstand the harsh climate — and his unorthdox building method might just be the solution to the region's housing crisis.

Believe it or not, Breica, who was born and raised in Awserd refugee camp, made this discovery somewhat by accident. According to The U.N. Refugee Agency, initially he was planning to use the plastic bottles (which otherwise would have been wasted) as part of a roof garden to house growing plant seedlings, but when that proved inefficient, he had to think of another use for the bottles.

The 27-year-old, who attended college in Algiers under a DAFI scholarship and later earned his master's in renewable energy at a Spanish university, recalled seeing a documentary during his time at school on building using plastic bottles, and thought he'd give it a shot.

Breica's timing couldn't have been better. The Awserd camp — one of five in the area surrounding the town of Tindouf that shelters Sahrawi refugees who fled fighting in the Western Sahara War more than 40 years ago — was in desperate need of new housing after a 2015 storm destroyed thousands of homes in the vicinity.

So instead of rebuilding the traditional mud-brick and adobe homes popular in the area, which are vulnerable to heavy rains and sandstorms, Breica put his plastic bottles to good use. The first house he built using the bottles was for his injured grandmother.

Pretty soon, Breica earned himself a new nickname — "Majnoun al qarurat" — which translates to "crazy with bottles".

His plastic bottle homes have greater structural resistance to water, and thanks to their thick walls and circular shape they also can better withstand wind and more effectively keep out penetrating sand and dust from the sandstorms. As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Shelter Officer Otis Moore explains on the UNHCR's website, because "the adobe houses can be destroyed by heavy or prolonged rain, use of plastic bottles instead of mud-brick will create more durable structures. And we have adopted the circular shape because it is aerodynamic and can withstand storms more effectively."

Breica's project has been so successful that the UNHCR Innovation Fund gave him money to construct additional homes. Together, Breica and the UNHCR have built 25 houses across all five refugee camps using just sand-filled plastic bottles, and they've all been allocated to vulnerable people.

"We spend months building the other fragile dwelling," Mailaminin Saleh, a refugee who currently lives in one of Breica's unique houses, told ThinkProgress last year. Like many others, Saleh's former mud-brick house was destroyed in a flood. "It is stronger and more efficient here," she said. "I am very happy that I have benefited from this initiative."

Despite winning an award from a local magazine last year, Breica is best known for improving the quality of life within the Sahrawi refugee camps. "People still see me as the guy obsessed with recycling bottles and building unusual houses," he tells the UNHCR.

And Breica isn't the only refugee looking to solve a housing crisis in an innovative way. UNHCR Innovation also funds dwelling modification in the Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. There, Syrian refugees were given prefabricated shelters, but they were unable to choose the location of the homes or move them closer to their family and friends. As a response, Syrian welders built a carting device out of wheels and fence posts, which they used to make large axles to move the shelters.

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