Gibbs Ph.D. Student Awarded Center for Peace and Development Fellowship 

Salma Akter Surma, a Ph.D. student in Planning, Design and Construction, was recently awarded the Security in Context Research Fellowship from the OU Center for Peace and Development. During her fellowship, Akter will research how trauma-informed care approaches can be applied in the planning and design process of child-friendly built environments in the refugee context.  

Akter’s project, “Trauma-Informed Built Environment: Investigating the Role of Physical Environment on Refugee Children’s Health and Well-Being in Resettlement Context,” focuses on trauma-informed built environments for refugee children regarding their physical, mental and emotional well-being at the home and neighborhood scale. Akter will explore the impact of spatial-physical facilities on refugee children’s moods, behavior, attitudes and wellness.  

Akter working with community members at a Bihari refugee camp in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

She argues with past research that TIC is mainly designed for clinical health, institutional and social caregiving contexts and overlooks the built environment perspective. According to Akter, the people-place connection to the environment is vital for aiding traumatized refugees in their resettlement and fostering resiliency. 

Akter’s research focuses on Rohingya refugee (Myanmar Muslim minority) communities who fled from Myanmar and resettled in Dallas. She argues that these child refugees often experience profound physical and emotional vulnerabilities and re-traumatization in their new living environments, due to the absence of refugee integration in the built environment process.  

Akter is a Bangladeshi social safeguard, architect, educator and applied researcher who has worked on community-driven development for the last 17 years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture (2006) and a Master of Science in Human Settlement (2017), and worked in the architecture department at Premier University, Bangladesh, from 2018-2022. At PU, She taught and advised undergraduate thesis projects, mostly on sustainable settlement planning and design that focused on SDG11

She has participated in a variety of community engagement projects, including “Zero-carbon prefabricated bamboo housing for Bihari refugees in Bangladesh,” in collaboration with the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan and BRAC Bangladesh. As a volunteer, she designed and constructed environmentally friendly, gender respective toilets and kitchens at a Bihari refugee camp. She also attended the 2022 Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program at the University of California, Berkeley, with research support

She has received various awards, including a Science, Engineering and Technology Dean’s Award for her development of an inclusive conceptual framework that follows the human ecological model to ensure migrants’ quality of life. Akter also conducted research on slum and refugee settlements in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Her research covers topics such as on-site slum upgrades, model villages, refugee and slum resiliency during COVID-19, the death of urban streets, child-friendly space and low-cost settlement quality of life.  

Akter extended her lived and professional experiences on community well-being during her Ph.D. journey at OU. In the Spring of 2023, Akter was awarded a grant from the Gibbs Design Activism Awards to continue her research on the well-being of Myanmar (Buddhist) refugee children regarding the built environment. She also received a grant from the Program for Research Enhancement to pursue research on the role of public libraries in refugee children’s social, human and economic capital.  

For the SiC research fellowship, Akter hopes to initiate conversations with Rohingya refugees and the philanthropic aiders involved in their resettlement process in the United States to conduct community-based applied research.

Congratulations to Salma Akter Surma for this achievement!