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The last year marked the highest refugee population ever registered, 60 million people according to the UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). The refugees able to return to their countries are always fewer than those who leave. The oldest refugee population, the Palestinians, is today more than five million, 1.6 million still live in some sixty camps across the Middle East.

We lack the necessary knowledge and practice to understand and intervine in this new urban reality produced by a prolonged political exclusion. In 2012 in an effort to intervene in such unstable and socially and politically charged urbanity of exile “Campus in Camps” was founded as a means to address the numerous needed and urgent spatial and social interventions in Palestinian refugee camps. Campus in Camps is a space for communal learning and production of knowledge grounded in lived experience and connected to communities. It brings people together in a pluralistic environment where they can learn freely, honestly and enthusiastically. It reasserts what is fundamental and profound in the lives of the participants, forming an active group that chooses words, constructs meanings, and creates useful knowledge through actions within their communities. “Campus in Camps” was created as an experimental educational program with Al Quds University (Al Quds/Bard Partnership) and hosted by the Phoenix Center in Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. It was implemented with the support of the GIZ Regional Social and Cultural Fund for Palestinian Refugees and Gaza Population on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), in cooperation with UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) Camp Improvement Program.

Campus in Camps today is made of two essential and interdependent pillars. The first pillar is constituted by courses established according to the participants’ interests and camps urgencies. The second pillar is the Consortium formed by local and international Universities: Mardin Artuklu University (Mardin-Turkey), Leuven University (Leuven -Belgium) Birzeit University (Birzeit), Goldsmiths University (London – United Kingdom), International Art Academy (Ramallah), Dar El Kalima (Bethlehem) that are offering courses, seminars and workshops in Campus in Camps. These activities are in constant dialog with the Popular Committees of Southern West Bank Refugee Camps and UNRWA. These strategic partnerships have already been tested in the past years and have, for the first time, brought together institutions and organisations that rarely work together. At end of the year annual public presentations in 2013 the Director of UNRWA Operations in the West Bank, Felipe Sanchez, described Campus in Camps as inspirational. “We hope to replicate this effort across the West Bank,” he said, “Campus in Camps has connected people to people, institutions to institutions and camps to other camps.”

Guests professors include artists, architects, theoreticians, lawyers, scholars and policy experts such as: David Harvey, Michel Agier, Ruba Saleh, Linda Quiquivix, Basel Abbas, Ruanne Abou-Rhame, Wilfried Graf, Tariq Dana, Felicity D. Scott, Mohammed Jabali, Moukhtar Kocache, Hanan Toukan, Shadi Chaleshtoori, Jeffrey Champlin, Manuel Herz, C.K. Raju, Fernando Rampérez, Emilio Dabed, Samer Abdelnour, Sari Hanafi, Michael Buroway, Gudrun Kramer, Muhammed Jabali, Munir Fasheh, Aaron Cezar, Pelin Tan, Thomas Keenan, Shuruq Harb, Umar Al-Ghubari, Khaldun Bshara, Jawad Al Mahal, Ayman Kalifah among many others.

Marwa Allaham, Qussay Abu Aker, Alaa Al Homouz, Saleh Khannah, Shadi Ramadan, Ahmad Lahham, Aysar Dawoud, Bisan Al Jaffarri, Nedaa Hamouz, Naba Al Assi, Mohammed Abu Alia, Ibrahim Jawabreh, Ayat Al Turshan, Murad Owdah, Mohamad Al Saifi, Yazan Al Jo’aidi, Hussam Al Masri, Muhammad Al Lahham, Dyala Fararja, Adam Fararja, Naseem, Zakoot, Tariq Ramadan, Bara’a Alian, Reem Ramadan, Basil Al Lahham, Tala Ramadan, Bara’a Abed Al Nabi, Wijdan Naif, Ghazal Al Masri, Dana Ramadan, Khalil Albana, and Abed Zahran.

Project Activators
Isshaq Al Barbary, Diego Segatto, Elsa Raker, Yara Al Al Fandi, Yasser Hemadan, Ala Juma, brave new Alps, Matteo Guidi, Sara Pellegrini, Giuliana Racco, Tala Abu Rahme, Thea Piltzecker, Daniel McKenzie, Iman Simon, Ayman Khalifah, Samih Faraj

Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti are the founding member and initiators of the program.

Al jame3ah: the space for assembly

Campus in Camps does not follow or propose itself as a model but rather as civic space in formation. Al jame3ah translates in English as “university” but its literal meaning is a place for assembly. We would like to think of Campus in Camps as part of a long path that had stations in the schools of Khalil Al-Sakakini, where grades and punishments for students were abolished and walks and music were considered a form of knowledge, or to the informal and clandestine learning environment established during the first Intifada in which people were learning from each other and in context.

Campus in Camps reclaims diversity in ways of learning. For many, knowledge is based on information and skills; in Campus in Camps we place a strong emphasis on the process of learning that cuts across conventional disciplines of knowledge, moving along a different vision, one which integrates aspects of lives, dialogs with the larger community and is not confined within the walls of academia. It welcomes forms of knowledge that remain undetected by the radar of traditional academic knowledge.

Campus in Camps initiatives are the result of a collective effort made by participants in dialogue with community members, associations and collaborators. They are based on reflections and observations articulated around a form of knowledge emerged not as pre-constituted information but rather as critical understanding of the social and political context. A group of concepts considered fundamental for the comprehension of the contemporary condition of Palestinian refugee camps took the form of what we call the “Collective Dictionary”, ( the conceptual framework within which the initiatives are inscribed and find their profound and coherent meanings. The initiatives bear the names of this urbanity of exile: the garden, the pathways, the municipality, the suburb, the pool, the stadium, the square, the unbuilt, the bridge ( The very existence of these common places within refugee camps suggests new spatial and social formations beyond the idea of the camp as a site of marginalization, poverty and political subjugation.



By activating critical learning and egalitarian environments Campus in Camps seeking out a manner of critical intervention for the strengthening of the social fabric of communities, while seeking to contribute to the way universities understand themselves, aiming to overcome conventional structure.




The Tree school 

Recognising the importance of connecting the Palestinian reality to global urgencies in comparative contexts such as South American favelas and informal settlements in India, Campus in Camps in collaboration with Brazilian-based art collective Contrafilé established the first tree school in Bahia, Brazil. A tree is, in fact, the minimal element to form a school, a gathering place for people who share similar urgencies. The tree, with its characteristics and history, is the device that creates a physical and symbolic common territory where ideas and actions can emerge through critical and independent discussion among participants.

The first tree school was established in Bahia, southern Brazil, on the occasion of the Sao Paulo Biennale. It joined together activists, artists, quilombola intellectuals, landless movements and Palestinian refugees in discussions of forms of life beyond the idea of the nation state and the meaning of knowledge production within marginalized sectors of society. After the Bahia experience, we have gone on to activate other tree schools in Jerusalem, Cuernavaca, and Porto.


The program

Campus in Camps originated from of a collective cumulative thought that aimed at bringing together theory and action, learning in a contextual environment and project based interventions in refugee camps. The desire for such a program maturated in an ongoing dialogue started in 2007 between the UNRWA Camp Improvement Program, directed by Sandi Hilal, and the Refugee Camp Communities of Southern West Bank. From this ongoing dialogue emerged the urgency from the communities to explore and produce new forms of representation of camps and refugees beyond the static and traditional symbols of passivity and poverty. In several years of teaching at the Al Quds Bard University, and based on his previous research and experiences with DAAR, a studio and art residency based in Beit Sahour, Alessandro Petti became convinced that the camp is the right place for the campus: a truly engaged and committed university. In conversation with Al Quds Bard students from refugee camps, he has realized that their narrations, ideas and discourses could have flourish in a protected space such as the university but they needed to be grounded in context and connected with the community. And reciprocally, the university moving in camps could have opened its doors to other forms of knowledge, to experimental forms of communal learning able to combine critical reflections with action.

The program could not have existed without the support of the Popular Committees of Southern West Bank refugee camps and in particular without the hospitality and vitality of Al Feniq Center in Dheisheh: a center which hosts a myriad of activities in its multifunctional capacity, a perfect place for a University in Exile. By bringing the “island of knowledge” (the university campus) into the “island of exclusion” (the camp) Campus in Camps aims to activate different forms of knowledge production engaged with lived experiences and connected to communities.

Campus in Camps, begun in January 2012, engages young participants in a two-year program dealing with new forms of visual and cultural representations of refugee camps after more than sixty years of displacement. The aim is to provide young motivated Palestinian refugees who are interested in engaging their community with the intellectual space and necessary infrastructure to facilitate these debates and translate them into practical community-driven projects that will incarnate representational practices and make them visible in the camps. The group of participants in the program was created in a long process of three months of interviews, consultations with the community and public announcements in newspapers and mosques. There has not been a real selection, instead a series of meetings allowed us and the applicants to understand if we all shared a mutual interest in embarking on such an experimental project. However, one thing the participants have in common is their engagement with the community. Most of them volunteered in organizations or have been involved in community-based projects.

The Campus in Camps program stems from the recognition that refugee camps in the West Bank are in a process of a historical political, social and spatial transformation. Despite adverse political and social conditions, Palestinian refugee camps have developed a relatively autonomous and independent social and political space: no longer a simple recipient of humanitarian intervention but rather an active political subject. The camp becomes a site of social invention and suggests new political and spatial configurations.

In recent years, the refugee camp has been transformed from a marginalized urban area to a center of social and political life. More notable is that such radical transformations have not normalized the political condition of being exiled. For decades, the effects of the political discourse around the right of return, such as the rise of a resolute imperative to stagnate living circumstances in refugee camps in order to reaffirm the temporariness of the camps, forced many refugees to live in terrible conditions.

What emerges today is a reconsideration of this imperative where refugees are re-inventing social and political practices to improve their everyday life without normalizing the politically exceptional condition of the camp.


The CIC Book (PDF)


Shufat School

Inspired by Campus in Camps and designed by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Livia Minoja for UNRWA, the Shu’fat School for Girls has open its doors to 1,000 students, teachers and local organizations becoming the only “common space” in the overcrowded refugee camp. The school is located in Shu’fat refugee camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem which is home to 20,000 Palestinians refugees. Shu’fat camp is part of Jerusalem but separated from it by walls and fences built by Israeli governments since 2002. The school challenges the humanitarian approach that reduces refugees to only victims and statistics. The school became part of educational reform that UNRWA is still implementing and has productively influenced the construction of new schools in other camp contexts in the region.

School in exile (PDF)