Palestinian refugee camps are sites where the concept of public or private property does not exist. Even after sixty-four years, Palestinian refugees still cannot legally own their houses and the camp is a space carved from the territorial state. The ongoing struggle is to fully comprehend how the camp form has contaminated and radically transformed the very idea of the city as an organized and functional political community.
The workshop “Campus in Camps in Cologne. Re-activating the Common“ that was held on the 8th to 13th , it’s main purpose is to explore ways in which public and common spaces are shaped and constituted, through a discussion with refugees, artists, scientists and political activists. With this version of the project, they hope to activate common spaces in Cologne through collective discussions and informal gatherings. These events are by nature non-structured environments, open to improvisation and informal participation.
“During our first gathering at Hiroshima Nagasaki Public Park, we introduced Campus in Camps in general as well as the specific ideas of representation and narration. This concept is of interest to all of us and is a topic I personally have spoken about on many occasions. On that day, while exposing the traditional static narrative based on the ideas of victimization and passivity that Palestinians use to tell their story, I also shed light on more positive aspects, or rather, the achievements and developments accomplished by refugees over the past sixty-five years. I spoke of the importance of including all of these moments in our narrative. During and after my speech, it was quite obvious to me that most of the attendees agreed that their perception of the Palestinian cause was that of the dominant narrative that they had heard so often and, thus, exclusive of the positive aspects, achievements and strengths of refugees in exile. As a Palestinian refugee, I found this situation to be very embarrassing and uncomfortable. No one wants to be perceived as poor, weak, marginalized… the guy who always needs help. And, quite simply, I feel that I am not that guy. However, at the end of the day, I believe we succeeded in informing everyone present that Palestinian refugees have another face. This became clearer during the discussions I launched with many guests at our dinners and other informal gatherings.
The second day’s talk, held by Dr. Ilana Feldman and Sandi Hilal, concerned humanitarian aid and humanitarianism in Palestine. For me, this was the most difficult discussion during the entire Cologne programme, precisely because it revolved around a dangerous and critical concept: the way humanitarian aid is contributing to the transformation of the political cause of Palestine into a humanitarian issue, equivalent to any other humanitarian issue in, for example, Africa or any other place that has been affected by a natural disaster.
At that moment, I felt I was in the middle of this dangerous and critical situation and started thinking about so many things at once. I thought of the role of humanitarian NGOs –ubiquitous in Palestine– and also the way we Palestinians –consciously or unconsciously– have contributed to this dangerous transformation of our cause through the establishment of many kinds of structures that seek humanitarian aid and through the use of a victim-based narrative that only presents us as poor and weak, seeking aid for survival. I realized how this type of narration is more than satisfying for the powers that be, interested in transforming this political problem into a humanitarian one. For them, dealing with victims (or humanitarian situations) is much easier than dealing with a strong political situation.
As for the first day, it was hard for me to see the camps as sites of humanitarian interventions, because this completely undermines the political weight of the camp. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the event went well and the discussion was rich.
On the third day, which was based on the idea of “common”, we came up with some living examples from refugee camps concerning this concept and its different connotations and variations within the camps.
In general, the workshop was very successful and we succeeded in introducing our point of view on different issues that we have been discussing at Campus over the past two years.”
“During my first year of participation in the Campus in Camps dialogues, I encountered a number of key terms, such as private, public and common, which increasingly became important to me. Working on the Collective Dictionary, I began re-defining these concepts by considering my own experience and that of other refugees living in camps. Through investigation, documentation and reflection on the most significant and effective cases, I developed a deeper understanding of what these terms mean to myself and to Palestinian refugee camp inhabitants in general. Articulating both the present and possible future conditions, I tried to envision how we can re-generate ways of living our shared values and representing ourselves as refugees.
The most essential and significant point reached through our on-going investigation is that the public and private in refugee camps have no legal, social or political meaning. We came to this understanding through studies on the real estate market of the camps as well as looking at how certain sites have been established by the community, forged by a dense social fabric. Together with my colleagues of Campus in Camps, I began translating these ideas into a concrete initiative, the “Un-built”, aimed particularly at transforming the empty spaces within the camp boundaries into common spaces that may serve the collective concerns of the entire community.
My participation in the workshop “Re-activating the Common”, held in various public spaces of the city of Cologne, resulted from a direct connection with the “Un-built” initiative. It was a way to experience and explore another state’s living/dwelling trajectories and public spaces and to sense how these are different from the camp environment. Moreover, it was a means to share my own experience of camp life and the Campus in Camps project with others.
Seeing the way public space is used in Cologne was inspirational and constructive. Sitting in a circle in Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park, one lovely sunny day, with artists, philosophers, anthropologists, architects among others; participating in an informal discussion; presenting the vision of Campus in Camps and its initiatives; all of these constituted a tremendously unique experience. What struck me most, at first, was that many different things were happening simultaneously throughout the public park: people were chatting, playing music, playing football, reading, enjoying the sun. This gave the place its own specific tone and a sense of belonging to all the different people. The workshop attracted the curiosity of many and some even came to our circle to listen to our discussion. This welcoming atmosphere led me to consider the importance of public spaces and to further imagine the “Un-built” initiative.
The introduction of the Campus in Camps program was interesting for all the participants of the workshop. Talking about the desire to find alternative ways of representing refugees, beyond the traditional narrative of poverty and victimization, through concrete examples of our work at Campus, lead to a broad discussion and much appreciation.
What interested me most during the first day of the workshop was the discussion centred on the relationship between public and private space in refugee camps and that between camps and the state. Conceiving the Palestinian Authority as a host government for refugees, and thus stripping it of its role of responsibility regarding the fate of refugees, caused divergent reactions among the participants of the workshop. One participant stated that the existence of the state and the government is extremely important, simply because they provide necessary infrastructure, such as education and health care. I personally disagree with this since the idea of the state and government, in the case of the Palestinian struggle, has more to do with politics than to services. Also, the idea that the state afford(?) is in complete contradiction with the refugees’ ideologies and causes. This is without even mentioning that refugees are not citizens, but rather, are struggling to claim their rights without necessarily wishing to become citizens. This is fundamental if we are to begin imagining how to create systems different than what currently exists concerning the relationship between citizen and state. Though, the idea of the existence of the state may be successful in Germany, this does not mean it is applicable in the Palestinian case. Such discrepancies highlight the cultural differences in terms of lifestyle, and in this case, particularly concerning the camp and the city.
On the second day of the workshop, anthropologist Ilana Fieldman –with whom I have been working on an interview-based project for some time– gave a talk about the Palestinian refugee experience with humanitarian aid since 1948. The discussion elaborated on the impact of long-term displacement and long-term humanitarian assistance on Palestinian political and social life. Many feelings and concerns arose, on a personal level, evolving around the idea of “development”. These touch my belief in one’s right to improve ways of living in the camp without normalizing its political exceptionality. However, it is important to bear in mind that this is a highly debatable issue, especially among refugees. The latter are often suspicious of authoritarian projects which tend to normalize the camp, blending it into the city, under the banner of humanitarianism.
The other crucial point during the discussion was the way we are being perceived as “refugees” by humanitarian aid organizations. Unfortunately, most humanitarian organizations depend on the notion that refugees are poor victims. This drives them to deal with us as passive numbers rather than active people. The toxicity of such an idea, I feel, consists in misunderstanding our struggle as a humanitarian need rather than a political cause. Thus, by treating our cause from the perspective of humanitarianism, the strength of refugees is reduced and our way of living is transformed into an aid-based lifestyle, which inevitably leads to self-destruction.
Furthermore, I realized that the moment we spoke about the strength of refugees and refugee culture that has developed over the past sixty-five years, the discussion become very convincing and thus encountered much support. However, once speech moved to the area of humanitarian aid, I felt that the stereotypes of us as poor victims continue to prevail and still attract the most attention since they are considered more essential. So the questions I ask myself are: “To what extent, from the perspective of the refugees, does humanitarian aid relate to the political cause?” and “Why can’t humanitarian organizations, including the UNRWA, allow themselves to be involved in the political the cause of the Palestinian refugees?”
The third discussion was held at the Galerie Schmidt&Handrup and headed by Lieven De Cauter and Yazid Anani concerning the re-claiming of public/common spaces. Lieven gave a curious philosophical example, describing cemeteries as common places, to where we all ultimately head, yet which we tend to forget rather than actively use! This made me recall a prior visit to a Copenhagen cemetery that also serves as a park where people barbecue and conduct many other activities. In any case, we extensively discussed the initiatives of Campus in Camps related to using empty spaces as potential sites for common community use. We introduced the strategy we follow to initiate projects and the importance of relying on what is available, as a preliminary step, rather than funding. This lead to a heated debate between the participants of the workshop, in terms of sustainability and how Campus in Camps can maintain the on-going initiatives without depending on financial aid.
The experience of Campus in Camps in Cologne was, without a doubt, very enriching. I enjoyed the idea of ending the days with collective dinners in public spaces. Though these evening moments were less formal, they allowed for the development of more personal reflections. Besides the workshop itself, I appreciated learning about the history of the city and visiting its museums. Finally, I do believe that what was expressed over the course of the workshop largely describes my experience within the Campus in Camps program. Hopefully we can generate more moments like these.”