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Architecture of Exile
Alessandro Petti, Dheisheh Camp, 11 June 2013

Refugee camps are meant to be the materialization of temporary architecture. Usually constituted of tents and shelters, they are designed for quick and easy assembly in order to respond to emergencies. A short-term form of architecture, they are not built to last. Although the establishment of refugee camps is rhetorically justified by humanitarian intent and technocratic design discourse, they remain an essentially political issue. Whether they serve temporarily or become more permanent is ultimately not decided by the humanitarian bodies tasked with managing and controlling them, but rather by political conflicts. The prolonged exceptional temporariness of the refugee camps could paradoxically create the condition for its transformation: from a pure humanitarian space to an active political space, the embodiment and the expression of the right of return.

The more than ten million refugees currently registered worldwide by the UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the five million Palestinian refugees registered by the UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), in some sixty camps across the Middle East, give only a partial idea of a widespread phenomenon. The radical economical and social transformations currently being experienced throughout the world have produced a proliferation of the “camp condition” – that is, a space suspended from the surrounding legal, social and political order.

There are now innumerable places in suspension in megalopolises around the world, where internally displaced people and new immigrants take refuge. Whether they are camps that precede or follow wars, encampments set up after natural catastrophe, or refugee camps, they often become places where people are born and die waiting to go home. At the same time, the camp condition has opened a new horizon of political and social configurations, and new ways of understanding the relation of the population to space and territory.

The permanent temporariness of refugee camps have produced spatio-political configurations that call into question the very idea of nation-state. And despite the fact that the “camp form” in origin has been used as a tool for regulating the “excess of its political dimension”, the camp as an exceptional space could also be seen as a counter-site for emerging political practices and a new form of urbanism.


The Camp as a Site of Discipline and Control

Although states and non-governmental organizations have at length been, and still are, actively conceiving and managing camps, we are just beginning to understand how the camp form has problematized the very idea of a city as a functional political community and democratic space. If a citizen’s political identity is played out in the public space of the city, what is found in the camp is its inverse: here, a citizen is stripped of his or her political rights. In this sense, the camp represents a sort of anti-city, a constitutive void of a political order. But what effect does this anti-city produce on the public and political space of the city? If the city has historically represented the place where the rights of citizens (seem to) be recognized—often by excluding one part of the population kept outside its walls—the invention of the camp is a new mechanism of exclusion. The camp system goes beyond the inclusion-exclusion dichotomy that defines relations between citizens and non-citizens mediated by the borders of nation-states. The camp, in fact, excludes through its inclusion. It marks the degradation of conventional political organizational systems. It is a desperate attempt to preserve an outdated political order through constructing a space of suspension within which to confine all those who “do not belong.” It is crucial that the space of the camp is no longer inside or outside, rather, it represents a sort of third area, a place in suspension, where an increasing number of individuals excluded from the polis are shut away. Here, spatial segregation takes on an added dimension, becoming a strict confinement under armed surveillance: once inside these spaces, the lives of the inhabitants may be at stake. The ‘camp’ signals the breakdown of any political relationship between territory and people, becoming the form of localization for those who do not belong. The camp is a ‘space in suspension’, a place in limbo, held within the “normal” spatial and social order of a territory. These spaces in suspension, summoned into being by security concerns, usually become powerful forms of social and spatial control. They emerge every time the relationship between the territorial space and the population enters a state of crisis. They first made their appearance in the colonial context as a temporary measure for controlling local populations, and later reemerged in Europe at a time when the imperial spatial order was collapsing. Camps are once more becoming visible today, as the connection between territory, state, and citizenship has once again entered a crisis due to the disintegrative effects of migrations and the globalization of economies and communications. Called for as an exceptional means for preserving the established order, as a measure required to deal with temporary, short term geo-political crises (migrations, wars, terrorism), over time these spaces are often, in fact, transformed into more or less permanent expressions of political ideology and power.


The Camp as a Site of Political Invention

The Palestinian refugee camps, which first appeared after the 1948 Nakba, were conceived as an emergency assistance to the massive expulsion, operated by Jewish militias, of almost the entire Palestinian population of that time. The first pictures of these camps, in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, showed small villages made of tents, arranged according to the same regular grids used for military encampments. As the years passed, and no political solution was found for the plight of the displaced Palestinians, tents were substituted with shelters in an attempt to respond to the growing needs of the camp population without undermining the temporary condition of the camp, and therefore undermining the right to return. However, with a growing population, the condition in the camps worsened. The terrible situations in which Palestinian refugees were forced to live was used by the Palestinian political leadership to pressure Israel and the international community in terms of the urgency of the refugees’ right to return. The precariousness and temporariness of the camp structure was not simply a technical problem, but also the material-symbolic embodiment of the principle that its inhabitants be allowed to return as soon as possible to their place of origin. Israel refuses the internationally recognized right of return of Palestinian refugees. For this reason, Palestinian refugee camps have become a magnetic force field in which competing and unequally matched political entities – the host states, international governmental and non-governmental agencies, and the refugees themselves – attempt to exercise influence. Every single banal act, from building a roof to opening a new street, becomes a political statement concerning the right of return. Nothing in the camp can be considered without political implications.

However, during the Nineties and within the framework of the peace process, which subsequently led to the creation of an interim Palestinian Authority, the right of return was increasingly marginalized under the pressure of successive Israeli governments who had never been willing to acknowledge Israel’s responsibility in the Palestinian Nakba. At the same time, the withdrawal of the Israeli army from most Palestinian urban areas created the conditions for some West Bank camps to become relatively autonomous and independent socio-political communities. For decades, the political discourse around the right of return, and the associated imperative to stagnate living conditions, imposed by the Palestinian political leadership to reaffirm the camp’s ephemerality, forced refugees to live in terrible conditions. From 1948-49 to the present day, official political discourse has sought to prohibit any development in, or formalization of, the refugee camps. The fear was that any transformation of the camps would bring about an integration of the refugee community with the local environment and thus the political motivation for the right to return would be lost. This discourse was also based on the assumption that as long as refugees were living in appalling conditions, their suffering would pressure the international community to enact their right to return. Thus, any improvement to camp infrastructure and housing was seen as a direct erosion of the right to return. Today this imperative is being reconsidered: it is argued that improved living conditions in refugee camps do not necessarily conflict with the right to return. No longer a simple recipient of humanitarian intervention, the refugee is seen as an active political subject, through his or her participation in the development of autonomous governance for the camp. Today, refugees are re-inventing social and political practices that improve their everyday life; the refugee camp has been transformed from a marginalized holding area to an interconnected center of social and political life. It is, however, crucial that this radical transformation has not normalized the political condition of being exiled. What follows, among other things, is an attempt to articulate an architecture of exile which aims through its spatial and programmatic configuration to actively engage the camp urbanization produced by over sixty-four years of forced exile. Perhaps a fragment of a city to come.



Campus in Camps

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 spatial and social interventions in Palestinian refugee camps. 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 three years of teaching at the Al Quds Bard University, and based on my previous research and experiences with DAAR, an architectural studio and art residency based in Beit Sahour, I became convinced that the camp is the right place for the campus: a truly engaged and committed university.

In conversation with Al Quds Bard University students from palestinian refugee camps, I have 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.


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 and with the support of the Popular Committees of Southern West Bank refugee camps. 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. These strategic partnerships 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.”



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 was 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. Qussay Abu Aker, Alaa Al Homouz, Saleh Khannah, Ahmad Al Lahham, Aysar Al Saifi, Bisan Al Jaffarri, Nedaa Hamouz, Naba’ Al Assi, Isshaq Al Barbary, Ayat Al Turshan, Murad Odeh are the embodiment of Campus in Camps.


The first year

The first year of Campus in Camps was mostly focused on establishing a common language and a common approach among the participants. This was achieved through education cycles, seminars, lectures and the publication of a Collective Dictionary. The first months of the program were dedicated to a process that we called unlearning, healing from pre-packaged alienating knowledge, knowledge that is not linked with life. In this phase, Munir Fasheh has been an amazing source of inspiration. We involved professors from AQB University and guests not from the University for lectures and seminars. Based on these first encounters, the participants together with the project team discussed the opportunity to involve the guests in a cycle, which was usually structured as bi weekly meetings for a minimum of one month. The decision to involve him or her was based on the relevance of the subject in relation to the interest of the group. For this reason, the structure of Campus in Camps is constantly reshaped to accommodate the interests and subjects born from the interactions between the participants and the social context at large. Sandi Hilal offered a cycle based on the Camp Improvement Projects, in which she established the base and the network for participants’ initiatives in the camps. Tareq Hamman, professor at Al Quds Bard in Human Rights, held a cycle in International Law and Human Rights, which culminated with the participation of the Campus in Camps participants in official government meetings about Palestinian refugees. Wilfied Graf and Gudrun Kramer’s cycle acquainted participants with the conflict transformation approach. Vivien Sansour’s cycle explored the relationship between agricultural practices, food production, and political power. Ayman Khalifah, who teaches Arabic Composition at Al-Quds Bard Honors College, introduced the concepts of culture and representation. Fellows from AQB college offered a series of intensive English workshops with the aim to bolster project participants’ critical inquiry in English. Daniel McKenzie in particular overviewed all the different and mutating needs of the group. Arabic tutoring was offered by Tala Abu Rahme, Samih Faraj and Ayman Khalifah. Fellows from AQB also offered during the summer of 2012 English classes for young students in the camps. For the summer of 2013, Linda Quiquivix led a two month summer seminar in which students from AQB, Campus in Camps participants and interested young people from the camps learned about the Zapatista Movement. Parallel to the cycles, Campus in Camps organized a series of public lectures and seminars open to all students from Al Quds University and universities in Bethlehem. Over the course of the first year, over a dozen seminars and lectures were held which gave the participants exposure to experts in a variety of fields. These areas of interest included citizenship, refugee studies, humanitarianism, gender, mapping, and research methodologies. Many of these events were open to the public and were the mechanism to connect with members of the camp community as well university students. Among our guests, Beatrice Catanzaro, 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. The first year culminated in a open public presentation of two days in which more that one hundred people from the local community participated. In this occasion a sort of informal academic committee has been established: Sari Hanafi, Michael Buroway, Gudrun Kramer, Sandi Hilal, Muhammed Jabali, Munir Fasheh, Tariq Dana, Aaron Cezar, Thomas Keenan, Shuruq Harb, Umar Al-Ghubari, Khaldun Bshara, Jawad Al Mahal, Ayman Kalifah. During the event, the Collective Dictionary was also presented, a series of publications containing definitions of concepts considered fundamental for the understanding of the contemporary condition of Palestinian refugee camps. Written reflections on personal experiences, interviews, excursions and photographic investigations constitute the starting point for the formulation of more structured thoughts, which serve to explore each term. Multiple participants developed each publication, suggesting a new form of collective learning and knowledge production.



Contributors: Naba’ Al Assi, Murad Odeh, Shadi Ramadan

We ask ourselves: who are the Palestinian citizens? Are they the 68% of Palestinians who are refugees in or outside of Palestine? Are they the inhabitants of the Palestinian villages where the Palestinian Authority can’t access even to give them basic goods because they are in Area C? Are they the one and a half million Palestinians that live on the other side of the green line? Are they the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in the occupation jails? Are they the inhabitants of the Palestinian cities destroyed since the beginning of the Palestinian story until now from the Israeli occupation attacks?

When we speak about the Palestinian Identity, it’s not that green ID card which we have from the PA or any other ID for that matter. We cannot limit the Palestinian identity to a document or an ID card or a passport. Palestinian identity is the Palestinian culture, affiliation, struggle, resistance, of martyrs and prisoners. And refugee status is one of the essential parts of that. Citizenship is not determined by identity papers that fade out with time. It is not determined by participating in elections or not.


Contributors: Mohammed Abu Alia, Naba’ Al Assi, Isshaq Al Barbary, Brave New Alps, Nedaa Hamouz, Murad Odeh

The privatization of commons, in which they become owned by corporate entities with the excuse of providing them with better maintenance and development in the long run, leaves big questions unanswered – to begin with, is this privatization a fair process or not? Why did we reach a point where the ability to perform community tasks was taken away from the community and given to private companies? Where should a community draw a line between those places that can be left to be dominated by companies in order to sustain them and those places that a community should not bargain? Let’s imagine places such as the Midan Al Tahrir in Cairo, Almahd Square in Bethlehem, the Eiffel tower in Paris, are being privatized, restricted, and are transformed from a common, used and shared by everyone, into areas that are owned and run by companies that possess total control. And as we are discussing places and areas, shouldn’t we try to examine the ways in which the privatization of educational and healthcare system can affect us?


Contributors: Aysar Al Saifi, Isshaq Al Barbary

I was born, in a refugee camp that consists of and descends from multiple generations of refugees, a father and mother who come from two different destroyed villages, and generations originally belonging to the communities of Beit Jibrin, Beit Attab, Diraban, Beit Nattief, Haifa, Jaffa and so on. Gathered together on a small piece of land due to an exceptional situation private property was totally absent. They created and developed a new culture and established a new political discourse built on people and which helps to articulate the type of life we share in common.



Contributors: Qussay Abu Aker, Nedaa Hamouz, Bisan Al Jaffari, Ahmad Al Lahham, Ayat Al Turshan

We realized that knowledge is practical as well as theoretical, and that it is an action. We used to look at knowledge as represented by a book or an academic certificate and that the person’s experience will never have a role in creating her personal knowledge, but now, after the new experience which we got from interviewing the women, we can definitely say that one’s experience has a great role in forming personal knowledge. Most of the women we interviewed don’t have an academic certificate; however, they are well educated by the events they have had in their life, and they can speak about anything easily. Life itself is a school, we can all learn from what’s happening in our daily life.



Contributors: Alaa Al Homouz, Ayat Al Turshan, Aysar Al Saifi, Giuliana Racco, Ibrahim Jawabreh, Marwa Al Lahham, Matteo Guidi, Saleh Khannah

It’s not strange to see women without headscarves in the camp, as they go to the markets or sit on their balconies or roofs. These same women wear headscarves outside of the camp. It’s not strange, it’s part of daily life. But it is strange if we think that this means that they conceive of the camp as private/intimate space and what lies beyond the camp as public space, while they act within as if it is common space. The women feel the entire camp is home and in a sense they own it. So, in this case, ownership for them is the feeling of comfort and freedom of choice.



Contributors: Nedaa Hamouz, Bisan Al Jaffari, Ayat Al Turshan, Sara Pellegrini, Giuliana Racco

When I asked my grandmother about her own definition of participation, I felt as if she had wanted anyone to ask her this question in order to talk about many things that seemed to be marginalized. She talked about how she and her neighbors were happy together; she said that they used to deal with each other according to what is called Al-O’una. Helping another accomplish something that could develop the whole society. For example, if a man from the camp wanted to build a house, all the neighbors and the residents of the camp, whether men or women, would help him build his home.



Contributors: Saleh Khannah, Matteo Guidi, Ibrahim Jawabreh, Giuliana Racco, Diego Segatto

I was born in Arroub camp, I lived there for sixteen years, and this is the first time I discovered the surrounding area. We found an amazing map proving that there was an aqueduct connecting the pool in Arroub with Solomon’s Pools in Irtas – both parts of an incredible system which supplied water to Jerusalem. In line with the term relation, a group composed itself and decided to start the trek. It was a journey about exploring, learning, enjoying, feeling, discovering, analyzing and so forth. The experience of walking and searching for these ruins is something uncommon in our times and this is important for me. It is a way to build my own knowledge and learn through practice. A relationship with the land. To be aware of this relationship, people have to be familiar with the land. This experience is not easy, not everyone can do it, this relationship takes the form of a struggle.



Contributors: Qussay Abu Aker, Naba’ Al Assi, Ahmad Al-Lahham, Murad Odeh

In the end, we can say that there is something like a mysterious hand that decides responsibility, which mainly is understood as limited to the family, work and religion. Responsibilities outside of this triangle are introduced in ideal and general terms, far away from experience or specific situation. This leads us to say that the limitations of responsibility in factors that develop through time can be an obstacle toward dealing with any case outside of this triangle. If we look at the Arab Revolutions, specifically in Tunisia, where the individuals live under difficult pressure from their government, they feel that each person has responsibility towards themselves and their people. This sense of responsibility becomes a necessity in starting to reject the authoritative and suppressive regime in that country. This revolution starts with individual efforts then others surround and support them, so the responsibility that stemmed from the individual begins to pour into the general concern, welfare, and society. This collective of responsibilities starts to harmoniously reject the regime until ousted.



Contributors: Qussay Abu Aker, Bisan Al Jaffari, Ahmad Al Lahham, Diego Segatto

In a refugee camp weddings seem to be a classical must-see for a foreigner. And it’s not rare; classical reactions and narrations such events bring, classify all the stereotypes and cliché of the habits, limiting the observation on the surface and on its glittering emotional response that some would call Orientalism. Palestinians are continuously engaged in weddings through emotions and as a kind of duties. We decided to go deeper into the function of the wedding to highlight the aspects it is capable to show in refugee communities, as a relational living mechanism itself. Changing in time the style of the surrounding, but preserving a much more complex system of familiar relationships, friendly ties, social balancing and, last but not least, economical investments and material exchanges. Through the lens of the term sustainability, we investigated an aspect where this community renovates an agreement among the people taking part, as a much broader scenario of the bride and the groom, with an unstopped will to preserve meanings that are, sometimes, radicalized rather than nuanced.



Contributors: Aysar Al Saifi, Isshaq Al Barbary

Basketball was significantly associated with the aristocratic class more than other games, perhaps due to the fact that it needs and requires potentials and cultural tools that are different from football. Thus, there have been never any experiences in the basketball field in any refugee camps in Palestine. Dheisheh team managed to create a state or a position that combined and united the refugees in the West Bank despite their colour factions, and prove the strength and the ability of the refugees on the Palestinian arena. Thus, it enhances the notion of collectivity and strengthens the social fabric rather than the enclosure of individualism. However, and despite the poor limited economic situation of the team, it gained the basketball champion league since 2005 until the present time. This has lead to positively affect the stereotype of the refugees, and added a new form of power of the refugees in the Palestinian arena. Deheisheh Team is a state of belonging to an idea rather than materials play in a way to bring happiness and strength and to overcome the harsh situation of the refugees. It is an attempt to change the reality that prevailed in trading social ideas for the benefit of economic ideas, as the Palestinian culture, sport and heritage became related to business trade.



contributors Marwa Al Lahham, Qussay Abu Aker, Saleh Khannah, Shadi Ramadan, Ahmad Al-Lahham, Aysar Al Saifi, Bisan Al Jaffarri, Nedaa Hamouz, Nabà Al Assi, Mohammed Abu Alia, Ayat Al Turshan, Murad Odeh, Muna Al Lahham, Diego Segatto

It’s the year 2040 and you have obtained the right of return to… (place, civil right or else). In your original camp, you are guiding a group or a person. You are someone with a decisive role here. Describe the environment, the peo ple and what is happening around you. And then describe the other camps, Dheisheh, Fawwar, Arroub and Azzah, where your friends live. Compare it with 2012.





The second year

During the second year, more emphasis has been placed on the kind of knowledge that emerges from actions. Gatherings, walks, events and urban actions were meant to engage more directly with the camp condition. What was at stake in these interventions was the possibility for the participants to realize projects in the camps without normalizing their exceptional conditions and without blending them into the surrounding cities. After sixty-five years of exile, the camp is no longer made up of tents. The prolonged exceptional temporariness of this site has paradoxically created the condition for its transformation: from a pure humanitarian space to an active political space, it has become an embodiment and an expression of the right of return. 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 and 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.


01 THE GARDEN: Making place

Contributors: Qussay Abu Aker, Naba’ Al Assi,Aysar Al Saifi, Murad Odeh

The Al Feniq Cultural Center was initiated in Dheisheh refugee camp based on the idea of creating a common place for the camp community. It was an event that evokes an epic history of destruction and re-building that clearly resounds in its name, The Phoenix. Al Feniq opened an adjacent garden in 2004 and since then it has constantly been reshaped and transformed in an ongoing design process.


02. THE SQUARE: Learning in the common space

Contributors: Nedaa Hamouz, Ayat Al Turshan

The first time we gathered fifty women in the square we feared people’s reactions and perceptions. But we were shocked to see how many people strongly supported the idea of using the square as a common space. It seems now, a few months since that moment, nobody can bear being inside closed spaces any longer: we were all longing some fresh air.


03. THE BRIDGE: Challenging perception

Contributors: Aysar Al Saifi, Isshaq Al Barbary

Entirely self-financed and self-built by the Dheisheh camp community, a pedestrian bridge was constructed between Doha and the camp in order to provide a safe way of crossing the street. However, it soon became apparent that the bridge was not used for its intended purpose. It has since been closed, remaining a potential space that is under-utilized and an abandoned representation of the agency of the camp.


04. THE POOL: Re-activating connections

Contributors: Saleh Khannah, Alaa Al Homouz

Since the camp itself is overcrowded, with almost no public space, providing an inviting common location for social gathering will allow the inhabitants to spend more time outdoors. Re-activating the pool by developing agriculture provides the potential for the inhabitants to change the way they perceive and represent the camp beyond its circumscribed limits.


05. THE SUBURB: Transgressing boundaries

Contributors: Qussay Abu Aker, Ahmad Al Lahham

In 2012, the people of the suburb created a local committee to manage life there. This committee, as the body representing the residents of the suburb, has officially requested to be directly connected with the Popular Committee of Dheisheh. What makes someone living in a nice villa want to be connected to a place, the refugee camp, which supposed to be temporary? Why would someone choose to be represented through a place, the camp, that is perceived as weak and poor


06. THE PATHWAYS: Reframing narration

Contributors: Aysar Al Saifi, Murad Odeh

One morning, I went to the kitchen to make some coffee, and while I was letting the coffee boil, I looked up out the window to find that my neighbor had turned his kitchen into a bathroom. Having forgotten to close the window, there he sat, on the toilet, looking at me eye-to-eye. So I said, “How are you, neighbor?!” Still sitting on the toilet, “Praise God.” I said, “What are you doing here?” “What do I know?”, he said, “Looks like I forgot to close the window.” We were silent for a moment, then suddenly we started laughing, trying to figure a way out of this awkward situation.


07. THE STADIUM: Sustaining relations

Contributors: Bisan Al Jaffari

I was talking with my neighbor, and she decided to go with me to the stadium. I could walk fast there, which I can’t do in the camp, due to the lack of space. In the beginning, all people started talking about me, because they thought it was not good practice in the camp. But I began to convince my neighbors of the importance and beauty of the place and their ability to make sport and walk in it. The first few times I went to the stadium, I would take my neighbors with me, Then I took my girlfriend and my girlfriend brought her friend until we became 10 women who went every day to the stadium for walking.


08. THE MUNICIPALITY: Experiments in urbanity

Contributors: Naba’ Al Assi

The refugees who live in Doha view the camp as the real place and as closer to their homelands and the right of return than the city. Refugees, who came to Doha city from different camps, live in it as in a transitional space. They do not consider Doha to be anything more than a place to wait for another phase in life – when the right of return is realized. Doha is a place where they have moved searching for privacy and better material conditions than the situation in the camp permits.


09. THE UNBUILT: Regenerating spaces

Contributors: Qussay Abu Aker, Aysar Al Saifi,Isshaq Al Barbary, Ahmad Al Lahham

In the middle of the 1950s, UNRWA built new shelters for the people of the camp. Each family received a 9 square meters shelter, and every 15 families shared one bathroom. Today, an area with three untouched UNRWA shelters still exists in the middle of the camp as a manifestation of an “era” that the camp endured. Beside the fact these shelters carry the history of the camp’s life, these kinds of compounds represent another conceptual understanding of the meaning of the common and the communal life that people experienced when living in these shelters.



A central role in activating Campus in Camps project has been played by the project activators: Brave New Alps, Matteo Guidi, Giuliana Racco, Sara Pellegrini, Diego Segatto. In particular our gratitude goes to Sara and Diego for contributing immensely in different moments of the program. Great inspiration has derived from dialogue and active engagement with Michel Agier, Ilana Feldman, Tareq Hamam, Ruba Saleh, Khaldun Bshara, Thomas Keenan, Ayman Khalifa, Munir Fasheh. A special thanks goes to the Campus in Camps team, Yasser Hemadan, Tamara Abu Laban, Ala Juma, Dena Qaddumi, without which this program could not have existed.

Campus in Camps does not follow or propose itself as a model but rather as public space in formation. Al jame3ah translates in English as “university” but its literal meaning is a place for assembly, a public space. I 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.

Home of Wisdom in Campus in Camps

Munir Jamil Fasheh

Campus in Camps” is an experiment in ‘higher education’ which I believe can have tremendous impact on learning and knowing (in a variety of ways) not only in Palestine but also beyond, including countries considered developed. A main distinction between Campus-in-Camps and dominant universities is that knowledge in the second is mainly ideological and useful in the world of consumption, while in the first it is mainly rooted and useful in the context in which they live. The problem I see in academic knowledge is not that it is too theoretical but that it is too ideological serving power that strives to win and control starting by ignoring/ degrading people’s systems of knowledge. ‘Theoretical’ for me refers to knowledge abstracted from, and making sense of experiences, observations, experimentation, reflections, and from attentiveness to context. All these together form what we refer to as theory in the Home of Wisdom: it is very practical! It stems from practice and goes back to practice. Starting with a ready “theory” just because it comes from a prestigious university or well-known expert is ideology; theory and ideology are worlds apart.

Most people would agree (at least in words) that the basis of all knowledge is a mixture/ a mental system of experiences, observations, experimentations, and reflections; such mixture forms the foundation of one’s knowledge. This guarantees diversity and a pluralistic attitude in perceiving, living, thinking, expressing, doing, and one’s worth – where I find Imam Ali’s statement as the most insightful sentence I ever read. It says: the worth of a person is what s/he yuhsen (which in Arabic means what s/he does well, beautiful, useful, respectful, and comes from within).

One aspect we agreed to adhere to at the Home of Wisdom is to think, act, express, relate, and perceive outside the ideology of consumption – including consumption of official meanings, professional terms, and academic categories. An integral part of the vision is to build on what people can do by themselves, with their sources of strength, with what is abundant in people, community, culture, and nature, and in harmony with well-being and pluralism. [After they strengthen their roots in community and culture – in their projects – they may want to broaden what they do to include help from outside.]

In the Home of Wisdom, the stress is on what the participant searches for in one’s life. Research refers to what may deepen and clarify one’s search. Since we agree in the Home of Wisdom that knowledge is action, then the backbone of their learning are the projects that participants decide to work on, built on what is abundant and on sources of strength in people and community, and in harmony with pluralism and well-being.

  1. My dream

The word for university in Arabic is jame3ah, which literally means a ‘gathering place’ that brings together people within real, rich, and pluralistic environment that helps them learn and do things, in freedom, honesty, and with enthusiasm. In this sense, Jame3ah is much closer in meaning to multiversity than to university. This is what I and the 16 young men and women are experiencing at the Home of Wisdom within Campus-in-Camps in the Dheisheh refugee camp.

Put briefly, my dream and hope is to eventually have ‘jame3ah’ (or better, ‘home of wisdom’) in as many camps and villages in Palestine as possible, where around 10 people rooted in their community, form a lively group and choose words, construct meanings, form visions, and create useful rooted knowledge through actions in their communities, in harmony with pluralism and well-being. It is crucial to stress here that what we do at Dheisheh is not a new model or a shift in paradigm but a different old/new vision whose core is wisdom. For me, a vision consists of three main components: how we see reality; how we perceive our place and role in it; and the values we agree not to violate in our actions. These require attentiveness to what is around. The only aspect of the vision, which all in the group need to adhere to, is the values. Saying that everyone has full autonomy in one’s place does not mean each works in isolation but in constant interaction, with no one having authority over another. They interact in freedom, honesty, and respect. Adopting Imam Ali’s statement as a guiding principle in ‘homes of wisdom’ guarantees every person has worth and is able to learn, which means that there are no failures, and that one’s worthiness comes from one’s relations to surroundings and not from abstract arbitrary numbers. One’s worthiness is related to the various meanings of yuhsen in Arabic which I mentioned earlier: what one does well, beautiful, respectful, giving, and good. This way we reclaim learning as a biological ability and one’s relations and actions as source of one’s worth. Perceiving every person as co-author of meanings is a basic and on-going conviction within the vision.

The 1970s and the first intifada were the most significant periods in my life, they provided me with convictions that I consider crucial in modern life. One conviction is: there is no substitute for small groups, formed in as many places as possible by their own initiative, outside the institutional framework in order to decide what they want and can do – something that is meaningful, useful, rooted, and contextual. Replacing local self-formed initiatives is destructive to human communities. (In our quest along this path, we should not go to the other extreme in the sense of trying to replace every other form of organization.) My first experience along these lines was the voluntary work movement which I started with some friends in 1971. My second experience was encouraging students in schools (in the 1970s) to form math and science clubs which revolved around questions that they had and wanted to pursue. My third experience along this path was creating a course at Birzeit University in 1979 (which I mentioned earlier) where every student or group of students try to notice patterns, regularities etc. and make sense out of them. The next experiment was encouraging the formation of groups in every possible place within the reading and expression campaign (at Tamer Institute for Community Education which I established in 1989, during the first intifada when Israel closed all schools for four years).
That was followed by Qalb el-Umour project within the Arab Education Forum. Today, it is manifested in the dream of having a jame3ah in as many villages and refugee camps as possible.

Within the House of Wisdom, we don’t have a reading list of books or articles, but people are encouraged to deepen their wisdom and understanding by interacting with the elders in their community, by reading books in Arabic from the period between the 7th and the 15th centuries (which reflected hikmah, wisdom), and get acquainted with movements that embody wisdom in modern time. [I hope it will be possible for them to visit places like Mexico, Peru, India, Iran, Egypt… where they engage with people in a process of mutual nurturing and reclaiming of wisdom… and where the spirit of regeneration is the essence of sustainability.

First phase

A basic conviction within the cycle is that much of the mess and threats to life, which we witness around the world, is – so to speak – due to putting the mind on the throne and imprisoning wisdom, some 400 years ago. As someone said, man is too clever for life to go on without wisdom. The cycle is an attempt to bring back wisdom into living, learning, and knowing.

This necessarily requires looking at life as interconnected. Many aspects are interconnected in a person’s life. Thus, the subject of “study” for each participant is his/ her life – experiences, reflections, actions, interactions, and what s/he wants to do in the future; making sense of all that is the basis of one’s knowledge. The participants have gone through many experiences which can form a basis for constructing meanings, understanding, and knowledge. Every person is a web of relationships with those around and what is around. “Education” along this path is not a ready thing which one person (teacher) gives to others but something that a person does to oneself (sharpening one’s character and one’s thinking, understanding, expression – which is the literal meaning of a ‘cultured person’ muthaqqaf مثقف in Arabic).

This is in harmony with looking at participants as searchers, not researchers; at certain points, the participant may need to do some research in order to clarify certain aspects of his/ her search. Within this perspective, mutual nurturing among participants (and not competition) is the spirit within the group. Every participant is a source of meaning, understanding, and knowledge; a co-author of meanings of the words one uses. Co-authoring meanings nurtures dignity, self-worth and respect, freedom, responsibility, and collective creativity as well as pluralism (especially of knowledges). A main outcome of the cycle will be an on-going “dictionary”, which will include words that are part of the participants’ lives. Since wisdom is the overarching ‘value’, meanings would be in harmony with wisdom (the way the participant perceives it). There is no word that has a universal or fixed meaning; every meaning is contextual. This means that participants would not try to understand Dheisheh (and the larger Palestinian reality) through academic categories but the other way round: they will look at such categories critically with their lives as reference.

Second phase

In our first meeting on 25 February 2012, I mentioned there are two ways of perceiving learning: either as something ready that one person gives to another or a real and rich environment where a person sharpens one’s character, meanings, thoughts, understanding, expressions… building that on one’s experiences, reflections, etc (the literal meaning of a cultured person مثقف in Arabic).The first perception mentioned above is what we refer to as education; the second is more in harmony with what we refer to as ‘wisdom’. In the first, technology and science are looked at as miracle; in the second, life and nature are looked at as miracle. The world is saturated with education, but hungry for wisdom. In our cycle, we strive to regain wisdom in life, thinking, etc.

In education, one keeps adding information, skills, technical knowhow, etc. to one’s knowledge; in other words, it is additive. In contrast, the path of wisdom is almost always a combination of learning and unlearning, additive and subtractive… The first phase (which we have gone through during the past two and the half months) has been rethinking much of what participants have acquired in their lives so far, especially in terms of perceptions, one’s worthiness, institutional professional terms, and academic categories… and also rethinking modern beliefs, myths, and superstitions – such as the belief that there is a single undifferentiated path for progress (and consequently for learning and knowing) and the belief that a person’s (or country’s) worth can be measured by a number.

As Palestinians, we experienced various kinds of occupation: military, political, economic, financial, cultural, and knowledge. We are aware of all except for the occupation of knowledge; in fact, we embraced it and still embrace it. One way to heal from (unlearn) this occupation is to live by the conviction that every person is a source of meaning and knowledge; every person is a co-author of meaning. Co-authoring meaning is a right, duty, and natural ability. Healing from occupation of knowledge and formulating meanings/ understanding form the core of the cycle. In a world governed by the values of control and winning, we cannot talk about co-authoring meanings or deepening our understanding without being guided by a vision. A first step along this path is to differentiate between vision and goals, and between values and tools. We did this in the first phase. Living, thinking, expressing, and acting in harmony with wisdom (as the person or group perceive it) is the vision we agreed to work in accordance with. This is not an academic concern but one that is connected to the survival of humanity, and life on Earth in general. Regaining wisdom in living, thinking, and doing is probably the main and most important challenge in today’s world. The beauty of wisdom is that, first, it has no professionals and, second, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to co-opt it and turn it into a commodity. That’s why it was imprisoned – literally – when the mind was put on the throne 4 or 5 hundred years ago. Wisdom is like digesting food: it can only be done by the person personally. What nurtures people (in food and wisdom) is what has roots in local soil, community, and culture. The Arab civilization (especially between the 8th and 15th centuries) was vibrant with wisdom. Participants can choose sources from that period (or from other times and places, including wise people they know), and put in the needed effort to make sense (in their context and community) of whatever source they choose. It is the participant’s responsibility to “mix” the various elements in formulating meaningful and useful knowledge in one’s context. I thought that the second phase in our cycle would be for each participant to choose words and rethink their meanings in light of one’s experiences, reflections, etc. But I realized, especially in Battir, that it still early to do that; it would be as shallow as homework or term paper. Since unlearning is usually accompanied with learning, then the unlearning that took place in the first phase should be followed by gaining depth and insight into wisdom before we move on into the next phase. One statement I quote often is: human beings are so clever that life on Earth is threatened without wisdom. This means that co-authoring meanings and gaining understanding should be in harmony with wisdom. Participants need to do the necessary work to formulate personal understanding of wisdom before they go on composing a “dictionary” or working on their own projects. In other words, it is time for participants to indulge into the second perception of learning (which I mentioned at the beginning): something the person does to oneself in terms of sharpening one’s abilities. Thus, the retreat on June 1 and 2 will consist of each participant bringing at least one page (on whatever s/he formulated – until then – concerning wisdom) and explaining its relevance in one’s life (10 to 15 minutes for each person). In other words, participants will take full responsibility for their learning in this second phase (i.e., on June 1and 2, participants will run the show). This means that the kind of place we need for this second retreat should not be as exciting as Battir. We need to have a close-by place and rather calm and comfortable where we can put our energies in moving deeper in our understanding and in knitting fabric among the various efforts, and where there is enough time for all to present. Much of what participants will do, will be decided during these two days. [We will have other retreats, like Battir, where we gain depth and inspiration concerning Palestine.]

Creativity in the cycle is related to perception and meaning; the secret lies in how the person mixes the various elements s/he works with, especially in perceiving the world in a way that is interconnected, richer, and more diverse… and at the same time wiser. Part of wisdom is having nature as norm. This is where Vivien can play the leading role. [It is probably worth mentioning here that “environment” as a professional academic category is a modern invention, which, like other modern inventions, distracts us from what is more basic and fundamental; it distracts us from knowing what is happening to nature.]
The phase of formulating the beginnings of a “dictionary” would have to wait until end of June.

A place of knowledge that could turn the camp in a campus?

Michel Agier

— Beit sahour, may 18, 2012

My participation at Campus in Camp, was for me a great opportunity of exchanges and debates with all the participants from Dheisheh Refugee Camp and other camps of the West Bank (and partly with students of al-Quds/Bard university in abu Dis). I thank Sandi, Alessandro and each of the participants for the very kind welcome, the attention to seminar and lecture, the reactivity in the debate and your presentation of camps’ life and perspectives.

I think the main topic of our exchange was about the foundation and transformation of the camp. presenting to you my investigations on all kinds of camps and encampments in the world (such as refugee camps of unHCR in africa or informal encampments in Europe) was a moment important of our exchange. We could put together in relation the experience of palestinian refugee camps with other situations of refugees in the world. although the material conditions are very different, and the historical processes also, and even if I agree with the idea of “specificity” of each case (and mainly of palestinian camps), the comparison is a very strong intellectual tool of “objectivation”. I told you that the palestinian is the horizon or even the future of all camps that is born each day in the world. The becoming of the camp is something between the city and the “ghetto” (or of course, the disappearance). And I appreciate your insistence in speaking about this other horizon of palestinian camps which is the return.

In this perspective, some of you mentioned the risk of “normalization”… this was not at first very clear for me… I don’t see the transformation of the camp to a ghetto or a city at first like “normalization”. On the contrary, it can be a strong political issue which permits to “end” with the camp as absolute place of banishment (this doesn’t mean end with the location itself). Transforming the camp, creating a relation with its outside, is a very political issue in general. But then i understand that, in the very hard political context of palestinian camps, urban transformation would mean the loss of the Return paradigm, refugees would become like the other city dwellers and lose the political role they have in palestinian struggle. This is a permanent “contradiction”, and an endless paradox that, I suppose, leaves to an insupportable experience of the situation.

Some of you have enunciated clearly this duality. On one side, the human desire or need to “improve” the place we leave, “inhabit” it, needs a form of actuation and subjectivation over the space and material conditions. On another side, the Return paradigm calls for a waiting space and a political mobilization against the “decree of segregation” (it remains that some sovereign force has taken over your people a “decree of segregation”, which very term is also the landmark of the foundation of the first jewish ghetto, in 1516, in Venetia). This confirms, on my point of view, one point I didn’t develop in the lecture, seminar and discussion, but which is important and which i formalized in a scheme about today’s heterotopias, which shows that the figure of imprisonment is more or less present in each kind of off-places (camps, encampments, ghetto, etc.) .

The visit of the camp of Dheisheh and your explanations were important to advance in the reflexion about the relation between camp and city. I already had visited palestinian camps in West Bank or Lebanon, but two main “improvements” impressed me. One was the architectural and urban creativity to turn the place more convenient without expanding the limits.

The other one is what is, I suggest, a response we/ you have beside you to that problematic. I mean the city of Doha. Looking for some data on the net, I found that the town has around 10.000 inhabitants among which 75% are refugees. and your explanations, mainly, are that the city was founded by refugees from Dheisheh camp, that the major and the majority of the municipality are from Dheisheh camp. I would like then to propose you the hypothesis that Doha is the city of the camp when the camp could not extend his proper space, it created a “double” that is a city. The relation inverted or better say, the relation was created. With this urban double, the space of the camp is opening meanwhile the camp continues. Although the name of camp continues as a political symbol, the life in it is changing when relations with a welcoming outside is possible. Of course, the proper project Campus in camp is a major device of this relation: the official term “partnership” can be translated socially in an anthropological one, “relation”. This project brings a relation of the camp with the university, and with the “global” (what Bard college of new York represents).

Before the visit of the camps, one of you, marwa proposed to give collectively the main items of the definition of REFUGEE. He noted on the board:

They lose their land

Limited movements no safe

Bad situation

High education

No representation

Thirst for land

Adaptable to different situations

All the aspects of the condition of refugee camps are in these items. One of them seemed a bit strange: “High education”. As the author was questioned on this item which looks like a demand, he confirmed it, i understood, like a part of the definition. I would put this together with the item “adaptable to different situations”, and then consider that this means a certain quantity and specific quality of knowledge linked to that historical “exceptional” experience of the camp.

A place of knowledge that could turn the camp in a campus? Oh, yes, it’s still a camp, of course.



Uncertainty as possibility: reflections on an experimental space

Ilana Feldman

— Beit sahour, June 15, 2013

I came to Campus in Camps in the context of research I am conducting on the experience of palestinian refugees with humanitarian assistance and intervention since 1948 and across the areas

of UNRWA operations (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank, and Gaza). Because of this research I am particularly attuned to thinking about changes over time and differences across space in the refugee experience. This comparative framework also shapes my reflections on Campus in Camps. The comparison with other places is particularly with other sorts of projects being undertaken with palestinian refugees in Palestine and across the Middle East. The temporal comparison comes from thinking about Campus in Camps itself over time.

The specificity of Campus in Camps

For a number of years, I have been conducting research in Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East (in addition to historical research in a number of archives). I have both been doing

life history interviews with refugees of multiple generations and observing a range of programs and projects in the camps (including UNRWa projects as well as those of a number of other humanitarian actors). Within this diverse and wide-ranging landscape of interventions targeted at refugees living in camps, Campus in Camps is wholly distinctive. Unlike almost every other project I have seen, it does not seek to “help” or to “train.” Rather, it aims to provide opportunities for the participants to develop new forms of critical engagement with the categories that structure their lives (categories such as refugee, camp, education, etc) and then to imagine and embark on new kinds of projects in the camps where they live – projects that do not conform to the aid paradigm.

This project is genuinely experimental, which means that its outcome is also genuinely uncertain. uncertainty is also part of other, more traditional humanitarian and development projects, but in these other cases the uncertainty is fundamentally one of purpose. In circumstances where it is so difficult to have a positive impact, to make a signi cant change in the conditions of people’s lives, or the horizons

of possibility available to them, humanitarian actors seem to struggle a great deal with defining a purpose for their presence. The existence and persistence of need compels the organizations to come and to remain, but the di culty in envisioning or enacting a substantive outcome gives their presence a tinge of hopelessness. in the context of Campus in Camps uncertainty has an entirely different valence. Here uncertainty emerges not from lack of purpose, but from the genuine openness of the project to a range of possible outcomes (few of which could be measured by any standard metrics). Because the project is not framed as one of helping, training, empowerment, or uplift, it is to a considerable degree freed from the constraints that bind aid projects. Rather than hopelessness, here uncertainty expresses possibility. I have found the program and its participants a source of optimism and inspiration.

I have had the opportunity to spend some extended time with Campus in Camps on three different occasions, which mark three distinct moments in the program’s trajectory. I could broadly gloss these moments as: critical engagement and the work of unlearning; the challenge of imagining critical analysis into new kinds of action; and the work of undertaking initiatives from a new conceptual space.

June 2012

When I first visited Campus in Camps in June 2012 the participants were deep into the project of critical analysis. The openness to thinking and re-thinking all of the categories and concepts with which they live was filled with tremendous potential. And the fact that the concepts that they were already working on were so close to the ones I have been thinking about in my research made it especially exciting to me. in the course of my visit, we talked about a number of different concepts, among them: politics, helper/victim as a dyad, and refugee.

In my lecture to the group I tried to describe what I’ve been calling a “politics of living” with humanitarianism. This vocabulary is part of my effort to turn analytic attention not just to what is done

to people through humanitarianism, but what people do with it. When we later discussed the question, ‘what is politics?’ Of course this is an impossible question to answer definitively or simply, but the wide-ranging conversation we had about the features of political imagination and action were, to me, both tremendously interesting on their own and gave me a bit of a sense of how the group came to approach the investigations that shaped the Collective Dictionary (which at that point was just being conceptualized). What seemed most signi cant in the approach was how thoughtfully everyone pushed back at received wisdoms and pre-defined categories.

When we talked about the pairing of helper and victim and the category of refugee itself – all concepts with immediate and specific relevance to the participants’ lives – the challenges of moving beyond even the categories that one seeks to reject was evident. Helper and victim, for instance, is perhaps the central conceptual pairing of humanitarian work. One thing that was striking from our conversation though was how thoroughly this vocabulary has entered all of our consciousness. It was a bit hard to come up with different conceptual frames to think about humanitarianism and development. Many participants felt uncomfortable being tagged as “victims” (though some of identi ed that label as a political claim), but were much more at ease with seeing themselves as “helpers” for other people. We did not reach a conclusion to this conversation, but remained with the question of whether there is another way of describing – and therefore of living – relationships in the humanitarian arena?

Participants approached the category refugee through a number of lenses – as an individual and collective category, and as having both subjective and objective meanings. They brought a lot of different things to the table in these de nitions, and I think they centered around 3 aspects of experience: the conditions under which people leave their homes (forced out in one way or another); the conditions under which people live in displacement (some emphasis on poverty, but there was also discussion about problems in de ning the term in this way); and the sorts of people that refugees come to be through their experiences (refugee society as cosmopolitan, refugees as steadfast, strong, etc., but also negative views of refugees as criminals, etc.).

During the course of this first visit, I arranged with some of the participants to work together on a collaborative interview project, where they would interview refugees from multiple generations about their experiences over the years with humanitarian assistance and their views about UNRWa in particular. Working further on this project was a key feature of my next visit.

October 2012

By Fall 2012, when I returned to Campus in Camps for an extended visit, participants were far along in the process of developing the collective dictionary – having produced the first set of definition booklets and working on the second. They were also in the early stages of developing their projects for engagement. One thing that was striking to me at this stage in the process was the signi cant challenges that everyone was encountering in bringing the critical insights of their collective dictionary work – and their engagements with the range of visitors who came through the program over the year – fully to bear on the articulation of their projects. Seeing these challenges once again highlighted to me just how innovative a program Campus in Camps is. No one, not the founders, the project activators, nor the participants is dissatisfied with replicating or simply tweaking existing models for intervention in camp life. Everyone seeks, rather, to embark on a really new way of thinking about what an engagement with camp life might be. Because of these innovative aims, this is an inevitably di cult process. Despite the tremendous work they had already done on re-thinking and re-making received concepts, the first iterations of projects that participants articulated continued to bear the stamp of the NGO mind-set with which their world is saturated. These first articulations were good projects, but they were not yet the paradigm-altering engagements that everyone sought (and to which they have reached). So, hard work was underway during this period.

For my own engagement with the smaller group working on life history interviews, we spent considerable time during the course of my visit listening collectively to interviews that they had conducted. We had extended discussions about the themes that were coming up in the interviews, generational differences that were becoming apparent across the conversations, and the overall dynamics of the interview process. We did some formal work of developing a code-book to analyze the interviews, and also had open-ended conversations about their content. It is not surprising that many of terms that structured the collective dictionary – terms such as common, well-being, participation, and responsibility – featured prominently in the interviews (both because they shaped the questions and because interviewees brought them to the table). I was impressed with the cross-fertilization of the participants’ different research engagements, and ended this visit eager to see how their engagements with practice would develop.

June 2013

I returned to Campus in Camps just a few weeks ahead of the public presentation of what are now called the participants’ initiatives. This change in vocabulary – from project to initiative – indexes the extent to which the paradigm of engagement has indeed been altered. Each of these initiatives, as described in their respective booklets, has emerged through the participants’ engagements with the spaces and places of the camps and their environs. But none of them approach the camp from a standard or expected starting point. They begin from the boundaries, from the unused spaces, from the outside,

from the un-imagined, and even from what might seem like the opposite and track new kinds of pathways through the camp experience. From these journeys – some actual, some conceptual – participants seem to have found themselves in new relationship with places that are the most familiar to them. And it appears to have been from this new vantage point, this new embodied perspective on the camp, that they were able to embark on initiatives that engaged these spaces in new ways. These initiatives are still in the early stages – and by their nature will never be concluded in a traditional sense. They are filled, in the best sense of the terms, with creative uncertainty and generative openness. I am eager to see what comes next.

One year in Campus in Camps

Ahmad Lahham – Participant

Writing about my experience after one year in “Campus in Camps” is doubtless to be one of the hardest tests I’ll be put to in my whole life. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say, but because of how much I’ve gained this year. The hardest part is that the changes and benefits I’ve gained in this project are very hard to measure or be defined precisely. Most of the time I can feel the change but I can’t accurately express it. But one of the things I can clearly recognize, which was actually the biggest change I’ve gone through, is the way I look at the camp now, or the way I look at things inside the camp. Before I participated in this project, I was someone who got so used to something that he can no longer recognize what was special about it. I’ve lived in the camp for 23 years, enough time to get used to every little thing in this place. So nothing would surprise me anymore. I never looked beyond the events and incidents; everything used to be “normal” to me. But after taking part in this project, after our continuous discussions over the camp, the refugees’ issue, and the political and social exemption of the camp, going into every little detail, and reflecting on this place, a new vision was created and I started to notice things that I never noticed before, to the extent that I would walk around the camp looking at everything around me. I would go looking at the buildings, the streets, the walls and everything there like a crazy man. Upon which, I realized that the camp is more of a big school that should teach you, and that everything that happened in the camp ever since its foundation, are significant incidents that I should understand deeply and learn from. On another level, one of the things that intrigued me most and changed me in the first year is the issue of representation or our narration of our case as refugees. Like most people, the way I told the story was the traditional, well-worn way of victimizing ourselves as the weak, the poor, and the marginalized people and so on. Although part of it is true, but I also realized that the Palestinian refugee also has strengths and positive characteristics, which might be better to mention in telling our story. The transitional change that refugees went through, from being weak after the Nakba to being strong, which is something I fully realize now, led me to change the way I tell our story; basing it on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. That way, I started to notice, see and believe in those strengths, and that refugees are no longer weak and in need of help from “superior” people.

On a different level, the issue of knowledge and the learning way we pursued in our project are two of the greatest experiences that I’ve gained. Before I was part of this project, I was merely a recipient of knowledge, and I didn’t know that I could be a source instead. I also didn’t know that the camp was a significant and terrible school of knowledge and life. During the past year in the project, we agreed that each one of us is a source of knowledge and a partner in making it and not just a recipient. My participation in writing the collective dictionary that we prepared during the past year made me believe that my 23 years of age are a rich source of my knowledge on which I base my concepts and my knowledge. The great effect this wonderful experience had on me in the production of knowledge is that my self-confidence has grown, and I like to look beyond now to the core of things rather than its appearance. The way we followed to learn, in sharing knowledge in a group rather than each individual alone with a curriculum, broke many traditional barriers that we were raised upon; which conclude that a person cannot learn except from a book, a curriculum and a test. Breaking these traditions did not only include the way of learning but also many other aspects of my life and my concepts. One of the most significant things that I gained in this wonderful year, is that I feel my ability to create Ideas growing. This was not easy at all. It came as a result of the collective learning process, of which a person is a basic and significant source, and on which we build knowledge. This way and this confidence that it gave me as a source of knowledge opened up many doors to think and reflect upon, analyze and imagine the future. All this adds up to my growing ability of creation. Finally, being in an open space in which I am free to think, to talk and to do whatever I want, is really another wonderful experience I lived during the past year.

The House of Wisdom (HoW) within Campus in Camps (CiC)

Munir Fasheh — June 8, 2013

When I went to Dheisheh Refugee Camp in February 2012 to meet with participants, the basic relevant experience I had and which I often think of, was the two years of working with teachers and mothers in Shufaat Refugee Camp. I was amazed at what mothers were able to do under unbelievable conditions. Their knowledge in dealing with life in terms of keeping hope, love, and non-stop energy in managing and doing what needs to be done, for 8 people in a very small space cannot be matched by several experts in sociology, psychology, bringing up children, cooking, management… I realized how shallow, naïve, irrelevant and blind modern words such as training and empowerment are! The mothers’ rooted and diverse knowledges, their stories, and learning from life, formed the main theme in my work with them. In other words, the basic theme of learning and study in Shufaat camp was the wisdom and knowledge of mothers, usually invisible to academics, scholars, and the educated in general, simply because we academics are unable to see what cannot be expressed in words and concepts, and measured in numbers.

When I first went to Dheisheh and met participants at CiC, I looked for a core idea which could host the richness embedded in Dheisheh and other participating camps. I quickly realized that idea of mujaawarah (which has no synonym in English) can serve this purpose and be the core theme. It embodied many aspects of wisdom: well-being, social fabric, honesty, freedom, justice, equality, and saying what one means and meaning what one says – where there is no competition or evaluation along a vertical line. The main aspects that characterized the mujaawarah were: using it as the medium for learning; reclaiming al-3afiah (well-being) as a ‘measure’ and a core value governing one’s thinking, expressions, relationships, and actions; stitching the social-cultural-intellectual-spiritual-economic fabric in society, in addition to the fabric with nature; and perceiving every person as a source and co-author of meaning and understanding. Throughout the past sixty-five years, the social fabric has been the backbone, a main source of inner strength and the internal immune systems in camps’ communities. Co-authoring meaning has been a main theme during the past 1½ years. It is crucial in healing from hegemonic terms and academic categories which tear life apart at many levels, and dominate how we think, express, relate, and act, and also crucial in living with dignity, equality, and communal freedom to learn Both places – Shufaat and Dheisheh – showed clearly the difference between rooted useful knowledge vs. rootless verbal knowledge; knowledge that starts with life (phenomena, threats, sources of strength in a community) vs. fragmented knowledge that starts with academic categories and professional concepts; knowledge which is holistic and interconnected (forming a ‘universe’) vs. knowledge that claims to be universal; knowledge as wisdom and governed by responsibility and well-being vs. knowledge governed by control and winning; knowledge as manifested in one’s lifestyle vs. knowledge as manifested in words on a test paper; knowledge connected to a particular place vs. knowledge that happens in an artificial space… The state of human emergency which is increasingly felt around the world compels us to rethink many aspects of today’s world; especially in relation to knowledge and learning. The path of wisdom always involves a combination of learning and unlearning. We cannot remain blind to the dominant ideology which contributed a lot to current crises and threats. At the same time, demands for education are increasing and resources diminishing. The belief in a single undifferentiated universal path for learning and progress – which characterized centralized formal education for at least 3 centuries, and which ignored wisdom and killed diversity and rootedness – has been a central factor in creating these threats and crises. Mujaawarah is crucial in protecting life from the onslaught of this belief. Protection rather than development is what is most needed in today’s world. The invisible ignorance of modern human beings in relation to what is important is tremendous – in relation to the food we eat; who decides curricula; the history of dominant institutions, etc. Co-authoring meanings is crucial in this protection; it is a natural ability, right, need, and reflects a sense of responsibility. Many groups around the world are currently responding to this urgency and doing something about it. CiC is one of them. At CiC, and within HoW in particular, we try to tackle this issue by thinking, relating, and acting in harmony with a different vision (parts of which I mentioned above). The urgency to act is tremendous. We need to take courageous steps in rethinking meanings, assumptions, and governing values in relation to education and learning – and not be allured by distracting technical expressions such as ‘quality of education’. When we embarked on CiC, we knew we were embarking on a new experiment in learning – a different vision – not only in relation to content and style but also in relation to medium, values, meanings, convictions, and perceptions which necessitated looking for radically new terms. We knew we were sailing in new seas. However, what was wonderful about that journey was the ‘discovery’ that we were sailing towards home, towards ourselves, our culture, and planting the seeds of our knowledge in our own soils. We did not start with ready knowledge and then try to apply it in the camps but, rather, we searched for words, meanings, and understanding that stemmed from the reality in which participants live. This led us to explore the difference and relationship between search and research. Moreover, every participant was responsible for explaining the meaning of words s/he used, through experiences, stories, events, or mental images. The collective dictionary is a manifestation of that. Since the career of academics, professionals, and experts is usually connected to some kind of authority, then it is always healthy to doubt experts, academics, and professionals – if we really care about well-being as a core value. It is the courage, the confidence, the clarity, and love for the community that were ‘sharpened’ in participants’ characters; they don’t feel intimidated to say what they think and how they feel, regardless of the big titles and arrogance of those present. The above was translated at the HoW (within CiC) in several ways: (1) we chose mujaawarah as the medium for learning; (2) we chose tathuqquf / saql (sharpening one’s character, in thinking, expressing, relating, meaning, and understanding) as the perception of learning which we adhered to; and (3) we chose the word yuhsen as the ‘measure’ of the worth of a person [this is taken from a statement by Imam Ali which we used as the principle with which to ‘judge’ the worth of a person. Instead of the dominant way of evaluating a person by comparing people along a vertical line, the worth of a person in our work is what s/he yuhsen, with all the meanings of yuhsen in Arabic: what one does well, beautiful, useful, respectful, and gives from self. This approach compelled us often to use Arabic words (some of which do not have synonyms in English). I already used mujaawarah, tathuqquf, saql, 3afiah, and yuhsen. Other words which we used and were important in our discussions include jame’ah and ahaali. The meaning of jame’ah in Arabic is closer to ‘multiversity’ than ‘university’ (and multiversity is closer to what we did in HoW). The word ahaali (the closest in English would be people-in-community) describes people living in refugee camps (where the social fabric is fundamental) much better than ‘citizens’ who are defined by arbitrary national numbers that reflect one’s relation to a state and its institutions. There is a need to elaborate – in particular – on the word mujaawarah. To start with, it requires physical presence and face to face conversations, which cannot be replaced by any modern means of communication; it can only happen between mureedeen and muraadeen (people who want to learn in reciprocal ways). Mujaawarah is simple in the sense that it is available everywhere, and does not need hierarchical official structures, big facilities, huge budgets, makebelieve degrees, professionals, and experts; all what it needs is people wanting to meet and learn about whatever they want to learn, in freedom, with no absolute right and wrong and no authority they have to please. Mujaawarah is a social ‘organization’ where people learn, think, act, and relate outside the confines of institutions/authority as well as where they manage their life affairs on their own. It embodies in a natural way equality, justice, freedom, honesty, reciprocity, sharing, and – probably most importantly – multiple-valued logic (rather than the dominant twovalued logic). As a medium for learning, mujaawarah is radically different from institutional learning. Mujaawarah cannot happen at the individual level only; it always involves communal learning. When asked about the subjects that participants study, I say “the subject of study is their lives, in the contexts in which they live, and sharpening their characters, where knowledge becomes part of the person’s lifestyle”. Mujaawarah is an integral part of life, where people reflect and converse about actions and experiences, in light of wisdoms that have been part of the community throughout history. Communal freedom to learn cannot happen with fear; it can only happen with trust, confidence, honesty, and mutual nurturance among people, who are ready to really listen, with full attentiveness, to one another. Currently, there are almost a million students in the schools of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and 218,000 students in institutions of higher education. They all follow the same path, which is considered neutral, universal, objective, scientific… no room for diversity whatsoever! They all start with ready materials to be taught, and perceive education as a commodity that one person sells to another. They all believe in evaluating students along a vertical line by using numbers or some similar symbol; they all believe that theory/ thinking is higher than practice – they look at life as application of theories. They all have hierarchies, and require institutional frame in which learning takes place. They believe in the 2-valued logic – the source and basis of modern fundamentalisms. It is the logic which is propagated mainly by school math! Thus, the problem does not lie in the bad quality of education but in the very concept of education as conceived in Nabrija’s mind 500 years ago. Moreover, education in its dominant form is costly and wasteful. Budgets are drying up. Mujaawarah – the eternal way to learn – provides hope and solution.


Campus in Camps fundamental principles

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

We understand “university” in its original meaning in arabic Al jame3ah “a public space, a place for assembly”. Campus in Camps therefore is activated around the interaction and interests of the participants and its structure is consequently in constant transformation and open in order to accommodate changing urgencies.

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.

Participants are co-authors of meanings, giving names to the reality that surrounds them in order to provide a deeper sense to what they see and experience. Written reflections on personal experiences, interviews, excursions and photographic investigations constitute the starting point for the formulation of more structured thoughts which is both the reference and conceptual framework for all Campus in Camps interventions.

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.

Campus in Camps it is not an isolated island, it aims to transgress the borders between the ‘islands of knowledge’ and the islands of ‘social marginalisation’, and the distinction between camp and city, refugee and citizen, center and periphery, theory and practice, teacher and student. Does not claim a fix territory or an original identity but rather a right to move between spaces and the right to becoming who we want.

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.

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.

Program Activators
Isshaq Albarbary, 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

Program founding member and initiators
Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti


The CIC Book (PDF)