In 2007 UNRWA´s Camp Improvement Programme began a participatory design process for the construction of a public square in Fawwar Refugee Camp. Camps are political spaces and their built environment is a symbol of political struggle. How can one build an open public space in an exceptional environment where the concept of public and private does not exist? Where any urban elements that resemble those of a city threaten the temporariness of the camps and therefore are seen as jeopardizing the refugees’ right of return?

The notion of constructing a public square in the camp was controversial and it questioned how the community defined and perceived the spatial image of the camp. Moreover, it raised questions of how the space would be used and by whom. Was the plaza for children to play, for men to gather? Could women use the plaza, and if so, what activities were socially acceptable for them to carry out in this space?

Within the political and cultural context of refugee camps and Palestinian society, women have limited access to outdoor spaces, which not only hinders their interaction but also the possibility to carry out physical activities in the open air and benefit from a healthier lifestyle. In 2012, female participants of Campus in Camps from Fawwar began to carry out discussions around their role in public space with the women from the camp. Once this space was built, a women’s movement emerged in the plaza. Now they gather regularly and carry out activities in this open square, which has become a symbol for the struggle of women to claim their right to public space within their community. The women in Fawwar have found in the plaza a space where not only can they interact but also learn from each other. In this very isolated environment, this space for learning has become a tool for them to connect with the world. However, this process has been gradual and challenging at times. The women of Fawwar are in the process of constructing a discourse that explains and justifies why they are claiming a right to be in public space. Through the activities in the plaza the women have expressed a desire to learn English and to interact with women from other camps and are at times justifying their requests because they will benefit their children and families.
Throughout the course we wish to explore the following questions:

• While analyzing the spatial characteristics of the plaza and the participation of women in the design, what role does architecture and space play in gender equality and empowerment in refugee camps?

• What has traditionally been the role of refugee women in the camp, how does their community perceive them and how do they perceive themselves? Do gender roles differ outside of camps and how?

• How does the desire to learn a new language affect or support gender equality in the camp? Why English? What is the connection between wanting to learn the hegemonic language and their struggle to have more rights within the camp? Can learning a new language become the mechanism to reflect and construct new forms of representations?

The course will accompany the women of Fawwar in the different activities they will continue to carry out in the plaza. The course seeks to be the motor of reflection and debate around women’s role in public space and their common struggle to redefine their identity within the camp community. Furthermore, it will explore the parallel and interrelated stories between the plaza and the women. The plaza is a controversial spatial object that has struggled to find a space within the camp and now it has become an important actor and ally of the movement of women in their claim for their right to be in public space.

Based on the needs expressed by the women in the square, we will constitute a Mujawara, a space of interaction and learning. Throughout these sessions, we will accompany women in the process of understanding their struggle for the use of the public space, using story telling from their own context and personal experience. Based on the discussions around their role in public space, the course will develop a storyline for a publication that will narrate the story of the plaza and the women in Fawwar Refugee camp. The book seeks to become a tool to share their experience with women not only from other camps but also from Palestine in general. Throughout this project we wish to break the isolation of the women within the confinement of the camp and connect them with other realities. By organizing field trips throughout the course, we will be creating gatherings between the women in Fawwar and other organisations in the West Bank that share similar urgencies.

Sandi Hilal