The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

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The Politics of Suffering examines the confluence of international aid, humanitarian relief, and economic development within the space of the Palestinian refugee camp. Nell Gabiam describes the interactions between UNRWA, the United Nations agency charged with providing assistance to Palestinians since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and residents of three camps in Syria. Over time, UNRWA's management of the camps reveals a shift from an emphasis on humanitarian aid to promotion of self-sufficiency and integration of refugees within their host society. Gabiam's analysis captures two forces in tension within the camps: politics of suffering that serves to keep alive the discourse around the Palestinian right of return; and politics of citizenship expressed through development projects that seek to close the divide between the camp and the city. Gabiam offers compelling insights into the plight of Palestinians before and during the Syrian war, which has led to devastation in the camps and massive displacement of their populations.

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1 Informal Citizens: Palestinian Refugees in Syria

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IN MAY OF 2011, while in the United States, I decided to call Muna, with whom I had established a friendship during my fieldwork in Neirab and Ein el Tal. While I had called Muna periodically since returning to the United States, this time I was a little hesitant. The tide of uprisings across the Arab world, which had started in Tunisia in December 2010, had recently reached Syria and the Syrian government was blaming “foreign instigators” for the unrest it was facing. I was worried that, as an American, calling acquaintances in Syria during this tense time might make these acquaintances nervous or even put them at risk of special scrutiny (assuming that government officials were listening in on calls, something that was not unheard of).

I decided in the end that Muna was a good enough friend that she would understand I was just calling as I usually did to say hi. However, once I reached her, she was the one who unexpectedly brought up the unrest in the region. Not the unrest involving Syrians but that involving Palestinians, including herself. She asked me if I had heard that Palestinian refugees in various parts of the Middle East had marched to the Israeli border a few weeks earlier, on May 15, to demand that Israel acknowledge their right of return. She proudly announced to me that she, as well as many others in Neirab Camp, had participated in the march. I told her that I had indeed seen pictures of the protesters on the Al Jazeera news network. Al Jazeera had an unanticipated effect: “Kaẓāb! Kaẓāb! [liars! liars!],” she responded, raising her voice. “Don’t watch Al Jazeera; they’re all liars,” she continued, urging me to watch Al Manar, the Hizbullah-controlled satellite TV station instead.

 

2 From Humanitarianism to Development: UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees

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ON OCTOBER 28, 2005, during a community meeting in Neirab Camp, the head of UNRWA in Syria said, “For far too long, UNRWA has worked with Palestinian refugees as though it knows what is good for them, without really asking them” (field notes, October 28, 2005). This comment was made in the context of UNRWA’s recent policy changes, which had centered on the agency’s increasing embrace of the discourse of “development” in framing its assistance to Palestinian refugees. UNRWA’s embrace of this discourse marks an attempted shift away from the agency’s traditional forms of assistance, which had focused on the refugees’ immediate and basic needs, toward forms concerned with their long-term, sustainable well-being (UNRWA 2005a). The official’s acknowledgment indicates that it is not just the nature of the agency’s assistance to refugees that must change but the very nature of the agency’s relationship with them. UNRWA describes its now decade-long reform process as a move away from the paternalistic approach that had informed its humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees toward an approach that engages these refuges as “partners” in the effort to improve living conditions in their camps (UNRWA 2009).

 

3 Ṣumūd and Sustainability: Reinterpreting Development in Palestinian Refugee Camps

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IN LATE MARCH 2004, a ceremony took place in Ein el Tal to celebrate the inauguration of the first phase of the Neirab Rehabilitation Project. This initial phase aimed to build new housing in Ein el Tal, to which about three hundred families from Neirab’s barracks would be moving, as well as improve infrastructural and socioeconomic conditions in the camp in general. The ambassadors of the United States, Switzerland, and Canada, the three foreign donor countries for phase 1, were invited. UNRWA officials, the Palestinian director of GAPAR, and the Syrian governor of Aleppo were also in attendance. A former UNRWA employee in the camp that day helping to set up for the inauguration, which was to take place in an open area close to the construction site for the new UNRWA-built houses, recalled the events of that morning: shortly before the trio of ambassadors were to arrive, having first stopped in neighboring Neirab Camp, a truck loaded with young men holding banners and chanting against the project appeared. The protesters got off the truck, and others joined them. They soon overwhelmed the few local bystanders who had been watching UNRWA staff set up for the inauguration. According to the former UNRWA employee, the young men were protesting against both the US ambassador’s visit and the project itself primarily because of American participation.

 

4 “Must We Live in Barracks to Convince People We Are Refugees?”: The Politics of Camp Improvement

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ACCORDING TO A UNRWA project document released in February of 2007:

Neirab Camp suffers from the most abysmal living conditions of all the Palestine refugee camps in Syria. The refugees in Neirab have been living for almost 60 years in dreadful and inhumane circumstances sheltered in a series of vacated army barracks. . . . Over the years, the original camp has evolved into a congested living environment with an extremely high population density offering little ventilation, sunlight or public space. This situation is particularly appalling in the area of the original barracks of the camp, where nearly 6000 of the most vulnerable refugees are accommodated under extremely harsh living conditions. (UNRWA 2007:4)

UNRWA had made several attempts in the 1990s to implement comprehensive housing improvements in the Neirab barracks, but those attempts were invariably stopped by the Syrian government. In 2000, with the position of the Syrian government having shifted with regard to comprehensive housing improvement in Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA finally received the green light to proceed. Neirab would become the first camp in the agency’s areas of operations since the 1950s to be the target of an UNRWA-sponsored large-scale housing improvement project. The lessons learned from this project would inform the institutionalization of the agency’s Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Program (ICIP) in 2006.

 

5 “A Camp Is a Feeling Inside”: Urbanization and the Boundaries of Palestinian Refugee Identity

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DURING AN OCTOBER 2010 visit to Syria, I asked project volunteer Wisam how he felt about the recent destruction of the Neirab Camp barracks. Drawing on a comparison with Yarmouk, a camp made up of modern apartment buildings which had become incorporated into the city of Damascus, he replied, “When you go to Yarmouk you say ‘I’m going to Yarmouk Camp,’ not ‘Yarmouk City’” (field notes, October 6, 2010).

Prior to the Syrian war, Yarmouk was known as a success story of refugee integration into a host country (Kodmani-Darwish 1997; Tiltnes 2007). Located in Damascus, it was a commercial hub boasting huge open-air markets as well as modern grocery stores; its streets were lined with shops selling sweets, fashionable clothing and footwear, books, and other goods. With its three- and four-story apartment buildings, Yarmouk easily blended into its surroundings. Many of its Palestinian inhabitants were professionals working as doctors, engineers, and civil servants (UNRWA 2015f). A 2007 report from the Norwegian Fafo Research Foundation cited the camp as “one of the largest commercial centers in the country” (Tiltnes 2007:7–8). Political scientist Bassma Kodmani-Darwish agreed, describing it as “an indistinguishable part of the capital, and one of its most vibrant commercial centers” (1997:98).1 Although it had integrated into the city of Damascus in many ways, Yarmouk was able to maintain its identity as a Palestinian refugee camp.

 

Conclusion: Beyond Suffering and Victimhood

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WHEN I TOLD my friend Saleem, who lived in Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, about the rumors circulating in Neirab and Ein el Tal that the Neirab Rehabilitation Project was a ploy to make refugees “forget” about their homeland, he replied simply, “Tell them that we are living well here and we have not forgotten.” It often struck me that if the Neirab Rehabilitation Project were to achieve its goals, at least as far as UNRWA was concerned, Neirab and Ein el Tal could very well end up looking somewhat like prewar Yarmouk. However, as Saleem pointed out, Yarmouk’s Palestinian refugees had not forgotten. Yarmouk might have become integrated into Damascus and might have acquired hundreds of thousands of Syrian residents, but it was still a distinctively Palestinian space.

If one thinks of memory not as an attempt to recover the past but as an attempt to “underscore the loss inscribed in the social body and embedded in forms of practice” (Hartman 1997:75), then it can take many forms. Despite having physically and economically merged into Damascus, Yarmouk had managed to maintain a distinctively Palestinian feel mainly through the social and political engagement of the refugees who lived there, their cultural activities that celebrated their Palestinian heritage, and their creativity in inscribing Yarmouk’s changing landscape with reminders of their identity as refugees and Palestinians.

 

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