The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

In December 2005, as we sat in the living room of his family’s house in the Palestinian refugee camp of Neirab in Syria, Younes, a young Palestinian university student in his early twenties, reflected on the controversial Neirab Rehabilitation Project that was taking place in the camp. Sponsored by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (known as UNRWA), the project sought, among other goals, to relocate families living in Neirab’s World War II– era barracks to brand-new UNRWA-built houses in the neighboring Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el Tal. Speaking about the families who had already made the move from the Neirab barracks to the new houses in Ein el Tal, Younes referred to them as having “gone from a life of death (ḥayāt al-mawt) to real life, from living in coffins to living in nice houses” (field notes, December 23, 2005). But Younes could not leave it at that. To live in comfortable houses, he quickly added, was one of the refugees’ rights as human beings, a right that should be clearly separated from their right of return to their homes in what is now the state of Israel. Living in good conditions, Younes explained, “should not mean the disappearance of the right of return” (field notes, December 23, 2005). Younes’s comments illustrate refugees’ fears that supporting camp improvements will be understood as acknowledging that refugees might stay in their host state permanently, thus undermining their claim to return. They allude to suffering as emblematic of the Palestinian refugee condition and as legitimating Palestinian insistence on the right of return.

One of the most potent symbols of Palestinian suffering and of Palestinians’ commitment to the right of return to their former homes is the refugee camp, which serves not only as a reminder of the suffering that Palestinians have experienced since their forced displacement during the 1948 Arab–Israeli war but also as a sign that its inhabitants’ stay is to be temporary (Al Husseini 2011; Farah 1997, 1999; Feldman 2008b; Khalili 2007; Peteet 2005; Ramadan 2010). Despite their important symbolic role in keeping alive Palestinian political claims linked to the past, refugee camps are not frozen in time: they are dynamic spaces that have undergone much change since their establishment in the aftermath of the 1948 war. a dominant perspective among Palestinian refugees is that improving the infrastructural and socioeconomic fabric of the camps threatens both their identity as refugees and their claims of return to their Palestinian homeland. Such a perspective is encouraged by the fact that, historically, infrastructural and . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.