BETHLEHEM -- The twenty-something Palestinians gathered here at a cultural center were born in the Dheisheh Camp, as were their parents and quite possibly their grandparents, too. But they are regarded by themselves and by their fellow Palestinians as refugees, victims of the 1948 war that led to the creation of the State of Israel, and as the people who await the day they can return to their homes.

For many, it is not an easy burden to carry. Getting on with their lives and improving their surroundings open them to accusations that they are surrendering their status and undermining the Palestinian quest for statehood.

Now, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency responsible for providing services to Dheisheh and other refugee camps, is providing a place where they can explore their identity, learn their rights and weigh their options for the future.

Dubbed “Campus in Camp,” it now counts just 16 students, but it could be a groundbreaking academic endeavor that radically changes the way Palestinians cope with their refugee status.

“I started to discover who I am and where I was headed as a refugee under international law. We are starting to think about what we want, what Palestine should be and what is the reality that will take us there,” Aysar Al-Safei, one of the students, told The Media Line. “I had a lot of questions. To be honest, Campus in Camp became my space, the place where I can do and can say everything I want without fearing limits.”

Some 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes in the fighting that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948, and their descendents aim to return. Their number today is subject to controversy, but UNWRA estimates that about five million Palestinians qualify under its definition of refugee for its services today.

Their history has left the next generations feeling disconnected, with no place they can call home and challenged about how they should navigate their future. “We meet here to decide what are refugees supposed to do,” Qussay Abu Aker, 26, a business administration student who is part of the core group in Dheisheh’s college, told The Media Line. 

Campus in Camp Director Alessandro Petti, an urban studies instructor at nearby Al-Quds University, says their first sessions were dedicated to “unlearning” what they had been taught in order to open their minds to creative thinking.

Critics of UNWRA’s programs assert that they serve to perpetuate refugee status by leaving them as wards of the UN in camps like Dheisheh that over the decades have evolved into makeshift towns. Many of the 1948-era Palestinians have found new homes in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and Israel says the majority of the rest will have to do the same because letting them back would effectively bring an end to the Jewish state. They argue that there should be no refugee issue at all after 64 years.

The Campus in Camp is a joint initiative of UNRWA and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German agency that operates programs for the Berlin government around the world.

Campus in Camp is part of the greater project to renovate UNRWA-assisted refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan and Lebanon. An initial five-million euro ($6.6 million) donation in 2007 from Germany was used to map out the renovation plans and an additional 14.5 million euros ($19 million) was allocated for five years to implement them.

It is estimated that some 12,000 people live in Dheisheh. It is considered one of the “strongest” of the 19 camps in the West Bank, that is, with an effective group of local leaders and dozens of active non-governmental organizations (NGOs) serving it. That is why Dheisheh is serving as the pilot camp, says Sandi Hilal, an Italian-trained urban sociologist who is spearheading the project in the southern West Bank for UNRWA.

So far, the improvements in Dheisheh include turning a shell of a former hospital building into a center for the prevention of non-communicable diseases and diabetes. Other practical improvements include renovating sewage lines; installing 380 trash bins and organizing waste collection; upgrading homes; repainting walls in the narrow alleys; and revitalizing gardens. Campus in Camp is another facet. 

“This might be the first university in a refugee camp in the world,” Hilal says. “In this university the challenge is to understand what the camp is, what the refugees’ rights are now, how an empowered refugee might look like and our assumption is that refugees do deserve a university.”

Campus in Camp is situated on the grounds of the Phoenix Center, an NGO that provides children and adults with cultural activities. As the students gathered inside freshly painted classrooms, workmen outside the busy center were building a stage.

The core group of students has been meeting for some two months and is still engaged in brainstorming about what they see as their goals. They have already heard lectures on international law and the rights of refugees, including by visiting professors from abroad.

Some of the projects they have talked about pursuing include the mapping of the refugee camps, drafting a refugee camp lexicon and setting up networking on social media.

Petti, Campus in Camp’s director, says they are boycotting Israeli educational institutions in keeping with his university’s policy, but individual Israelis who want to help are welcome.

While the seeds of the campaign were sown over five years ago, UNRWA is only now coming out with it in public. Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the agency, explains that this was part of the publicity surrounding an exhibit opening on May 8 in Berlin about refugee rights. The show as called: “Space, Time, Dignity, Rights: Improving Palestinian Refugee Camps.”

Gunness denies that the UN organization perpetuates refugee status. “UNRWA wants nothing more than to go out of existence, but that has to happen in the context of a just and durable solution for the refugees,” he told The Media Line.

To those critics who say that the UN organization’s health and education services deter Palestinians from action to win their state, Gunness answers that the refugees had a right to a decent standard of living and that improving their lot did not jeopardize their rights as refugees.

Those feelings were echoed by Hilal. “The healthier and the better quality of life they have they will be better persons in order to understand how to fight peacefully for their right of return. How to be a better person does not jeopardize any right,” he says. “It was a misconception that you have to stay poor in order to fight for your rights.”

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