By: Nell Gabiam

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nell Gabiam (NG): While studying Arabic in Damascus in the summer of 2001, I discovered the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk and was struck by how seamlessly it blended into its surroundings. I wondered what made it a camp despite not fitting the stereotypical image of camp; I also wondered about its Palestinian inhabitants: to what extent had they integrated into Syrian society and to what extent did they continue to identify with Palestine? I returned to Syria in 2004, planning to answer these questions as part of my doctoral fieldwork, but, within a year of being there, I got pulled in a different research direction: my curiosity about the relationship between UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) and Palestinian refugees was piqued, and I began to do volunteer work with the agency. This work took me to northern Syria in the greater Aleppo area. There, I discovered the Palestinian refugee camps of Neirab and Ein el Tal (locally known as “Handarat”). Unlike Yarmouk, these camps were small, isolated, relatively poor, and were the target of an UNRWA-sponsored “development” project. While Yarmouk remained within the scope of my research, my focus switched to exploring Palestinian refugee identity and political claims through the prism of these refugees’ engagement with Western-sponsored international development. I think it is a somewhat unusual approach to the understanding of what it means to be a Palestinian refugee in the current moment and has allowed me to bring an additional perspective to Palestinian studies. One objective I had with this book was to write about Palestinian refugees as human beings whose experiences not only tell us something about them as Palestinians but also illuminate universal issues such as development and urban planning and contribute to our understanding of refugees and migration at a global scale. I wanted the book to add to those broader fields as well as to that of Palestinian studies.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NG: The book addresses several bodies of literature: Palestinian studies, refugee studies, humanitarianism, development, urban planning, and international relations. It is simultaneously about Palestinian refugee identity and political claims; the changing relationship between humanitarianism and development aid; the relationship between the camp and the city; and the impact of global power relations and United Nations (UN) policy on the lives of Palestinian refugees.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NG: This book is the product of my first ethnographic research project, which I carried out as a doctoral student. While the book is based on my doctoral dissertation, it is significantly different from it. The dissertation told a narrow story of Palestinian refugee activism around the right of return and how suffering had become a paradoxical ally in these refugees’ quest not to forget their history of forced displacement and dispossession and to insist on redress on the part of Israel. The book continues that line of argument but within a much broader frame, one that seeks to shed light on the relationship between humanitarianism, development, and forced migration in the twenty first century. It seeks to show that while there are features of the Palestinian refugee experience in Syria that are unique, there are also aspects of the trajectory of Palestinian refugees that are becoming routine and widespread. Thus we can learn from the experiences of Palestinian refugees in trying to understand the realities, policies, and politics of forced migration in the twenty first century.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NG: I hope that this book will appeal to undergraduate and graduate students, not just in the fields of Palestinian studies or Middle East studies, but also in the broader field of migration and refugee studies and in fields such as humanitarianism, development studies, and urban planning. I also hope that it will appeal to members of the larger public and to practitioners and policymakers in the fields of migration, humanitarianism, and development. I would like the book to bring more visibility to Syria’s Palestinian population and enrich the field of Palestinian studies in this respect. I also hope that it will draw readers’ attention the historical plight of Palestinian refugees and their quest for redress. Finally, and as mentioned throughout this interview, I hope that the book will familiarize the reader with Palestinian refugees, not just as victims or political militants in relation to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but also as human beings whose experiences can help us better understand the shape of the world we live in today.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NG: I am almost done with the research for my second major project which, in some ways, picks up where the first left of. Since 2015, I have been conducting ethnographic research with Palestinians displaced by the ongoing war in Syria. I plan to write a book that, on the one hand, will be the story of what happened to Syria’s Palestinian population as a result of the war and, on the other, an assessment of the current global refugee regime as seen through the experiences of Syria’s displaced Palestinian refugees. This research has taken me to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates as well as France, Germany, and Sweden. It includes some of the people featured in my first book who have become refugees, once again. I am also involved in an interdisciplinary collaborative research project with faculty in the fields of civil engineering and human development at Iowa State University and in architecture at the University of Texas, Austin, on how the built environment affects refugee agency and resilience. The project focuses on refugee shelter in Germany, Greece, and Italy.

J: How does the book connect to current U.S. policy toward Palestinians and, specifically, Palestinian refugees?

NG: Much of the book focuses on the lack of trust on the part of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Neirab and Ein el Tal toward an international development project that had the United States as a primary donor. A major rumor circulating in these camps was that UNRWA’s push for development and its concurrent promotion of refugee self-reliance were really a cover for a US plan to do away with the agency and, by extension, with the Palestinian refugee issue. In the book I argue that, while I do not believe UNRWA’s promotion of development was part of such a plan, Palestinian fears that the United States was trying to make them “disappear” so to speak, should not be dismissed. Today, these fears have become reality with the United States, UNRWA’s biggest donor state, having cut its funding to the agency, putting UNRWA’s existence into jeopardy. This situation has resulted in calls on the part of NGOs, governments, and scholars to rethink the issue of Palestinian refugee rights, protection, and future and to reassess the central role that UNRWA has played among Palestinian refugees as well as the role of the United States as a major actor in resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Looking back on the book I wrote, I think that aspects of the crisis that UNRWA and Palestinian refugees are now facing were already present in 2004–2005, when I was conducting fieldwork, with development acting more as a band-aid than a solution. What is needed today is a comprehensive solution that recognizes refugees’ right to live in dignity from both a socio-economic and political standpoint.


Excerpt from the Book:

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. Yarmouk’s landscape of apartment buildings even proved amenable to perpetuating the “Palestinian tradition” of sons inheriting the roof from their fathers. Often, different families occupied different sections of the building; it could be said that sons still lived “on top” of the familial home. Sometimes an extended family owned the whole building, with different family branches living on top of one another. What the example of Yarmouk shows is that infrastructural modernization and socioeconomic transformation did not lead to a loss of refugees’ political consciousness or Yarmouk’s identity as a Palestinian refugee camp. However, transformation did come, primarily from the refugees themselves; it was led by them, and it was incorporated into the political work of creating a meaningful community of Palestinians who maintained a connection to their past and advocated a just resolution to their refugee status.

In Ein el Tal and Neirab, which had never had the kinds of resources that were available to Yarmouk, the promise of improvement came in the form of an unrwa -sponsored development project funded primarily by Western donors whose foreign policy sometimes clashed with the refugees’ political aspirations. Unrwa’s participatory approach implied that Palestinians in Ein el Tal and Neirab would play a major role in changing the living conditions in their camps (presumably for the better) and do so in a way that would safeguard their common interests as Palestinian refugees. The outcomes of the Neirab Rehabilitation Project in both camps were mixed with regard to the improvement of refugees’ social and material conditions. In terms of setting up an enduring structure of trust and partnership between unrwa  and Palestinian refugees, the project was quasi-failure…

While relevant to an understanding of Yarmouk as a camp, especially in light of the Syrian war, the Agambian concept of the camp as a space of exception should not blind us to other ways in which Yarmouk was and is exceptional. Before the war, the camp was exceptional in the way it combined socioeconomic integration into Damascus and its status as a major commercial center with an enduring identity as a refugee camp known for political activism around the Palestinian cause. Additionally, as it has suffered under siege, warfare, and destruction, its inhabitants have shown tremendous resourcefulness, sometimes paying with their lives. One example of this resourcefulness is the several schools that were established by besieged residents once the camp was cut off  from the rest of Damascus and from unrwa services (according to the founder of one of these schools who eventually fled to Turkey and whom I interviewed in spring 2015, unrwa  closed its schools in Yarmouk in December 2012). These “alternative schools” have functioned throughout the siege, and at the end of the 2013 –2014 academic year, as a result of negotiations between unrwa and the Syrian government, Yarmouk high school students were allowed to leave the camp for a week to take their exams in Damascus (interview, unrwa  employee, Amman, March 22 , 2015 ). Residents with medical knowledge and volunteers have been able to keep the Palestine Hospital (Mashfa Filasṭīn), the only hospital in Yarmouk that has not been destroyed, open and running despite a chronic lack of equipment and supplies. Volunteers have mobilized to collect trash and distribute food and drinking water. These examples are a reminder that, even in the most disempowering and inhumane situations, individuals have a capacity for agency and resourcefulness.

In this chapter, I have tried to go beyond hegemonic understandings of the refugee camp, which tend to reduce it to social marginality, powerlessness, and material scarcity, while still acknowledging the vulnerability of the refugee’s status (and, in this case, statelessness) on both a local and a global scale. I have shown that neither Yarmouk’s socioeconomic and infrastructural changes over the years nor its incorporation into Damascus managed to strip it of its identity as a “camp.” The example of Yarmouk underscores the fact that a camp is not simply a physical space. Camp boundaries are produced and reproduced by refugees through their sociocultural practices, including political activism around the Palestinian cause. The boundaries are also embodied by the refugees themselves, given that their Palestinian identity in itself has come to signify the temporariness of their stay and their commitment to return. Finally, an important aspect of Yarmouk’s enduring identity as a camp, despite integration into the city, lies in its function as an affective space. For some of the Palestinian refugees I interacted with, the camp as a site of suffering was not just a physical, tangible space; it was also an emotional space, a “feeling inside.” It was a feeling of difference connected to a sense of exile and to the memories of the Nakba and the suffering it unleashed. It was also a feeling of injustice that translated into collective political activism around the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and, more specifically, the right of return. Finally, I have shown that Syrian citizens are part of the camp constituted as a separate and meaningful space. For some middle- and upper-class Syrians, the camp as a “feeling inside” took the form of fear arising from the social stigma attached to refugee camps, which were assumed to be poor and therefore dangerous and so to be avoided. In light of these different conceptualizations of the Palestinian refugee camp, it no longer seems strange that Yarmouk in prewar Syria was seen by some as a vibrant commercial area where the physical traces of past suffering had all but disappeared, and at the same time seen by others as a poverty-stricken, dangerous no-go zone; or that it was touted by some as an example of successful refugee integration into the host country and yet continued to exist as a “camp.”

Pre-war Yarmouk camp is useful to thinking about how to reformulate the camp as a particular kind of refugee space that is not excluded from the advantages conferred by citizenship or by the realm of the city and at the same time, is amenable to a “politics of the displaced”. However, postwar Yarmouk reminds us of the enduring vulnerability of refugees and stateless persons and of the ease with which Yarmouk went from being recognized as an exceptional space to being primarily recognizable as a space of exception.


Nell Gabiam, The Politics of Suffering: Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).