Charlotte Dhollander | Ir. Architect | Gerechtsdeskundige | Restauratiearchitect | EPB verslaggever | 8000 Brugge | charlotte@dhollander.be0494/28.27.84

Fieldwork in Jordan in

cooperation with UNRWA

Internship in Gaza Camp, Jordan

 

Because of the lack of rights for refugees, high poverty rates and shortage in basic needs in camps such as water, food and healthcare, architecture and urban design are commonly considered as less relevant and rarely get priority. Although this is an understandable point of view, it does not make it a right one.
In the following work we will try to clarify how architecture and urban design have an irreplaceable importance in the development of camps and their communities. They are a primary tool to help improve the life of Palestinian refugees in their homes of exile, without necessarily having to interfere with their right of return. We have come to understand that architecture and urban design can set in motion many aspects, apart from the improvement of the physical environment. The process of design activates the community and helps in starting up debates between various stakeholders that are not always that easy to get around the table for discussion. Designing the physical environment also draws the attention to the importance of common space in a camp, to its strength and potentials and to the feasible and creative solutions for its problems. Furthermore it has been very clear how design can reinforce the identity of the refugees (far from home, with now only a narrated memory of it), how it can clarify the notion of the common and how it can establish a sense of responsibility towards the camp and the spaces that are nobody’s.

Wednesday 14th of August 2013, our first time in the camp. We had been in the country for several days, but concerning the camp, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. Up till then, we only had a small theoretical background about refugees and camps from a preliminary literature study. Where would we end up? Who would we meet? How would we experience that? How ‘should’ we feel? Was is permitted to be excited when going to a place like a refugee camp?

 

A white UNRWA minibus drove us in 45 minutes from Amman, past Jerash city, to Gaza camp. Ismae’l pointed out the camp from a certain distance. What we saw, wasn’t at all what we had expected. Before us lay an urban artifact amidst agently undulating landscape. The horizon revealed the presence of a forest in the distance, bathing in the pleasantly warm, morning sunlight. We had not expected to arrive in what seemed to be the greenest area we had seen in Jordan so far. A large mosque, on a ridge to the west, protruded from the camp’s fabric as if it were an intentional eyecatcher.

 

The road that took us all the way from Jerash to the camp, also turned out to be the main road leading to its inner centre. This struck us; no branch, no little side way, just a large road penetrating deep into the camp. The low-lying mainroad was embedded in what seemed to be a valley, flanked by an abundance of shops, workshops and concrete buildings clamping themselves on the hillsides. Everywhere you looked you could see men discussing, women carrying groceries, children running around, shopkeepers sitting on their doorstep, witnessing the passers by, ... Many stared at us, strangers among the crowd. We started questioning our presence. What are we, as a couple of graduate students, doing here? Isn’t this a form of educational tourism, or worse, disaster tourism? Reality kicked in when we were to leave the bus. No longer in our closed vehicle where you could just look, without ‘being-a-part-of ’, we found ourselves standing on a badly paved street, surrounded by strangers, and a lot of dust. We were really in the camp now. You could feel the heat becoming stifling, you could smell the melange of the open sewer and the fresh breads in the bakery, you could hear cars honking and boys screaming. At first sight, it all seemed like one big chaos... A great mistery and unseen spectacle to discover.