On Wednesday 15 March 2017, Samar Maqusi, Prof. Murray Fraser (both of UCL-Bartlett School of Architecture) and Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (UCL-Geography and Refugee Hosts PI) convened a symposium on Space of Refuge. The symposium drew heavily on Maqusi’s PhD research in Jordan and Lebanon, enabling a conversation around the roles that space and scale play in determining the opportunities and challenges afforded to displaced people in local, everyday contexts. The insights shared and developed throughout the symposium and the related spatial installation are of great significance to the Refugee Hosts project’s investigation into local community responses to conflict-induced displacement from Syria. In particular, conversations relating to the protracted and overlapping nature of displacement, and the ways in which this is both inscribed  spatially into, and productive of, camps and cities, will continue to be important as we carry out research with/in nine local communities hosting refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. You can listen to parts of the symposium by clicking play on the media players within this report.

By Shelley Angelie Saggar

Stemming from Samar Maqusi’s eponymous research and spatial installation, the ‘Space of Refuge’ symposium took place at the P21 Gallery in Somer’s Town on the 15th March 2017. Supported by UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies, the Refuge in a Moving World research network and UCL’s Grand Challenges programme, the installation and symposium focused on the specificities of the Palestinian refugee crisis to expand an urgent discussion of the idea of ‘refuge’ in a violent and fragmented world. In a year that marks 100 years since the Balfour declaration, 70 years since the signing of the UN Partition Plan, 69 years since the Nakba and 10 years since the siege of Gaza, the focus on the Palestinian context highlighted the ongoing urgency of those victims of history whose protracted displacement has left them lacking political will and any just solution. After introducing the audience to the project, Samar Maqusi guided us through the original designs for the refugee camps as they were first envisioned in the 1940s through to the labyrinthine warrens of today. Most striking was Samar’s great wooden structure that represented a scale model of one of the camp passageways in Burj al-Barajneh camp (in southern Beirut). First installed by Samar in the camps in Jordan and Lebanon themselves, Maqusi’s installation placed a tangible emphasis on the ‘lines and scales’ of the camps, offering a hitherto neglected spatial perspective to the field of refugee studies.


Introducing the Space of Refuge Installation: the map of London (in white, with the location of the P21 Gallery in blue) with Burj al-Barajneh camp ‘superimposed’ (in grey), shows the camp’s alleyways that were reconstructed by Samar Maqusi to scale in the P21 Gallery for the Installation. (c) Ronan Glynn

Panel 1 brought together perspectives on departure as a point of rupture, repetition and resistance. Dr Elaine Chase, a sociologist at the Institute of Education, opened by talking through her research on young people’s experiences of seeking spaces of refuge. The longitudinal study concentrated on Afghan refugees who had claimed asylum as minors to reflect on the political and legal entanglements that continue to fail young people fleeing intolerable circumstances. We heard case-studies from participants who had been granted limited stays until the moment at which they ‘became-adult’ upon reaching their eighteenth birthday, at which point they were stripped of accommodation, left destitute and at risk of detention with little or no cognisance of the rights afforded to them. In this way, the study came to understand that for some, the very process of seeking refuge can become unsafe, leading many to disappear from the system, becoming invisible non-persons due to a lack of state registration.


Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh built on this by referring to both the hyper-visibility of some groups of displaced people, contrasted against the invisibility of others. This included the hyper-visibility of ‘new’ refugees fleeing ongoing conflicts in the present, as opposed to ‘established’ refugees whose protracted displacement has rendered them increasingly invisible (even inconsequential) to the international community. To remedy this process, Elena’s research is exploring the ways in which ‘new’ and ‘established’ refugees’ journeys can intersect, as is the case for ‘new’ refugees from Syria hosted by ‘protracted’ Palestinian refugees in Baddawi camp in Lebanon. Applying Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of processes and people ‘always-already being in the middle’ to processes of protracted displacement, Elena’s presentation expanded the idea of needing ‘space(s) of refuge’ to consider possibilities of refugees creating, making and sharing space by departing from discursive frameworks of host/guest relationships and moving towards the creation of convivial, collective communities.


Following on from this, Dr Romola Sanyal (LSE) turned the conversation to the representation of refuge in visual and material cultures. Working outwards from vignettes of simulated refugee experiences as curated by campaigning and advocacy collectives, Dr Sanyal considered the risk of managing affect through the aestheticisation of experience. This raised the question of how refuge can become both material and knowable, without being reduced to the purely aesthetic. Dr Sanyal also highlighted discourses of ‘humanisation’ that recur across humanitarian and artistic initiatives, problematizing the entanglements of the ‘human’, ‘humanitarian’, ‘citizen’ and refugees, who are often consigned outside these spheres due to bureaucratic invisibility or illegality. In moving towards a comparative framework, Dr Sanyal contrasted the 1947 partition of India and the Palestinian Nakba as two sites of continuous rupture in the early post-colonial period.


Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh in discussion with the audience during the Symposium’s first panel on the theme of ‘Departures’. (c) Samar Maqusi.

Panel 2 continued on from Dr Sanyal’s comparative framework to consider architectures of refuge in predominantly migrant market-spaces in Cape Town. Drawing upon bell hooks’ formulation of the ‘margin’ as a ‘site of possibility’, Huda Tayob (UCl-Bartlett School of Architecture) guided us through two case studies of different spaces of refuge in the city: Sekko’s Place and Som City. In carving out the market as a ‘space of Blackness’ within local geographies that are still coded as ‘White’, the irruptive possibility of these spaces of refuge caution against essentialising blackness as an automatic oppositional standpoint whilst simultaneously pointing to the productive openings of ‘the edge’ as a critical standpoint.


Dr Camillo Boano of the UCL-Bartlett School’s Development Planning Unit built on Tayob’s spatial reading of the migrant marketplace to consider a current space of political contention: the camp. Following Agamben’s positioning of the camp as the ‘fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West’, Dr Boano discussed the provocative capabilities of transcending to a ‘post-camp’ analytical frame, suggesting that ‘”camp-like” gestures outlive the camps themselves’, suggesting that our notion of ‘the camp’ as it pertains to the refugee context is a continually negotiated space that reveals an ultimate tension between cosmopolitan movement and containment.


Samar Maqusi rounded off the second panel by discussing her research and spatial installation in more detail. Discussing the deviations that refugees themselves have made in extending their allotted spaces, Maqusi suggested that this points to a form of ‘spatial violation’ that hints at a claim to space and therefore agency, resisting the strictly demarcated borders and boundaries of UNRWA-allocated space. These deliberate violations refer back to what Dr Boano identified as the need for a transformative move within the camps towards ownership, agency and action, thus suggesting the emergence of a post-camp movement within the camps themselves.


Samar Maqusi gives a tour of the installation (c) Ronan Glynn

Panel 3 was opened by Dr Estella Carpi, of UCL-Bartlett School’s Development Planning Unit and Save the Children’s Humanitarian Affairs Unit, who charted the changing nature and tone of humanitarian discourse in relation to refugee integration, resettlement and temporality. Whilst the shift away from narratives of ‘rescue’ has been welcomed by critical humanitarian scholars and practitioners, the dominant discourse of today has moved towards self-empowerment and self-reliance which ultimately re-inscribe ideologies of neoliberal individualism.


Dr Adam Ramadan (Birmingham University) closed the proceedings by discussing his work on the shifting temporalities of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Suggesting that the camps are a transient space ‘in but not of Lebanon’, Dr Ramadan positioned the camps as a permanent yet temporary landscape of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Returning to the idea of the ‘post-camp’, then, the endurance of the camp as a space keeps alive the neglected political demand of the refugees to return home.


The symposium closed with a short film screening made by Samar Maqusi and her colleagues during the first year of her research. Using a GoPro camera attached to both a bicycle and a motorized scooter, we were led through the narrow, twisting tunnels of the camps in Lebanon and Jordan. Following the film screening, we were fortunate enough to hear from Waleed Jum’ah and Mohammed Nabulsi, two participants in the research who had also collaborated on the production of the film. They offered their perspective on life in the camp, displacement and the carving out of a space of refuge by fostering solidarity and kinship between peoples.

Having been unable to secure a visa to join the Symposium in person, Waleed Jum’ah and Mohammad Nabulsi joined the Symposium from Baqa’a refugee camp (Jordan) via Skype (with simultaneous translation by Samar). Waleed and Mohammad had worked with Samar Maqusi on an earlier spatial installation in Baqa’a camp itself. (c) Ronan Glynn.

The most pertinent theme to come out of the day’s discussions was the issue of protraction and the potential of life beyond the materiality of the camp itself. However, whilst looking beyond the physicality of the camp-space, all the speakers emphasised the importance of refuting romanticisation by continuing to be attentive to the loss of rights, ownership and denial of agency that accompanies the temporary existence of camp life.

All in all, the installation and symposium provoked stimulating discussion and a will to action that defies the continuing trajectory of political inaction in relation to the refugee question. This commitment to inclusion and cooperative learning was embodied in the final Skype session with two residents of the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Lebanon. In actively listening to the experiences of those making space for themselves both inside and beyond the material confines of the camp the symposium was left mindful of the need to be attentive not only to critical frameworks and theory, but to local perspectives, inclusion and democratic participation – approaches that remain central to the methods deployed by the Refugee Hosts project.


Report written by  Shelley Angelie Saggar, who studied postcolonial literature and culture at the University of Leeds, specialising in disaster and posthuman impulses in refugee writing. She currently works in international aid and development with a focus on nuancing the NGO narrative. Photographs by (c) Ronan Glynn and (c) Samar Maqusi, and captions provided by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. For further photographs of the installation and the opening night, see here.  

The installation and symposium were kindly supported by UCL’s Grand Challenges, the UCL-Institute of Advanced Studies, and UCL’s Refuge in a Moving World.

Featured Image: closing panel discussions (c) Ronan Glynn.


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