The political and social evolution of Dheisheh has been inscribed in its urban form. Dheisheh is no longer made of tents. It is a completely original urban structure that has been assembled and developed by necessity and through the creativity of its inhabitants. Simple architectural transformation from opening a new window to fixing the roof carry huge political implications. Spatial practices have taken the form of rituals and architectural realizations, expressions of rebellion and necessary adaptations to the present reality. They oscillate between pragmatic solutions for a congested space and visionary celebration of an idealized past. These interventions, more or less unconsciously represent a will to reproduce the spatial qualities and characteristics of the refugees’ villages of origin; they constitute stubborn and spontaneous acts of preservation. Individual homes contain traces of historical moments in the wider evolution of the camp and Palestine as a whole, and a series of collective buildings challenge the stereotype of the refugee camp as solely a site of marginalization, subjugation, and poverty.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established on December 8, 1949 by the UN General Assembly. Resolution 302 (IV) determined that the Red Cross would continue its work of providing basic services to refugees until March 1950, after which point UNRWA would take responsibility for humanitarian assistance to the then-700,000 Palestinian refugees. As time drew on and Palestinian refugees were still unable to return to their villages, the tents and plans they were originally placed in became ill suited for continuing occupation. By necessity, families begun modifying their environment for sustained inhabitation, such as digging channels around their tents to prevent their floors from turning to mud as the cold winter rain came.
In 1951, UNRWA began constructing more solid housing units commonly referred to in the camps as “shelter rooms.” Each family was given one room whose size was determined based on the number of family members living within it to a rule of 1m² per person. Single-room shelters were built for single mothers or single women who remained alone after the war. Huts ranged in size from 3x3m² to 3x5m² and tended to have an internal division to create the effect of two rooms. They were located adjacent to one another and every fifteen shared one bathroom. From 1955–1964, with over 470,000 persons receiving assistance by the shelter program, camps begun to assume a form and organizational logic very different from how they started. Yet the shelters were built to serve a maximum of five years, and many more went by without a political solution.
Refugees were thus forced to adapt again to the circumstances in which they found themselves and began developing self-built structures. A significant factor in the emergence of this type of construction was that camps were placed near urban centers, which facilitated economic opportunity and exchange. In the early 1960s, UNRWA directors began to discuss the fact that the camps were growing out of control and beginning to resemble slums. As a result, an attempt was made not to forbid but to control refugee self-built housing. The shelter-based program was closed in the 1960s and replaced with a self-help program, which would provide building materials and monetary assistance to refugees instead.
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