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Symbolic Palestinian Refugee Camp Built on US University Campus - 2003-04-16

A group of students at a university near Washington, D.C. is hosting what they call a "Week of Awareness for Refugees of Palestine." Events during the week, held at the University of Maryland campus, include an art exhibition, music concerts and a film festival. But the centerpiece of the week is a Palestinian refugee camp constructed in a high traffic area in the middle of the campus.

The refugee camp is impossible to ignore.

"Basically we have four huts constructed of wood, and the four huts are about 4 feet [1 meter] deep and eight feet [2.5 meters] tall," said Sami Meaddi, 18, a freshman at the school who has spent a lot of time at the refugee camp. "It pretty much simulates what refugee camps are like. Some of them leak, and they are very cold at night."

Although born in the United States, his parents are Palestinian, and he is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, the group that built the refugee camp on campus.

"There are groups across the D.C. area and all across the country, where students have similar campaigns," he said. "So, we are just one of many groups. There are roughly 30 members in our group, and less than half of them are Arabs. From those who are Arabs, maybe half of them are Palestinians. Five of the 30 are graduate students; the rest are undergraduate students. So, it is a very diverse group, which helps us a lot."

Denise Odie, one of the members of the group who is not Arab, said her family is originally from South America. She said the Palestinian issue "is part of the political strata there. Therefore, I have been always interested in world affairs. It is just a huge issue that any conscious person cannot ignore, and since I am a politically conscious person, I have gotten involved."

Both Ms. Odi and Mr. Meaddi say the university supported the construction of the camp, which is surrounded with information displays, articles and lists statistics about Palestinian refugee camps. The main focus of the camp is a huge wall, nine meters long and 2.5 meters high.

"It is called 'The Israel's apartheid wall.' Israel is currently building one throughout the West Bank and it is almost going to serve the same function as the Berlin Wall," said Mr. Meaddi. "We want people to see it and feel the impact. Basically our goal is for people to come and for them to hear our viewpoint. We have had great success so far in doing that. There have been some people who labeled us terrorists and things like that, but they are very few people. We are here in peace, presenting our information. And people can do what they please."

An informal polling of students at the site about how they view the construction of the refugee camp on campus, resulted in responses ranging from full support to full opposition. And there were some who remained undecided.

"Well, I do not know. To be honest, I am not sure," said one student.

Another said,"I really try to learn and educate myself about world issues to know what is going on. I think people really need to get information from a lot of different sources just to get a balanced picture of what is going on."

A third student said, "I think stuff like this is important, because no matter where we were born you deserve certain things in order to develop your brain, because that's what makes you human."

Mollie, 19, a sophomore at the university has a different opinion. "I personally do not agree with what they are doing," she said. "I am myself a Jewish person, and I feel they should not be working against the Israelis. I feel people have very different opinions about everything and people see it in their own way. There are three sides of every story; yours, mine, and the truth. And no one really has the truth."

Ms. Odie says not all the Jewish students at the University of Maryland feel the same way. "We have gotten responses from Jewish students and it has been very supportive. Just yesterday one Jew student told me 'in my Jewish community I've tried to be a voice for justice in Palestine'. He is actually a member of OSA, the Organization of Arab students."

The "Week of Awareness for Refugees of Palestine" was scheduled to end last Friday at the university, but was extended through this week due to inclement weather. Along with the refugee camp, a mock graveyard has been constructed to symbolize what organizers say are all the Palestinian and Israeli children whose lives have been taken by violence over the last few years.