Photo of group of six people dancing in the foreground and a sunny summer day at the University of Toronto pro-Palestine encampment in the background.
Dancing the Palestinian Dabke at the University of Toronto pro-Palestine encampment, June 16, 2024. Photo: Joshua Best.

A Space for Palestinians on Campus

The University of Toronto Palestinian solidarity encampment, or the People’s Circle for Palestine, was set up on May 2 at 4 a.m.

The kitchen was soon set up, consisting of two big canopies with tables. Adjacent to it is the kitchen salon.

The salon was started two weeks into the camp as a space for the kitchen team to rest between services. We learned very quickly that the salon was not serving its intended purpose; rather, it became one of the central spaces of political conversation in the circle.

Everyone is there debating on religion, politics, and even what a free Palestine will look like. Everyone shares stories about where they come from, their families, and — my personal favourite — why they ended up at the encampment. If there aren’t enough chairs people will find coolers or buckets to sit on to join the conversation.

As a Gazan student, it reminds me of home. The kitchen as a central focus of culture and conversation seems only right at a Palestinian solidarity encampment.

Though, it’s not just at the salon. It’s the library, the information tent, the entry gates to the camp, and all the various third spaces we created to foster these conversations, which often go on very late into the night.

I’ve been at this university for the past three years and I’ve been pretty limited in my engagement with other disciplines. I tend to speak to the same people who take the same classes as me. This is one of the first times that I feel myself engaging with the academic community here. I’ve witnessed people put their studies to use: engineering students have stopped our canopies from leaking when it rains, urban planning students organized the setup of our tents, and philosophy and humanities students created a beautiful library space and held reading circles. It feels as if we have taken our classes and put them into practice.

We were forced to create a mini-society in our efforts to maintain a camp, and in that, I’ve witnessed how every degree contributes to society. At the People’s Circle, we get to problem solve, be multidisciplinary, and we get to practise academic freedom.

I’ve met many students from McGill, McMaster and other universities who have come from their encampments. Our conversations happen during tours where we compare the layouts of our respective camps.

We trade stories about each camp’s internal politics and laugh when we hear how one of our eerily specific situations happened at their encampments too. It is powerful to know that people at different universities have thought up similar solutions to tactical or personal problems. It unites us and it brings me strength to keep going, especially since we have had to deal with an injunction case where the university is trying to get a court order for the police to forcibly remove us. McGill students have faced multiple injunction applications.

Being at the Circle is one of the only times on campus I have felt a Palestinian presence. This university has a habit of alienating Palestinians, especially in the last eight months.

Campers and guests being served food at the encampment on June 16, 2024. Photo: Joshua Best.

There is an active genocide going on and academic departments refuse to acknowledge it. I have watched my professors get more and more uncomfortable when people bring up Palestine. They act as if senior administrators will pop in at any time and fire them on the spot.

I have felt the need and the responsibility to bring up and centre Palestine during my classes. I am a student in the social sciences, and it felt so out of touch with reality to speak about other social movements while deliberately ignoring the Palestinian one. I wanted people to acknowledge and understand the weight of this genocide, but I was doing it in an unwelcoming space.

The Circle is the only place on campus where I feel we can talk about Palestine for what it is and what it can be.

There was a conversation I had late one night about my grandparents’ evacuation from Gaza in November 2023, and what it’s been like being a Palestinian in the West over the last months. I knew I could share that story and not be worried about watering down something so vulnerable. I knew that the story would be understood with all its weight without having to over-explain every detail and every emotion. I didn’t have to prove to people that this was a story of suffering. I was talking to people who I had not known before this camp but I knew I was safe to do it.

The Circle has been a place of healing for the Palestinian community on this campus.

One day I will return to Gaza, and when I do, nearly everything that my family knows of Gaza will have been destroyed. I will return to rebuild. Although it will never compare, I have never been with Palestinians the way I can be at the encampment. I have never felt closer to my homeland than in the encampment.

NOTE: This author is using a pseudonym to protect their own safety and that of their family.

This article appeared in the 2024 Summer issue.