SYRIA'S PALESTINIANS

A NEW NAKBA

For San’a, it was the the smell of smashed brick-dust that never went away. Abu
Shadi was separated from loved-ones by borders that none of them could cross,
like his descendants from Palestine. Jihad E. crossed the sea after fleeing Syria’s
notorious security apparatus that had already claimed the lives of some of his
friends. Nawar heard that jihadists were coming. Lu’oy stood next to his friend
as a progovernment sniper shot him through the leg. Displaced once before from
Palestine in 1948, 71-year-old Um Mazen left the coffee-pot on the stove at the
sound of opposition fighters entering her neighbourhood for the first time.

Of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees residing in Syria (PRS) on the eve of the 2011 uprising, the majority have been displaced internally or outside the country. There are countless reasons why hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have left their homes since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. But all too often, PRS experience similar vulnerabilities, challenges and denial of basic rights as a result of their pre-existing refugee status and statelessness. This precarious situation begins with their displacement but affects almost every stage of their search for refuge afterwards.

This report follows those journeys—step-by-step, chapter-by-chapter—to document those experiences. Each chapter begins with testimonies from refugees, in blue text, that explore some of the key themes mentioned in the subsequent chapter.

Sana’a, 24, is a Palestinian from Yarmouk who fled Syria in 2012. After her displacement, Sana’a would eventually cross the borders of 14 countries—encountering immigration and arbitrary detention, deportations more than once as well as the risks of irregular migration.

It was Ramadan, August 2012.

We were all sitting at home waiting for the call to prayer. Our home had a terrace on the top floor. We heard a big sound, like 30 minutes before the call to prayer, and everyone went downstairs. The camp is quite small so everyone heard the sound and went down to see what was happening. A missile had landed on the home of our neighbours living across the street—and we lived in Jou’neh Street, in the same neighbourhood—so everyone went down to see what happened. They knew that the missile landed on the last floor of the building… but then another missile landed on the same street, right in front of our house. There were a lot of bodies…a lot of people had died. This was the first time that this happened in Yarmouk, the war had not started in a lot of places at this point.

That’s how it started. [The regime] would drop bombs on the camp from time to time. Rather than fleeing from country to country, from then on we would move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, street to street. Jou’neh Street was targeted a lot…the Free Army was at the end of the street.

My grandmother’s house was on another street, so we used to go and stay with her. Back and forth, back and forth. A month, two months…I don’t know how it went on. But from August 2012 it started. That was the beginning when we started thinking there was danger and we had to leave.

One of those days, there was a rumour that the Alawites wanted to come to the camp and kill people. Everybody went down with weapons, like anything that could be used as a weapon, and all the guys would wait at the front-doors and wait in case someone came then they could defend themselves. It was a terrible time.

Otherwise there were bombings that brought up a lot of dust, because there’d been a lot of bombings around the camp. Whenever there was an explosion, there was this dust in the air, so we couldn’t bear to sit around. I still can’t forget it.

In the end, around November time…we decided to go to Khan Eshieh—my sister lived there, so we decided to stay with her. We went, but then bombings started there as well. In December, I decided—on my own— to leave Syria.

We went, but then bombings started there as well. In December, I decided—on my own—to leave Syria.

Abu Shadi fled Yarmouk camp, following the MiG strike of December 2012, for a Palestinian camp in Beirut, Lebanon. Speaking inside an apartment that has been his home for the past few years, Abu Shadi described the dislocation of his life since fleeing Syria, one that he saw as directly related to his descendants’ flight from Palestine.

It’s like 1948.

In 1948, the areas of Palestine near Lebanon or Syria, people went there; the areas near Jordan, people went to Jordan. Some Palestinians went to Iraq, because Iraqi soldiers took them there to protect them.

The problem for Palestinians in particular is that they’re banned from entering a lot of Arab countries. Now there was an agreement between Lebanon and Syria that Palestinians [from Syria] could enter on a week-long visa so a lot of people just came and stayed. That’s why they’re here.

I have relatives in Germany, Sweden, Turkey, Cyprus. As Palestinians, we’re forbidden from entering a lot of Arab countries, and we don’t have the same rights as refugees as Syrians.

We’d go to embassies or government departments to try and get visas for other countries, and they’d say: ‘Go to UNRWA.’

Then we’d go to UNRWA, and they’d say: ‘We’re not here to make you refugees, we’re here for education and so on.’

So, people had to escape—but not in a legal way. For Palestinians, the only route is smuggling. They take whatever route is open. I know lots of Palestinian-Syrians who travelled over the sea from Egypt to Italy. People started going through Sudan and through the deserts to Libya. Or from Turkey to Greece [as well].

So many young people have tried to migrate legally, and when they’ve gone to the airport the officers have seen their visa is expired and so they’ve taken them immediately to the borders and put them back in Syria. A lot of people, because they’re PRS, weren’t allowed to come in anyway so they entered unofficially and now they’re here illegally.

So Palestinian-Syrians could’t leave Lebanon, and they couldn’t go back to Syria. So some of them decided to try and leave by the sea on the boats to Europe.

I can’t see my daughter—she’s in Damascus— and she can’t come here. She was an UNRWA employee when we left [Syria], and she was engaged to someone. He told her just to stay in Syria because she had a job. They got married, but now her husband has gone to Germany via Aleppo and Turkey. So she can’t come, and I can’t go there, so now she’s just on her own in Damascus.

So, people had to escape—but not in a legal way. For Palestinians, the only route is smuggling. They take whatever route is open.

Ali was a teenager in Yarmouk when he fled, the day after the December 16, 2012 MiG strike on the camp. He and his family reached Egypt shortly afterwards, pushed towards irregular migration because of the endemic protection gaps and few options they found there.

As I remember, I was staying in my brother’s house. It was really far from the airstrike, but I remember the windows went crazy—like in and out, as if the glass was going to break—and we went out into the street. I thought it was like a bomb or something, not that a MiG or a missile had hit.

We fled the next day, when there were a lot of people pouring out of the camp. [After days looking for somewhere to stay], my father decided… he said literally, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to Egypt for a month. Everything will be settled down in the camp and then we’ll come back.’

But that’s not how it went. That month turned into three years. And I never saw the camp again. […]

One of my brothers tried to go by the sea. But it didn’t work out because he was caught by the Egyptian coastguard, and he was locked up for a week or something. He got deported to Lebanon because he told them, ‘I can’t go to Syria because I have the military service,’ so they decided to deport him to Lebanon. He went to Ain Hilweh for a couple of months, then went to Libya. After that he got to Italy…then Germany, then Sweden. The normal trip.

While he was doing that, we decided to try the same way. […]

The last year in Egypt was like hell, I was always nervous and scared about being deported to Syria because I had no protection. If UNRWA had a real office in Cairo, and helped me to get protection, then I wouldn’t have had
to travel all over the world to find a place to stay.

The last year in Egypt was like hell, I was always nervous and scared about being deported to Syria because I had no protection.