A View from Syria on the Palestinian Right to Return
"We travel in the chariots of the Psalms, sleep in the tents of the prophets, and are born again in the language of Gypsies/Ours is a country of words: Talk. Talk/Let me see an end to this journey."
Mahmoud Darwish, "We Travel Like All People," from Fewer Roses, 1986
The 21st Century began as a world filled with war and refugees, words that can deaden one’s emotion. Occasional newspaper stories refer to refugee camps, the plight of refugees, and obscure issues like "the right of return." I, like most young people who become gradually insensitive to suffering when the words to describe it anesthetize rather than sensitize the reader, could not picture how refugees really lived, what their "camps" looked like and what the right of return actually meant.
Then I realized my own "right to return." I visited Syria, my father’s birthplace, in 2003. It took a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus to bring to my mind the agonized voice of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish-whose village of birth the Israeli Army destroyed in 1948: "we travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing" ("We Travel Like All People"). He captured the unresolved abyss of the weary-eyed, long-time inhabitants of Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East and their more energetic, but equally dejected offspring.
I returned home to a place where generations of my family had retained the culture and traditions; indeed, it showed me that there was merit in striving to maintain a "Syrian-American" life. It also dramatized the significance of Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the one that sanctions my freedom of movement. I admit this didn’t cross my mind while I visited the ancient Roman ruins at Bosra, south of the Jordan border, or drove past the Aleppo home where my mother grew up.
Then I visited the Jaramana refugee camp near Damascus, housing around 5,000 registered Palestinian refugees (of the total 500,000 that reside in Syria), mostly displaced after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars and some one thousand who fled southern Lebanon in 1982 following the Israeli invasion.
Instantly, the euphoria associated with returning to Syria to meet new relatives, savor syrupy baklava and carry on a conversation in Arabic disintegrated into shame. Shortly after I entered one of the country’s ten official camps, an elderly Palestinian woman originally from Jericho reminded me of how I took for granted what for her epitomizes the core of human patience: "we’re still waiting for a home of our own."
Rows of decaying "homes" slightly larger than the size of office cubicles lined the streets, juxtaposed by the newly constructed roads and oncoming traffic traversing the camp. The flurry of young children playing tag, teenage boys riding rusty bicycles down the cramped streets and the commanding shriek of babies channeled some brightness into Jaramana, a camp otherwise dominated by the grayish hues of the stone edifices and smoke emanating from the burnt trash.
An aging man with deep set, expressive eyes talked to me in front of his home. His covered wife and three children surrounded him, framed by light and dark shadows that invoked a Rembrandt portrait. "I’m from Hebron," he informed me. "I haven’t seen my brothers and sisters who had to stay behind since 1948. Other members of my family have already passed away."
"How do you expect me to feel?" Mohammed snapped. He paused, lit up a cigarette and then widened his eyes. "This separation makes me feel very angry and bitter."
Across the street, a middle-aged woman who wore a white hijab sat on the doorsteps of her residence to take advantage of the light breeze, a rare break from the sweltering July heat that felt exaggerated at the densely populated camp and that emphasized the prevailing scent of burnt trash, cigarettes and cooking oil. Her young daughter leaned against her and seemed pacified by the piece of candy that she quietly chewed. The mother managed to muster some optimism about being a Palestinian refugee in Syria. "Here, we live fine, but we’d be more comfortable living in our own homes," she said, alluding to the fact that Palestinians in Syria are still able to enjoy more or less the same rights as other Syrians, including attending schools and universities, competing for the same jobs and owning businesses. Jaramana’s residents, however, mainly find work as street sellers or in the informal sector, as drivers, cooks and domestic workers.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which provides education, healthcare, social services and emergency aid, 1.3 million of the over 4 million registered Palestinian refugees still live in 59 recognized refugee camps across the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In an early effort to respond to the Palestinian refugee crisis following the establishment of Israel, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 on December 11, 1948-a day after the world body approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations."
Article 11 of Resolution 194, likened by one Jaramana man as "the heart of our legal defense" despite its repeated rejection by Israel, declared that the Palestinian refugees "wishing to return to their homesshould be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property." Supplementing GA Resolution 194 and carrying the force of law, Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967 reaffirmed "the necessityfor achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem" (Article 2b), although the political will to do so on the part of Israel, the US government and other Middle East peace brokers still remains elusive.
"What’s the use of having international law on our side when it’s not upheld by the ruling powers?" questioned one man in his early 20s, wearing a traditional Islamic white robe and matching kufi (prayer cap). A small group of elderly men gathered around this new face of the 21st Century Palestinian refugee, some nodding in agreement and others looking wistfully at the impassioned young man whose generation would inherit their decades-long struggles for justice. "I’m just as cynical about the Roadmap peace process that your president supports. Will it allow me to return back to Palestine?" he chuckled. Certainly, the majority of refugees I met that day viewed the latest Roadmap initiative backed by the so-called Quartet (U.S., UN, EU and Russia) as an empty effort, so long as their "right to return" remained left off of the negotiating table and reduced to a "final status issue"-as obscurely phrased in the 1993-94 Oslo Accords and the stagnant Roadmap agreement.
As I departed the camp, I asked Ibrahim, a gray-haired refugee from the 1967 war selling colossal-sized watermelons, if he had a message for President Bush. "I’d like Bush to examine the Palestinians’ plight without spinning lies into truths and truths into lies. We are living in pain," he implored, raising his tired-looking hands into the air in vain.
Less than a year after my Jaramana visit and realization of my "right to return," President George W. Bush turned a blind eye to the refugees’ own dreams of returning back to their former homes and the international laws that protected their right, not to mention longstanding US policy. He declared in an April 14, 2004 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "a just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."
Complicating matters for Palestinian refugees, the continued Israeli settlements built throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip in violation of the Oslo Accords and the construction of a 650 kilometer long wall-declared "contrary to international law" by the World Court in July 2004-deviating from Israel’s 1967 Green Line border beg the same question that one despondent Jaramana refugee had contemplated, "in reality, would we ever return back to historic Palestine?" Indeed, upon completion of the wall itself, which Sharon has justified as a "means to assist in the war against terror," the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including around 1.5 million refugees, will live on only 12% of historic Palestine (Al Ahram, April 16, 2004).
After PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat died on November 11, the Palestinian refugee issue made a brief return to the newspaper headlines. On December 9, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and the new PLO chairman and presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas met with thousands of Palestinian refugees on a campaign-like visit to the Al-Rashidiah camp in southern Lebanon. Ahead of the January 9 Palestinian elections, Qurei reassured the crowd-who have no say in the upcoming election-that the post Arafat PLO leadership would "never abandon" their right to return, reported Agence France Presse.
This rhetoric flew in the face of more serious words by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a December 16 conference. Sharon, who has steadfastly refused to even open the right of return as an issue in the peace talks, nevertheless called 2005 "the year of a great historic opportunity" in the Middle East.
Addressing the Palestinians, Sharon simply lied. "We do not want to rule over you, or to run over your lives," the ‘man of peace’ said as Israeli troops continue to occupy Palestine and run Palestinians’ lives, such as by enforcing draconian checkpoints and according to the UN, demolishing at least 1,686 Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp during the past four years.
Palestinian leaders cannot address the right of return issue by themselves. Indeed, Arafat bore responsibility for sacrificing the right of return by signing the 1993 Oslo Accords. The ink on that document speaks louder than words to the disheartened refugees at Jaramana and their counterparts.
In September 2004, I again exercised my right to return to Syria. A middle-aged Palestinian man named Nabil, who worked as a driver for a well-to-do family, taught me how to use Damascus’ tricky version of a public transportation system. Like the other Syrians that I met, he relied on humor to deal with the daily realities of life, which I needed while we waited on a street curb under an unforgiving sun for the white microbus (a small van) to arrive. "Does it normally take this long for the bus to arrive?" I wondered aloud, after waiting for what seemed like an eternity. "Remember, we’re on Syrian time," he smiled. "The trick here is to be patient. Take it from me, I’m a Palestinian!" he joked, instantly reminding me of the Jaramana refugees that I had met a year earlier and their patient-defying wait to experience their own right to return.
Once we boarded the packed microbus, Nabil practiced the few words of English he knew to make us forget about the bumpy, stomach-churning ride through the mid-day traffic. "Welcome to Syria," he liked to declare, as the other passengers watched in amusement, followed up by "Have you questions?"
When I reached my stop, I thanked Nabil for helping me become more "Syrian" in his adopted home and not willing to reconcile with the improbable, assured him that I’d show him around California if he ever visited. "Sure," he winked, "I’ll take the first flight out from Palestine."
FARRAH HASSEN, a Political Science graduate from Cal Poly Pomona University, was the associate producer of the 2004 documentary, "Syria: Between Iraq & And A Hard Place," with Saul Landau. She recently spent 2 months working for the United Nations Development Programme in Syria. She can be reached at: FHuisClos1944@aol.com