Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2015, pp. 58-59
Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Before and After the Civil War
The Palestine Center in Washington, DC hosted a June 22 panel to discuss the current state of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Both panelists were born and raised in Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp: Nidal Bitari founded the Palestinian Association of Human Rights in Syria, and Wesam Sabaaneh is founder and director of the Jafra Foundation, which focuses on the youth and development in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.
When Americans think of refugee camps, they often think of tents, explained Bitari, now senior programs manager for the organization People Demand Change. This was not the case in Yarmouk or the 11 other Syrian camps which were home to the 500,000 Palestinian refugees who fled during the 1948 Nakba and subsequent wars. These camps were the hubs of Palestinian heritage, a source of amazing culture, according to Bitari.
Before the Syrian civil war there were more than 800,000 people living in the largest camp, Yarmouk, only 160,000 of them Palestinians, according to Bitari. It had a thriving middle class population and was dubbed “the capital of the diaspora.” In fact, according to Bitari, Yarmouk had the greatest number of highly educated Palestinian refugees and was the headquarters for diaspora Palestinian civil society until the Yarmouk Camp crisis began in December 2012.
Today, about 18,000 people live in Yarmouk, which is under the control of ISIS. Ever since the bloody civil war began in 2011, the Syrian government, specifically the foreign minister, has targeted Palestinian refugee camps, according to both Bitari and Sabaaneh. The majority of camps in Syria have been completely destroyed, with possibly only two or three functioning camps left, Bitari said. He described a major camp near Aleppo where “there is not one Palestinian left.” If this continues, Bitari warned, it will be the end of Palestinian refugees, their rights, and their culture in Syria.
“We feel that there are some Israeli fingers in the camp,” Bitari said. “I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy theory or something, but we feel it since the Syria crisis started! Twelve camps inside of Syria, the majority [of them] are completely destroyed...Until now, we don’t know why both sides, the regime and opposition, are targeting these camps. We feel that they want to erase the camps for good, geographically, I mean.”
Refugees in the Yarmouk camp have been living under siege for more than two years, he reported, trapped between pro-Assad and opposition forces. There is nowhere to flee, Bitari explained, because Jordan and Lebanon have closed their borders to Palestinian refugees, and Egyptian authorities have detained hundreds of Palestinian refugees in the Karmouz prison in Alexandria.
Europe has given Palestinians humanitarian asylum, especially Germany and Sweden. “The Yarmouk camp was completely transferred from Damascus to Sweden,” Bitari said.
Many Syrian refugees have tried to reach Europe by sailing in “boats of death” across the Mediterranean, affirmed Sabaaneh. Refugees, who typically pay thousands of dollars for the dangerous journey, have a 50 percent chance of dying at sea, he continued. It is believed that 7,250 Palestinians refugees have died in these boats, Bitari added.
Sabaaneh’s Jafra Foundation works in five different areas in Syria trying to provide waste management, education for 13,000 children, and food distribution and hygiene aid to more than 3,000 families a month. Describing the deplorable conditions in Yarmouk, Sabaaneh said that there is no medicine, electricity, education, garbage collection, or sewage system. Hundreds of people, mainly children and the elderly, have died of malnutrition.
After a year without water, residents of Yarmouk have to travel more than two hours, risking death from sniper fire, to receive a gallon of water that does not even meet acceptable drinking standards. “I know children in Yarmouk camp who are three years old. They’ve never seen a banana. They’ve never seen a chicken,” Sabaaneh said. “I saw a child one month ago and gave him a banana. ‘What is this?’ he asked me.”
The situation in Yarmouk is indescribable, declared Sabaaneh. The reality is much too difficult and horrible for words, photos or even videos to convey. It is “inhumane, unfair, and unjust” and a shame for the international community, Arabic countries, and Palestinians everywhere.
Audience members asked the panelists how they could provide assistance to Yarmouk and the other camps. Besides providing donations, Sabaaneh replied, advocacy is greatly needed. Tell everyone you know about what is happening to Palestinian refugees in Syria, he urged: “Raise the voice [of the Palestinian refugees].”