Abou Omar looks skinnier than the last time I saw him in Damascus. His trembling voice is filled with sadness as he tells me about the harsh and emotional experiences he is been through in the last several months. “I can’t put into words how I feel; I dedicate Abu Arab’s [poem] to all Palestinian refugees around the globe,” he says, reciting the late revolutionary poet and Palestinian refugee who lived in the Syrian city of Homs.
O mulberry of home, be patient with life if it oppresses youWe’ll certainty be back no matter how long the journey isO sea, be calm, we’ve been away for a long time, pass my greetings to the country we’ve been brought up inPass along my love to the olive tree and to my family that raised me.And my caring mother still smells our pillow
Thirty-two-year-old Abou Omar and his parents were all born in Yarmouk, a refugee camp in Damascus established in 1957 as a temporary shelter but which later became a permanent home for them. There were once half a million residents inside the camp, the largest number of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Abou Omar has fond memories of growing up there.
“Every day I think of Youssef and Wael with whom I gathered regularly around an Arabic coffee pot in Yarmouk,” recalls Abou Omar. “Monastiraki, the Greek flea market here in the old town of Athens where you can get the similar regional delights like olives, cheese, baklava and delicious bread remind me strongly of home and the incredible bond we had with each other. We lived in Al-Quds street not far from the Masjid Filisteen [Palestine mosque].”
“Most of my family lived in Safad and Loubia street, named after the different Palestinian cities and villages that used to be home to the refugees… we had everything we needed, but now all 14 medical centres, schools, cafés and art galleries are destroyed. Every Yarmouk resident remembers Yarmouk as the city that never sleeps, the beating heart of Damascus.”
“Although we’re disconnected by distance we could smell the olive trees and hear the call to prayer from Al-Aqsa through tales and anecdotes from our grandparents who originally came from Haifa after they were expelled by Israel from historic Palestine in 1948,” he adds.
Abou Omar’s father, who is sixty, worked hard to ensure that his four children had a secure upbringing: “My father doesn’t know what happened to our house. It must have been turned to rubble by Assad’s barrel bombs, shells and air strikes… the other half of our family has disappeared, we don’t know if they’re dead or alive. My uncle is the only one who fled to Yalda, an area adjacent to Yarmouk. His wife was kidnapped two years ago, her fate is still unknown.”
“It was important for my dad that everyone was highly educated,” Abou Omar continues. “Palestinians have the lowest rate of illiteracy. I still remember that when it was raining bombs on the camp, it would rain books and pencils from the other side [from the] food parcels I spent distributing during my spare time.”
On 17 December 2012 a humanitarian disaster unfolded in the camp when Assad’s troops imposed a siege on the people living there. “Starvation was set as a weapon – food, running water, electricity and medical supplies were cut off to thousands of people. Journalists were either killed or arrested; the camp [became] isolated from the outside world. [My] father made the decision to leave the house on 18 December. On 2 January 2013 we attempted to return, but it became clear that this meant life or death for all of us.”
Assad’s strategy worked and 175 people starved to death so he imposed a siege on the cities of Madaya and Al-Zabadani as well. People begun to eat grass, says Abou Omar. Assad was not alone – the rebels, Daesh and other violent groups destroyed everything. People were beheaded, homes robbed and destroyed.
Most of the residents fled Yarmouk to neighbouring cities but some tried to get back to Palestine. “At the time of [Mohammed] Morsi some of our neighbours managed to go back to Gaza via Cairo but I’ve lost contact with them. Anyone who had contact with Palestine was seen by the government as a traitor and risked [being imprisoned.] Social media is monitored – for example, if you liked the page of [TV presenter and Arab Spring supporter] Faisal Al-Qassem on Facebook you could end up in prison or even killed.”
“Assad forces would forbid us to [go] out after an air strike to help wounded people, but we couldn’t care less,” he continues. “The government couldn’t stop us. We would continue to fight against injustice. We sacrificed ourselves to distribute food packages alongside international humanitarian aid organisations. But that came at a price; I got arrested in March last year and spent a month in prison. It is still hard for me to talk about that period, I’m still dealing with the unresolved trauma.”
Abou Omar was released on licence shortly afterwards but was advised by an officer to leave the country for his own safety. Despite his mother’s fears Abou Omar said that as a Palestinian he felt vulnerable: “We do not feel safe in the region, we cannot bear the repeated Nakba anymore.” That’s when he became one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have crossed the world’s deadliest border.
Abou Omar paid 250 euros to an officer and travelled with his sister through a Daesh stronghold where they were shot at by Turkish officers. Palestinian-Syrians are forbidden from crossing the border into the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq so they must cross Daesh-held or Kurdish territories, where they are shot at and mistaken for fighters.
As a Palestinian Abou Omar was deprived of his bag, mobile phone and forbidden from carrying US dollars or euros. Finding someone to take him across the sea was less difficult:
“Finding smugglers was easier than buying a bottle of water. However, the crossing was more difficult. I still wake up in the middle of the night hearing the sound of crying babies and mothers who did not make the crossing.”
Abou Omar has been in the Greek capital Athens for a year now; his sister has been granted asylum in Sweden and his two younger brothers sought refuge in Germany four years ago. His parents, who he communicates with via Whatsapp, are still trapped in Syria. He is grateful, but doesn’t feel quite at home:
“Home means drinking coffee with my family, enjoying freshly made bread with olives and hummus. Being at home means hugging my mother. Home means the soul of Palestine. We carry Palestine with us wherever we move. We don’t live in Palestine and we will probably never kiss it’s soil but Palestine lives in our heart until our last breath. That is home.”
“The darker the night, the deeper the grief,” he continues. “I struggle every day with the horrors of the war. I am now in a safe place but I still think of the people who are still there, I’m afraid I will never see my parents again. I’m very anxious, I’m worried about what will happen, or where I will go next, knowing that Greece is definitely not my last destination. Look at me, I am here and not there, I just have my UNRWA ID with me, I have no passport, I’m stateless. I’m exhausted and ill. I hope to be able to join my sister in Sweden soon and be reunited and hug my parents again.”
“My ultimate dream is to return to our homeland Palestine like any other Palestinian in exile and who inherited this dream from father to son and from mother to daughter. But for now we’re just seeking basic rights.”
Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman:
We haven’t had access to people from Yarmouk since May 2016 when we delivered assistance to them in Yalda, Bait Saham and Babila which are neighbouring areas. We haven’t had access to the camp itself since 2015 which is of course extremely worrying. We don’t know how many people are there, we don’t know what state they are in or the state of public health. The area is completely cut off to the UN.