Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Before and after the Civil War

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Before and after the Civil War

Article excerpt

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. …

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