How Palestinian refugee camps became a gathering place for dreamers

Decades of exile after a forced expulsion from their homeland has deepened a sense belonging for a people thrust together across borders

A Palestinian artist paints a mural at the Yarmuk refugee camp in the southern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus on November 2, 2022.
A Palestinian artist paints a mural at the Yarmuk refugee camp in the southern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus on November 2, 2022.

How Palestinian refugee camps became a gathering place for dreamers

Wars inevitably result in refugee problems. Conflict brings death, destruction, and a fundamental need for people to escape and save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Once peace is re-established, refugees have the right to return home. But the war that established the State of Israel in 1948 was different. The refugee exodus this conflict created was not an unintended consequence of the fighting — it was a deliberate aim of the war.

Palestinians were deliberately uprooted producing generations of refugees. This displacement was necessary for the State of Israel to establish itself and succeed.

Israel defied calls for Palestiniansto return to their homes, despite the passing of UN resolution 194 which called for the return of refugees.

A homeland disappears

Palestinians expelled by Israel were left stateless. The land they once called home was now occupied by Israel, and the remaining parts of it were under the control of Jordan and Egypt.

In this file photo released on September 15, 1948, Palestinian refugees return to their village after its surrender during the 1948 Arab war against the proclamation of the Israeli State.

The Palestinians became refugees in neighbouring countries and even in their own country, which disappeared from the political map. This displacement raised existential questions about their individual and collective identity.

The Palestinians became refugees in neighbouring countries and even in their own country, which disappeared from the political map. This displacement raised existential questions about their individual and collective identity.

Do they still constitute a national group even though they live outside of their homeland? What unites them? Do they still have a shared sense of nationhood and culture? 

The experience of displacement has scarred Palestinians individually and collectively, but their sense of belonging to their homeland has not waned. They do not live there, but they still feel a connection to the land they were forced to leave behind.

The Palestinian dream survives

The hope of regaining what was lost is the Palestinian dream that sustains them, despite the calamities they have endured in their modern history.

Over the past few decades, the Palestinians living in neighbouring countries have faced reminders that they do not belong there. This has made it difficult for them to assimilate into their new surroundings.

Host countries have pushed back against integration, establishing Palestinian refugee camps, which have taken on various forms and continue to exist today.

The experience of displacement has reshaped the Palestinian identity. Palestinians feel like strangers in neighbouring countries, awaiting their chance to return.

A new culture has been created as this dream of a return remains unfulfilled. Their new dwellings — which were supposed to be temporary — have become permanent, but their sense of permanence has not developed.

And so, over time, this feeling of exile has deepened, moving from individual feelings of exile to a collective feeling.  

Palestinians have not only started to put down roots in their new homes, but they have also started to be born there.

Palestinian children stage a sit-in to mark "Land Day" at the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain Al-Hilweh near the southern Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, March 31, 2008.

The exile has lasted so long, the nature of the communities scattered into neighbouring countries has been shaped by it. Their sense of identity has been reinvented by the fragmentation caused by the dispersal of the population.

When their homeland disappeared, the Palestinians had to establish a substitute for their stolen homeland. They did this through a variety of means, including the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and a vibrant cultural and intellectual movement.

Read more: Fatah's rich legacy sullied by its failures

Uprooted and scattered, Palestinians were forced to replace a sense of identity from geography with imagination. They sought to recreate Palestine in their places of refuge. This creativity not only helped save aspects of their stolen homeland from oblivion, but it also set the course of their collective future as a people.

The modern Palestinian community has established its national project in exile, transforming themselves from helpless victims to historical actors deserving of their rights.

Nonetheless, exile has been catastrophic.

Palestinians have lost full control over their lives, despite living in 'brotherly' Arab states. The conditions of their refuge differ, leading to envy between refugees in different places.

Displaced people in Lebanon, deprived of the right to work, envy those in Syria who have been granted the right to work. Similarly, refugees in Syria – who lack political rights and are only allowed to own one apartment provided they are married – envy those who have taken refuge in Jordan and have been granted citizenship and full political rights.

A collective bond                                              

The uprooting of the Palestinians has made them all-the-more determined to preserve their identity. Their determination to keep the memory of their stolen country alive, deepens their collective bond.

The uprooting of the Palestinians has made them all-the-more determined to preserve their identity. Their determination to keep the memory of their stolen country alive, deepens their collective bond.

The existential threat to Palestine has deepened the feeling of cultural belonging among its people, compared with other refugee experiences in the Arab world where the countries were not stolen.

When Palestinians lost their country, they tried to reinstate any semblance of familiarity. This is why neighbourhoods and shops found in refugee camps are named after Palestinian cities, villages and landmarks.

The small things in personal lives, such as photographs, clothes, and other items taken from their original place, started to take on deep and symbolic meanings. 

These practices in exile transformed into a collective identity. Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American professor, once said: "Exiles feel an urgent need to reconstitute their broken lives, usually by choosing to see themselves as part of a triumphant ideology or a restored people."

Forging a new identity

Supposedly temporary camps have housed consecutive generations of Palestinians, redefining the historical, social, and political structures of a people.

The idea of 'the Camp' has become the grand narrative of the Palestinian experience, not merely an interlude in their story, which is now one of endless exile.

The Camp is now like a second homeland — an extension of, or substitute for, Palestine. Now, Palestinians have a two-storey home: their present home, the Camp, and their rightful historical home, Palestine.

However, the Camp does not engender a sense of belonging to their host nations. They still wait to be reconnected to their stolen homeland, even if they were born in the camp.

In this picture taken on April 19, 2023 a young Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, walks beneath flags of Fatah and posters along an alley at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

The emergence of the modern Palestinian national identity — grounded in the experience of the refugee camps — was not born out of displacement from the homeland alone.

It was also a result of the success of the Zionist project to build the State of Israel on the ruins of Palestine.  This is why this collective identity has lasted for so long.

The Camp was integral to this new identity born out of catastrophe. It connected Palestinian refugees with Palestinians who remained in their homeland.

It was an identity that protested the Zionist project aimed at erasing the traces of Palestinian history and culture from the land. It stood up to Israeli attempts to rewrite history, replacing them with false narratives and changing the names of Palestinian places to Hebrew ones.  

This attempt to erase Palestinian identity has deepened the bond between Palestinians — whether in Palestine or in exile — in their collective fight against the erasure of their existence as a people.

Palestinians walk on a flooded street following heavy rain at the Al-Shati refugee camp in the Gaza strip on March 20, 2023.

A gathering for dreamers

The Syrian camp of Yarmouk, where I was born and lived most of my life, was a transient place, built by strangers on the outskirts of the city, imbued with a sense of victimhood.

Those who live here often deal with their surroundings in one of two ways — both extreme: either ignoring the place altogether or infusing it with their spirit, bringing the best of their previous experiences to give it a soul.

This explains the deep attachment some residents of the Camp feel towards the place they live, despite its bleakness. They don't see the misery of the place, but rather their own spirit reflected in it.

These strangers built a place that was open to the outside world because they were looking for others like themselves, not just to share the space with but to alleviate each other's pain.

Despite its narrow houses, the camp was connected to the neighbourhood, the city, the country, and the world.

The Camp was where they re-invented their identity when the dream of a return to their homeland never materialised. Despite all its flaws, the Camp became the site where Palestinians forged their identity.

In some ways, the Camp was a gathering place for dreamers who drew a homeland from memory and reinvented their identity in a foreign place.  They embraced this identity and launched a revolution under impossible circumstances.

The Camp was a gathering place for dreamers who drew a homeland from memory and reinvented their identity in a foreign place, launching a revolution under impossible circumstances

The Yarmouk camp tells a story of newfound love between strangers in a marginalised place. Its people rebuilt their Palestinian identity in this distant space, which was all they had, as they set up a new homeland of their own that moved around within the borders of other nations.

A picture shows the Palestinian Yarmuk camp on the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on October 27, 2021.

The strangers thrown together here all had a square plastic card issued to them by a new and oppressive authority, saying "Temporary Residency Card for Palestinian Refugees"— that status was to last longer than they thought.

Refugees gave birth to refugees, and all belonged to the catastrophe of 1948. Even those born in 2000 had the phrase "fled to Syria in 1948" written on their records. This real-life metaphor was loaded with meaning that transcends poetic equivalents.

Palestinians living there did not like the term refugee, but at the same time, they loved the term 'camp', even though they essentially mean the same thing.

The term refugee was associated with loss and pain of those who initially sought refuge. However, the term camp took on a more hopeful meaning— it was seen as a temporary transit to the lost paradise.

Palestinians didn't like the term refugee, but loved the term 'camp'. The term refugee was associated with loss and pain but the term camp took on a more hopeful meaning — it was seen as a temporary transit to the lost paradise.

Refugees, once more

Violence in Syria led to a fresh exodus from there. In the Camp in Yarmouk, Syrians and Palestinians walked together.

Soon afterwards, they carried their dreams in hastily tied bags of clothes for a new departure as the Palestinians of Yarmouk were displaced again, moving all over the world, searching for a new place, another camp where they could unpack their bags of unfulfilled dreams.

Some Palestinian refugees see their camps not as places of misery, but as places in which life can thrive with a strong collective and personal identity. That explains the nostalgia some Palestinians in exile in Europe feel for the Camp, even when it was a bleak home in Lebanon or Syria.

There was beauty in these places from the dreamers living there. When Palestinian refugees settle in neighbouring countries, they often face persecution and discrimination, but here, they retain their distinct Palestinian identity and a sense that they have a right to return home.

It can feel different in Europe. When Palestinians seek refuge there, they are often denied their Palestinian identity. Unlike other refugees who are attributed to a specific country, Palestinians sheltering here become stateless.

When my brother Ali – who was born in Palestine in 1938 –sought refuge in Switzerland in 2014 due to the Syrian conflict, the Swiss immigration investigator asked him about his place of birth.

When Ali answered "Palestine," the investigator asked if he meant Israel. Ali, angered by the question, replied that he was born in Palestine and that he was "10 years older than Israel."

After living in three different countries of refuge, I have learned that the experience of being a refugee becomes etched into one's soul. It is a mark that indicates that we are strangers — complete strangers.

Those who have not lived this experience cannot fully comprehend what it means and will always remain outsiders until the end of their lives.

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