Starting over in Damascus with one bag of clothes and a tent after fleeing Palestine in 1967, Ibrahim al-Khalili built a life, a family and a business in the Yarmouk camp as it slowly grew from a refugee settlement to a neighborhood of the Syrian capital.
But this month, more than 50 years after arriving in Syria, al-Khalili was uprooted once again and evacuated to the opposition-held north, leaving everything he worked so hard for behind him.
“The efforts of thousands of people disappeared in the war,” he tells Syria Directs Bahira al-Zarier from the north Aleppo city of Jarablus. “Our children are now passing the same lives that they had in the camps on to their children.”
The Yarmouk camp, held by the Islamic State for the past three years, is part of a larger section of south Damascus that Syrian government forces first encircled in 2013.
In April, government forces launched an intense military campaign to retake the camp, sending thousands of civilians fleeing to the neighboring, opposition-held towns of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm, the humanitarian news agency IRIN reported at the time. By the end of the month, the United Nations estimated that only 6,200 Palestinians remained in the embattled camp, once home to 150,000 people.
Then, in early May, the opposition factions controlling those three towns surrendered to the Syrian government and began to evacuate under a Russian-brokered deal. Thousands of fighters and civilians chose to leave south Damascus as it returned to government control.
Al-Khalili and Abu Hussein, another Yarmouk resident who fled the camp for Yalda in April, were among the evacuees, living another experience of displacement decades after fleeing Palestine.
“For me there was no difference between leaving my home in Palestine and leaving my home in the Yarmouk camp,” Abu Hussein tells Syria Direct’s Amjad Alhawamdeh. “It was difficult leaving my homeland twice.”
A convoy of evacuees from south Damascus in northern Aleppo province on May 11. Photo by George Ourfalian/AFP
Ibrahim al-Khalili, 67, is originally from Hebron. He owned a clothes shop in Yarmouk but left for neighboring Yalda in April and then evacuated with his children to opposition-held Jarablus in Aleppo province. He asked to be identified by a pseudonym because he still has family in Yalda and fears for their safety.
Q: Can you tell us about your experience leaving Palestine for Syria and building a life in Yarmouk?
I was 16 years old, maybe a little older, when we fled to Damascus in early 1967. My father feared for our safety, and he told us: ‘Let’s go to Damascus for a few days and then come back.’ We only took one bag with us, for our clothes.
At first, we lived in a tent in Yarmouk camp. After some time, we moved to a shack. There was no sanitation or plumbing، and we had to carry water [from the wells to our houses].
We thought of returning to Palestine every day.
My father opened a small shop where he would sit with my brothers and me. The years went on and life continued, filled with challenges but also happiness. My father died after ten years in the camp, and we buried him in Damascus.
As the days sped by, the situation improved for everyone. We adapted. People built homes and bought shops, and the camp became filled with buildings. We had property rights and [Syrian] identity cards. We married, we had children, we raised them and taught them.
We built lives in Syria, but we always thought of returning to Palestine, and continued to remember our lives there.
The war threatened everything we had built and destroyed our hope of security or stability.
Q: As an elderly man ineligible for military service, why did you choose to evacuate Yalda for Jarablus?
I left because I am old. My wife died in Yarmouk—she had kidney failure and died because there was no medical care in the camp.
My heart was shattered. I stayed in Yarmouk and didn’t leave until the last bullet, so that I wouldn’t live a life of displacement again. But this was what God willed.
All my children left Yarmouk for Jarablus, and they insisted that I leave with them. They wouldn’t accept my staying in Yalda.
I left Yarmouk after I saw all the destruction to the homes we had worked so hard to build. I saw with my own eyes how the efforts of thousands of people disappeared in the war, leaving us to return to the same suffering. What did we do to deserve this?
Maybe us Palestinians are destined to remain homeless, displaced without a future.
Q: How would you compare your current displacement from Yarmouk camp to Jarablus with your displacement from Palestine in 1967?
Both times, we left our homes and lost everything we had built before emigrating to the camps. Life in the camps is similar, too: Children live in tents in the wilderness, [humanitarian] organizations give us aid and it is difficult to get anything. Our children are now passing the same lives that they had in the camps on to their children.
What’s similar is how everyone here has a hope of returning. Everyone talks about how many days [it will be] before Bashar leaves and we return.
And, just like when we fled Palestine, the whole world is watching silently.
Q: What are some differences between the two displacements you experienced?
There is a big difference. In Palestine, the Jews came and took our homeland because they didn’t have one. But with Bashar, this is his homeland and he destroyed it. He brought in the occupiers—the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks—because he wanted to remain president.
We abandoned Yarmouk and fled to Yalda because we feared for our lives, and we fled Yalda and came here by our own will. In Palestine, no one gave us the choice of staying or leaving, so there was hope of return. But this time we were given a choice [by the government], so I believe it has become impossible for us to return.
[Otherwise] the only difference is the time and place. History is repeating itself, and only the sides [of the conflict] are different.
Q: So you do not have hope of returning to Yarmouk camp?
I put my faith in God, but after seeing what happened in Yarmouk, and comparing it to what happened in Palestine, I have the same chance of returning to Yarmouk camp as I do of returning to Palestine itself: It’s impossible. I have no hope that we will return—not even one percent. We Palestinians and our Syrian brothers are in the same situation, both fleeing the same set of circumstances. May God watch over us all.
Abu Hussein, 69, is originally from the Palestinian village of Biyar Addas. He left Yarmouk camp in April and was evacuated from south Damascus to Idlib on May 6. He worked as an Arabic teacher at an UNRWA school in Yarmouk but retired seven years ago.
Q: Can you tell us about the day you left Palestine?
I left my homeland, Palestine, in 1967 after the Israeli occupation of my village, Biyar Addas, 25 km northeast of Jaffa. I was 17 years old back then, and I remember how the settlers and the Israeli occupation soldiers would come to our house every night and shoot around, breaking the windows.
Once, my father left the house to buy groceries, and a group of settlers were standing in our yard waiting for him. They showered him with beatings and phrases that I didn’t understand the meaning of but which still echo in my mind.
I went out with my brother to push them away from my father, so they beat us up until I passed out.
I woke up as my mother was wiping blood off of my face, and I heard my father say that we had to leave that night, [because] ‘Palestine is no longer ours.’ My father rented a car, and we filled it with some of our furniture. That night, we drove for around eight hours, and I passed out because of the continuing bleeding from my head. I woke up in a Syrian hospital. Three days later, I got out and went to our new home in the Yarmouk camp.
I kept thinking of returning to Palestine, to our house, which I won’t forget the details of, despite my young age back then. The streets of our neighborhood are still in my mind.
The moment we left Palestine was a moment of death for me and my family.
Residents flee Yarmouk camp on Monday. Photo courtesy of Al Yarmouk Camp (Qalb Alhadth)
Q: How was life as a Palestinian in Yarmouk before the war?
Before the war, I taught Arabic at one of the UNRWA schools in the camp. Like any other Syrian in this country, I looked for ways to cover my basic needs and secure a decent life for my children.
The Yarmouk camp was my second homeland, and I got used to living there, with my wife and children, for 60 years. During all of those years, the hope of returning to Palestine faded for me, but I planted this hope in my children.
There are many stories of how the Assad regime tried to discriminate between Palestinians and Syrians. But the Syrian people knew this, and the Syrians and Palestinians living in the camps were like brothers.
We lived through the siege together, and we bled together.
After the past seven years of siege and killing in the Yarmouk camp, the only thing I cared about was getting out of the camp. I no longer thought of returning to Palestine. But hope remains for my sons.
Q: Why did you choose to leave Yarmouk and evacuate to Idlib?
When the Syrian revolution began, we demonstrated peacefully against the Assad regime. I would go out to demonstrations with my three sons, Mustafa, Omar and Hussein, calling for the regime to fall.
Just as we faced the crimes of Assad and the militias of Ahmad Jibril [Ed.: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), a pro-government, Palestinian militia], so too did we face the crimes of Daesh [IS], who controlled the camp for the past [three] years. We were destined to [face] death wherever we went. The camp was subject to an intense siege. We could not find so much as a loaf of bread in the camp.
Then, the siege intensified and the regime started the last military operation [in mid-April] to gain control over the Yarmouk camp. We heard about a possible evacuation agreement in the neighboring towns of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm for those who wanted to leave for the north. I quickly agreed to this, despite my experience with the bitterness of displacement. It was the only option that I had. There was nothing in Yarmouk other than waiting to die.
Had I stayed in the camp until the government seized control, my children and I would have be killed. Autocratic regimes don’t forget those who revolt against them.
Q: How would you compare leaving Palestine with leaving the Yarmouk camp?
Palestine is the country I was born in, and Syria is my second country, where I lived my whole life. Our identity is Palestinian, but we are a part of the Syrian people, who welcomed us throughout the decades that passed. For me there was no difference between leaving my home in Palestine and leaving my home in the Yarmouk camp. It was difficult leaving my homeland twice.