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Finding my family in Yarmouk — then losing them again

Six decades after the Nakba forced us into different corners of the world, social networks allowed us to reconnect with our families and villages. In Yarmouk, I found the people I should have grown up around—the ones who looked like me and my immediate family. And then war broke out in Syria, Facebook went dark and people disappeared, once again. 

Gathered on Yarmouk Street, residents begin hurrying to reach the distribution point.’ (Photo by UNRWA)

Gathered on Yarmouk Street, residents begin hurrying to reach the distribution point.’ (Photo by UNRWA)

Those who do not have family members in Syria’s refugee camps can watch the atrocities taking place on the news from far away, as if it were all just one big Hollywood horror movie: one that causes deep anguish for just a few hours. But those who do have family and friends living on Haifa Street—the main road in Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp—or those who receive a photo of a body that looks an awful lot like an acquaintance of yours, the news coming out of Syria leaves a deep, psychological scar that is nearly impossible to deal with.

My parents, who were born when the State of Israel was founded, raised us on the backdrop of a story of refugees, the expulsion of the Palestinian people and the remains of a Galilee village that stand like a monument. Without photos, names or the residents themselves. We knew that most of our family is over there in Syria and Lebanon, and that we are here.

However, things have changed over the last few years due to social networks. I wasn’t the only one to discover those around whom I was supposed to grow up. I found relatives who are similar to my father, whose looks explain the shape of my nose or my late uncle’s full, straight hair. We got excited as we Skyped with people who told us all the latest stories and gossip. We learned who married whom; who found a Syrian wife who agreed to marry a Palestinian refugee; who is cheap and who cooks well; who studied medicine and who is the brilliant engineer. We learned that our village is alive and kicking in Syria.

Almost every Palestinian village destroyed in 1948 has its own Facebook group. The streets in Al-A’adin (“the returnees”) and Yarmouk are named after the different villages and cities that used to be home to the refugees: Tiberias, Haifa, Acre, Lubya, Al-Juwara and more. Our village even has its own women’s group on Facebook.

Read more: If only there was oil under Yarmouk

The Syrian Civil War erupted just as we began to build our virtual village and dream of our return. The horrifying battles have raged on for the past four years—four years of murder, kidnapping, Assad’s brutal thugs, his opponents and Syrian blood that keeps on spilling. Two years in which the Palestinian refugee camps were able to maintain “neutrality.” They are not part of the fighting, and that is what matters. They even told us that rebels had been hiding out in the camp, since it was safer there.

But slowly, Facebook went black and people disappeared from our screens. We breathlessly tracked the young ones who disappeared, before finding out that they were tortured, sometimes to death. Some returned, others didn’t. Some fled after their parents sold all their possessions to save their children, and waited until someone sent them a signal from anywhere in the world, letting them know that their children were safe.

As he fled from Syria on death boats that were supposed to take him to Greece, one of my cousins found himself swimming to an unknown country. He was caught by a gang of criminals in a Serbian forest who stole his money and clothing. They even took his shoes, he told us as he cried on the telephone, calling us from a police station to ask for a few dollars that would keep him alive. These kinds of stories are considered “success stories,” but they are nothing compared to the photos of victims and funerals, and this awful war whose end is nowhere in sight.

One of the most difficult descriptions of the situation in Yarmouk comes from a survivor who identifies as a Palestinian Syrian: “My feeling of helplessness is similar to someone sending you a video of your sister being gang-raped, and you insist on watching until the end. Perhaps the ending will include some kind of unexpected twist; maybe your sister will grow a pair of large wings and turn into a dragon that kills all of her rapists. That is how you know yourself, a Palestinian, a fictional tale, that is what they told you since you were a child. Always gamble on the off-chance you will turn into a brave monster that will destroy all your enemies and rapists. It’s time to erase that option from your thoughts.”

That is how I feel today, as a Palestinian who was previously opposed to describing the occupation as “rape” and Palestine as the woman. Today there is no better description as the women of Palestine and Syria are being raped every day by members of the Islamic State and others, while Yarmouk is being destroyed and attacked by everyone.

Yarmouk residents gathered to await a food distribution from UNRWA in January 2014. (Photo by UNRWA)

Yarmouk residents gathered to await a food distribution from UNRWA in January 2014. (Photo by UNRWA)

After Palestine survived the occupation of 1948 by a brutal army, most of the Palestinian people were spread out among neighboring countries. Some fled and settled in different parts of the world. We survived massacre after massacre: Black September in Jordan, Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, Nahr al-Bared, Balata, Gaza, Jenin. And now Yarmouk in Syria. And it doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter who is to blame or who started. And all this happens with the funding of Israel, the United States or Iran.

In these difficult times I remember how Sajara, an artist and sculptor from our village, sent me a photo of a wooden sculpture he made out of wood. The sculpture depicts a beautiful Palestinian woman who is hollow on the inside. “Everyone has bitten off a piece, until it is completely empty,” he explained to me. My eyes filled up with tears. “I want this statue,” I wrote in a text message. “It is under the rubble in the camp,” he responded, “When we are liberated and can return to our village, I will make one especially for you, Samah. I promise.”

I haven’t heard from him since.

Samah Salaime is a social worker, a director of AWC (Arab Women in the Center) in Lod/Lyd and a graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. She is a blogger for our Hebrew-language sister-site, Local Call, where this article was first published. Read it in Hebrew here and in Arabic here.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      BDS victory: Veolia sells off most of its Israeli business connections:


      Palestinian civil society activists have heralded the decision by French corporate giant Veolia to sell off nearly all of its business activity in Israel as a huge victory for the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The sale follows a worldwide campaign against the company’s role in illegal Israeli settlements that cost the firm billions of dollars of lost contracts.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Bruce try to stay on topic. Samah states:

        “Perhaps the ending will include some kind of unexpected twist.”

        The ending would have been different if it were not for Palestinian rejectionism of the UN’s and Israel’s lifeline offer in 2012 to bring the then 150,000 Syrian Palestinian Refugees to the West Bank. Abbas decided that it was better for the Syrian Palestinians to die in Syria than be brought to the West Bank.

        Here is the real deal. After fierce fighting in the Yarmouk camp in 2012 and news of starving Palestinians, Israel with the UN proposed that 150,000 Palestinian refugees be settled in the West Bank. Israel’s condition was they would facilitate the transfer of people provided the Palestinians agreed to sign a paper that they did not have the right to live in Israel. The reply of the President of the Palestinians, Mr. Abbas, was:

        “So we rejected that and said it’s better they die in Syria than give up their right of return,” [Abbas did never explain how it was better to be dead or why the refugees should not have been given the choice to be dead or live in the West Bank.]

        Here is how Palestinian Maan news on January 21, 2013 reported the matter:

        “Israel agreed to allow 150,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria to return to the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview with Al-Mayadeen satellite channel on Monday.

        The offer was reportedly made last week, but Abbas rejected an Israeli condition which would force refugees to sign a statement saying that they would give up the right of return to Israel, according to The Associated Press.

        The president said it was better to die in Syria than give up the right of return, The AP reported.”

        Now more than two years later the situation is more grim, and the Joint Arab list in Israel has adopted Abbas’ position that the Palestinians in Syria should remain in their camps and present situation rather than give up a non-existent right of return. See:


        So maybe Samah should go speak to her leaders and ask why they did not accept Israel’s offer to save Syria’s Palestinians from rape, hunger, dispossession, injury and death and why the Joint Arab list wants to keep them in their present circumstances.

        For Bruce it is more important to talk of BDS rather than saving hundreds of thousands of Palestinian lives who could have been saved from their current circumstances if Israel’s offer to bring them to the West Bank had been accepted.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Israel’s “offer”was extraordinarily manipulative and cynical. Dangle a drowning man a life vest but tell him he has to give up his rights and his dignity before you will throw it to him. Awful.

          Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Yes it is awful that Jews would try and save 150,000 Palestinians and make them live with other Palestinians in the West Bank. Of course, some might think it was more awful for the leader of the Palestinians to prevent the Syrian Palestinians from being being saved and told it was better for them to die in Syria.

            The Palestinian Arabs have no right of return, so they are not being asked to give up anything. They were only being asked to acknowledge the reality of the last 67 years. You should recall that the Arabs unanimously rejected UN General Resolution 194 calling for permission for refugees, both Jewish and Arab, to return to their homes Instead the Arabs chose to carry on the conflict, which they do to this very day. You will also recall that the Arabs expelled 850,000 Jews from Arab countries after 1948 and these Jews have no right of return. Israel offered these refugees a lifeline and they accepted having to live with other Jews in Israel. The Jews did not wait to be killed, raped and looted so why does Abbas demand the Syrian Palestinians accept this fate?

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            Pedro, as I pointed out last time you dredged this up, Israel’s offer was not out of the blue — it was in response to Abbas asking for help. Israel does not need Abbas’ approval to rescue anybody if they so wanted to. Abbas is not the sovereign authority in the West Bank, not even over Area A. There is no reason (I should write that in all caps) Israel could not have approached the Palestinians in Yarmouk through the UN and made the offer to them.

            However, I’m not sparing Abbas here. It looks to me like he just wanted to give the appearance of trying to help Yarmouk and could have made the whole thing up. There wasn’t even a point to his making this exchange public.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      According to Salaime everyone is to blame but the Arab Palestinians themselves. I have news for her, the Palestinians bring death and destruction wherever they go. It was the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Arabs in 1947-48 which started things off. After the war the Palestinian Arabs continued to attack Israel. They killed the King Of Jordan for negotiating with Israel. Between 1950-53 there were 64,000 attacks and infiltrations into Israel from her neighbors. The PLO began terrorist attacks in 1965 and are carried on by several militant factions even today. In 1970 it was the attempted coup by Palestinians in Jordan which set off the killing. Do you remember when Palestinians beheaded a Jordanian prisoner and used his head as a football? When they were expelled to Lebanon the Palestinians triggered a fifteen year civil war in which 150,000 Lebanese lost their lives. Palestinians were instrumental in killing Christians such as when they destroyed the City of Damour, killed and raped and looted. In 1991 the Palestinians supported Iraq’s rape of Kuwait. Then Arafat and Hamas after 1993 brought death and destruction to Gaza, Israel, the West Bank and Judea and Samaria. Hamas supports terrorists in Egypt and hundreds of Egyptians have been killed by arms provided to terrorists by Hamas.

      Today a Palestinian terrorist stabbed two soldiers and was killed in return. Hamas with tens of millions of dollars from Iran is re building for the next war in Gaza. PSR polls all say that Palestinians want Hamas tactics and arms used in the West Bank, despite the cost to Gaza. Palestinians have chosen violence as their main tactic in their conflict with Israel and have yet to learn that they have lost at every turn. They could have had peace but they have rejected it at every opportunity. If Salaime wants to know who to blame she should look in the mirror.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        Everyone plays imaginary history – if only the Palestinians had been friendlier when 100,000 European refugees streamed into their towns, it could all have been different! (I think they behaved just like any society would have behaved in a similar situation). Can I play imaginary history too?

        If only Israel hadn’t start to knock down Palestinian homes and make refugees of civilian non-combatants after the 67 war, it could have been different. And some Israelis warned what would happen if Israel kept the territory – Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that Israel would become an apartheid police state – and he was right.

        Reply to Comment
      • Joel


        Reply to Comment
      • andrew r

        The last time you pushed that tired claim about a genocide against the Yishuv, I pointed out how asinine it is. Palestinian and Yishuv attacks were concurrent as of 29 Nov. 1947. Neither party can be said to have absolutely started the violence as of that date. And the Haganah leadership expressed concerned about not spreading the violence to quiet areas, so they knew well enough most Palestinians were not threatening to them. In fact, they made deals with a number of Palestinian villages who didn’t want to join the irregular bands, including Deir Yassin, and these villages held to it until the Haganah and/or Revisionists broke it (Apart from Deir Yassin, also Sheikh Muwannis and Sabbarin) plus Huj, a village that actively aided the Haganah was stabbed in the back.


        Do you remember when a woman from Dawayima was executed by the IDF after being forced to dig a ditch? That was part of Israel becoming a Jewish state, too, if we’re going to trade atrocity stories. Also that the Stern Gang remnants assassinated Count Bernadotte for suggesting a settlement unpalatable to them and no one served any prison time over it.

        The first civilian massacres in the Lebanese civil war were by the Phalange after a supposed attempt on their leader, Pierre Gemayel. All sides in the Lebanon war committed warcrimes and it went on after 1982 when the PLO was no longer a major participant. Lebanese parties still fought each other. There was even infighting among the Christian militias and the Phalange started gun battles in Armenian towns.

        Palestinians who lived in Kuwait fled the Iraqi occupation in large numbers and those who hadn’t fled were expelled as an ostensible retaliation for the PLO’s opposition to military force against Iraq. Using that as an example of bringing “death and destruction” is just you having an aneurysm.

        The Yishuv needed at least the threat of violence from day one to start building in Ottoman Palestine. If it weren’t for the European powers enforcing the Capitulations treaties, the Ottomans would simply have kept them out. Zionists haven’t yet figured out how to make a state without violence, short of hoping some bigger armed state like Britain gives them what they ask for.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Andrew you are rewriting history:

          “Palestinian and Yishuv attacks were concurrent as of 29 Nov. 1947.”

          The Palestinian Arabs’ leader Jamal Husseini told the UN Security Council on April 16, 1948:

          “The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight.”

          Husseini was the Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee and Palestinian Arab representative to the UN. Before the partition vote passed he told the UN that blood would flow like rivers if the partition plan passed. This is exactly what the representatives of the Arabs began to carry out immediately after the partition plan was passed.

          Reply to Comment
      • Weiss


        Israel IS TO BLAME for the Palestinian Refugee Crisis because of Israel’s deliberate EXPULSION of them in the FIRST PLACE…

        You right wing Fascists are just plain DISGUSTING PEOPLE and are an embarrassment to JEWS all around the world.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          The Palestinians are suffering the consequences of their actions and choices made since 1947. The Palestinian Arabs chose to reject the peace of the partition plan and began an existential war to destroy the Jews. When the tide of the war lapped up upon Palestinian shores of their villages and towns, the Palestinians ran away to escape the war. Jews under similar circumstances defended home and country and did not flee the Arab onslaught against them. The Palestinians had no country and were not prepared to fight for their or their neighbor’s home.

          Most Palestinians from what became Israel were internally displaced in the West Bank and Gaza. Some became refugees in other Arab countries. At any time between 1949 and 1967 these refugees could have returned to Palestinian areas held by Jordan and Egypt. Instead they remained in Arab ghettos and slums not going back to Arab controlled areas of Gaza and the West Bank and refusing to be settled elsewhere. Arab states kept these refugees in a state of vulnerability, poverty, and lack of mobility in Arab society.

          Meanwhile Israel settled its refugees, Holocaust refugees, Jews expelled from Arab states and more than a million Jews from the Soviet Union and others from other countries. Israel developed a country and economy and the Palestinian Arabs created nothing. The Arabs are suffering the consequences of their choices.

          Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            The Palestinian Arabs chose to reject the peace of the partition plan and began an existential war to destroy the Jews.

            Actually, most Palestinians were either making deals with the Haganah through their villages or fleeing to the UN-proposed Arab state.

            When the tide of the war lapped up upon Palestinian shores of their villages and towns, the Palestinians ran away to escape the war.

            Morris in Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited tabulated around 400 villages that were depopulated during the war. These factors are listed:
            A Abandonment on Arab orders
            C Influence of nearby town’s fall
            E Expulsion by Jewish forces
            F Fear (of being caught up in fighting)
            M Military assault on settlement
            W Whispering campaigns – psychological warfare by Haganah/IDF

            Over 200 villages fled due to military assault and 50 were expelled after occupation (C and F make up the bulk of the rest, A and W a negligible amount), so to say they simply fled due to some vague purple prose which apparently is supposed to mean the war was going bad for them, is atrocity denial. The war wasn’t going bad for them because they weren’t fighting it. Very few Palestinians were involved in armed actions against the Yishuv.

            Not to mention, duh, it’s common sense that unarmed refugees being forced out of their country couldn’t have been waging a war of annihilation before they left it. It would have been a lot more difficult for the Zionist armed groups to expel the Palestinians if they were a military threat to the Yishuv.

            The Palestinians had no country and were not prepared to fight for their or their neighbor’s home.

            And that caps off a wonderfully illogical paragraph.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Morris 1948: A history of the first Arab-Israeli War:

            “the Jews felt that the Arabs aimed to reenact the Holocaust and that they faced certain personal and collective slaughter should they lose”

            “The Arab war aim, in both stages of the hostilities, was, at a minimum, to abort the emergence of a Jewish state or to destroy it at inception. The Arab states hoped to accomplish this by conquering all or large parts of the territory allotted to the Jews by the United Nations. And some Arab leaders spoke of driving the Jews into the sea and ridding Palestine “of the Zionist plague.” The struggle, as the Arabs saw it, was about the fate of Palestine/ the Land of Israel, all of it, not over this or that part of the country. But, in public, official Arab spokesmen often said that the aim of the May 1948 invasion was to “save” Palestine or “save the Palestinians,” definitions more agreeable to Western ears.”

            “A week before the armies marched, Azzam [head of the Arab League] told Kirkbride: “It does not matter how many [ Jews] there are. We will sweep them into the sea.” … Ahmed Shukeiry, one of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s aides (and, later, the founding chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization), simply described the aim as “the elimination of the Jewish state.” …al-Quwwatli told his people: “Our army has entered … we shall win and we shall eradicate Zionism)”

            Azzam also told the Arab press prior to the adoption of the partition plan that there would be an Arab massacre of Jews not seen since the crusades.

            Benny Morris in Haaretz, September 12, 2012:

            “The Palestinian people think we can be made extinct.”

            Since the Palestinians tried and intended to destroy us, and their villages and towns served as bases in wartime, the winning side had to take over villages and expel populations. This situation was built into the nature of the war, even if people from the left have a hard time swallowing it.”

            “My aim is to open readers’ eyes to the truth. The objective is to expose the goals of the Palestinian national movement to extinguish the Jewish national project and to inherit all of Palestine for the Arabs and Islam.”

            “The Palestinian national movement has remained unchanged, throughout the different periods of the struggle, whether under the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husayni or his successor, Yasser Arafat,” says Morris with near-palpable disgust. “It did not even change during the years of the Oslo process. In the end, both sides of the Palestinian movement − the fundamentalists led by Hamas and the secular bloc led by Fatah − are interested in Muslim rule over all of Palestine, with no Jewish state and no partition.”

            “It’s true there’s a difference between the extremists, who say directly that they want to wipe out the State of Israel, and the secular nationalists, who outwardly say they’re ready for a compromise accord. But actually, both of them, if you read their words very carefully, want all of Palestine. The secular leaders − if you can call them that − like Yasser Arafat and President Mahmoud Abbas, are not prepared to accept a formula of two states for two peoples. So as not to scare the goyim, they project a vagueness about it, but they think in terms of expulsion and elimination.”

            “The same staggered strategy, which sees the establishment of a state in the occupied territories as the first stage in the conquest of the entire land, was, in their view, better than a direct strategy of endless military confrontation. Abbas says it day in and day out, and continues to demand the right of return.”

            “The realization of the right of return essentially requires the destruction of the Jewish state. For the same reason, Abbas currently refuses to hold negotiations with the Israelis. Because negotiations could lead to a resolution to the conflict. He has no desire or intention of reaching a solution of two states for two peoples.”

            “The book is relevant to the extent that the Palestinian discourse and the Palestinian objectives have not changed, and their actions, i.e. terror, are continuing by means of the rockets that are being launched almost daily, and could also return when circumstances warrant by means of suicide bombers.

            “In this context, it is vital to show the continuous, historical line of thinking that characterizes the Palestinians − which, at its base, does not give Jews any legitimate right to this place. The first section of the Hamas charter says, ‘In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate … Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.’ It is important that we recognize who we are facing.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Weiss

            The Fascist quickly answers when it’s name is called…

            Reply to Comment
    3. Liz Silman

      Samah, you don’t need me to tell you that there are some Jews who have lost any shred of humanity, hence the posts on here. No-one has any meaning for them, not even a child, unless they are Jewish. You have written of your tragedy, I of what is becoming ours.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Nurit

      What is happening in Syria is really horrific. The Nakba was also a terrible event. But is it fair to tie these two events together? I find this manipulative. The brutality of events in Syria are not related to what happened to Palestinians in 1948. No matter what happens, what atrocity is committed by who, it is always brought around to Israel. There is also the failure of the Arab world, and perhaps even the Palestinians themselves to deal with their exile form their homes. Yes, this exile was a terrible event that destroyed lives but aside from longing to go back to their destroyed villages, what has the Palestinian community and Arab world done to improve the situation of the refugees? Anything, even an unattractive offer is better than nothing in a situation like this. Wouldn’t it be better to be in the West Bank, despite difficulties there, than to remain in Syria?

      Reply to Comment