The Right of Return Movement in Syria: Building a Culture of Return, Mobilizing Memories for the Return


The Right of Return Movement in Syria: Building a Culture of Return, Mobilizing Memories for the Return   Ensuring a future
return by the new generation of refugees.


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By Anaheed Al-Hardan

The Palestinian Right of Return Movement (RoRM) emerged among diaspora refugee communities following the Oslo accords and the
perceived threat to the right of return. This article focuses on the RoRM in Syria in the context of the community’s history and unique
civil rights there. Based on extensive interviews in the Damascus area, it provides an overview of the heterogeneous movement, which,
while requiring state approval, operates in an autonomous civil society sphere. RoRM activists translate visions of the return formulated
in the Palestinian national arena into local community practices that mobilize memories of Palestine as resources (through oral history, village commemorations, etc.) with the aim of ensuring a future return by the new generation of refugees.

THE PALESTINIAN refugee community in Syria is today almost half a million strong.[1] This community, like other Palestinian communities in Arab host states, has been and continues to be shaped by the general post-1948 Palestinian experiences of statelessness and the trials of the Palestinian national movement. Its unique Syrian context, however, sets it apart because it has been relatively stable over the past six decades and enjoys civil rights shared by no other disenfranchised Palestinian refugee community. This article contributes to understanding this community, which is almost absent from Arabic- and English-language scholarship and is also often neglected in Palestinian political discourse, the latter implicitly presenting the Lebanon-based Palestinian refugees’ right of return as the only right, if any, that will eventually need to be reckoned with during “final status” negotiations.[2]

The outcome of the ongoing turmoil in Syria notwithstanding, what is certain in these changing times is that the Syrian state has had a historically unique relationship to Palestinian refugees there. Laurie Brand aptly summarized this relationship as one that “gradually paved the way for[the refugees’] thorough integration into the Syrian socioeconomic structure while preserving their separate Palestinian identity.”[3] Others, like Sari Hanafi, have argued that Palestinians in Syria lie somewhere in between an established diaspora (like communities descending from late Ottoman
immigrants to the Americas) and a transit refugee community (like the Palestinians in Lebanon, with their institutionalized temporariness and
insecurity).[4] Derived from a larger research project investigating practices of memory and remembrance of the 1948 Nakba in the Palestinian refugee camps of Damascus,[5] what follows draws on interviews with members of the community, community activists, workers from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and civil servants in the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR, part of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor) to construct a bottom-up representation of the experiences of Palestinians in Syria after 1948, with a focus on the Right of Return Movement (RoRM).[6]

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is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, Germany. Research for this article was made possible by a Palestinian American Research Center Doctoral Fellowship, a Trinity Trust Travel Grant Award, and a Trinity College Postgraduate Research Studentship..


1 As of December 2011, there are a total of 496,000 refugees registered by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the NearEast (UNRWA). See UNRWA, “Syria,” UNRWA website.

2 The published Arabic literature mostly comprises semi-scholarly works, comparative studies with refugees in Lebanon, and articles soliciting
refugees’ opinions on the negotiations during the early 1990s. With few exceptions, the published English-language literature is mostly of a policy-oriented nature. See, for example, Adnan Abdul-Rahim, “Palestinian Refugee and Caregivers in Syria,” in Dawn Chatty and Gillian Lewando Hundt, eds., Children of Palestine: Experiencing Forced Migration in the Middle East (New York and Oxford:Berghahn Books, 2005); Hamad al-Mawed, Al-Yarmouk Camp (Damascus:Dar al-Shajara, 2002) [in Arabic]; Hamad al-Mawed, “The Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Their Past, Present and Future” (paper for the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada,1999), Nabil al-Sahli, “The Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Basic Data,” Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya 12, no. 45–46 (2001), pp. 119–129 [in Arabic]; ‘Ali Badwan, The Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Towards a Homeland (Damascus and Beirut:Mu‘assasat al-Manara, 2004) [in Arabic]; Dawn Chatty, Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 220–230; Nell Gabiam, “Rethinking Camps: Palestinian Refugees in Damascus,” in George Gmelch, Robert Kemper, and Walter Zenner, eds., Urban Life: Readings in Anthropology of the City, 5th ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2009) 144–156; Zafir bin Khadra‘, Syria and the Resident Palestinian Arab Refugees (Damascus: Dar Kan‘an li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashir, 1999) [in Arabic]; Laurie Brand, “The Palestinians in Syria: The Politics of Integration,” Middle East Journal 42, no. 4 (1988), pp. 621–637; Sari Hanafi, “The Palestinians in Syria and the Peace Process,” Majallat al- Dirasat al-Filastiniyya 7, no. 28 (1996), pp. 85–103 [in Arabic]; Sari Hanafi, “Governing the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon and Syria: The Cases of Nahr el-Bared and Yarmouk Camps,” in Are Knudsen and Sari Hanafi, eds., Palestinian Refugees: Identity, Space and Place in the Levant
The Right of Return Movement in Syria 75 (London and New York: Routledge, 2010) 29–49; Hala Rizqallah, The Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon: A Comparative Demographic Study, 1948–1995 (Damascus and Beirut: Dar al-Jalil, 1996) [in Arabic]; Bassem Serhan, The Transformation of the Palestinian Family in the Diaspora: A Comparative Sociological Study (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2005) [in Arabic]; Jaber Suleiman, “The Palestinians in Syria: Statements and Testimonies,” Majallat al-Dirasat al- Filastiniyya 5, no. 20 (1994), pp.136– 162 [in Arabic]; ?ge A. Tiltnes, ed., Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Human Capital, Economic Resources and Living Conditions (Norway: Allkopu AS, 2006).
3 Brand, “The Palestinians in Syria,” p. 621.
Sari Hanafi, “Rethinking the Palestinians Abroad as a Diaspora: The Relationship Between the Diaspora and the Palestinian Territories,” HAGAR:
International Social Science Review 4
, no. 1–2 (2003), pp.157–182. For a critique, see Julie Peteet, “Problematizing a Palestinian Diaspora,” International
Journal of Middle East Studies 39
, no. 4 (2007), pp. 627–646. The notion of “community” is itself the subject of debate. For an overview, see Gerard Delanty, Community (London: Routledge, 2003).
5For the larger project, see Anaheed Al-Hardan, “Remembering the Catastrophe: Uprooted Histories and the Grandchildren of the Nakba” (PhD diss., Department of Sociology,
Trinity College, University of Dublin, 2011). On the significance of the Nakba in Arab nationalist thought and to Palestinian society, see Maher Cherif, “The Nakba and Its Meaning in Critical Thought,” Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya 19, no. 74–75 (2008), pp. 15–23 [in Arabic]; Mustafa Kabha, ed., Towards a Historical Narrative
of the Catastrophe: Complexities and Challenges
(Haifa: Mada al-Carmel, 2006) [in Arabic]; Ahmad Sa‘di and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds., Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Constantine Zurayk, “The Meaning of the Catastrophe,” in The General Intellectual Works of Doctor Qustantin
Zurayq, Vol. 1
(Beirut: Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 2001), pp. 191–260 [in Arabic].
6Although many RoRM activists are headquartered in Yarmouk, and the scope of this article is limited to the groups in the Damascus area, as
will become clear from interviews with activists, their activities extend to other camps and suburbs of the capital and to Syria as a whole. Jaber Suleiman defines the RoRM as a movement “born out of the various popular, community-based initiatives within the Palestinian society in Palestine and the diaspora. . . a protest movement that was conceived within the framework of preserving the inalienable national rights of the Palestinian people. As such, it seeks to confront all attempts to liquidate or compromise the right of return. It is also a proactive movement which aims at mobilizing and organizing efforts dedicated to the protection and preservation of this right.” See his “The Right of Return Movement: Reality and Ambition,” in Jaber Suleiman and Raja Deeb, eds., The Issue of Palestinian
Refugees and International Law: The Proceedings of Damascus International Symposium: “A Just Solution for Palestinian Refugees?” Damascus 6-7/9/2004
(Damascus: Ai’doun Group, 2004), pp. 265–266.