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Palestinian-Syrians travel back to ancestral homeland

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 29/09/2017
Palestinian refugees from Syria are arriving in Palestine with the help of tourist visas and foreign passports, rather than the long-imagined Right of Return [File: Daylife] © Provided by Al Jazeera Palestinian refugees from Syria are arriving in Palestine with the help of tourist visas and foreign passports, rather than the long-imagined Right of Return [File: Daylife]

A voice speaks over the video as it pans across the Palestinian countryside, the wind audibly blowing over the hills.

"I am a Palestinian-Syrian, from the Yarmouk [refugee] camp," Jamal Rashdan says in the video, filmed this summer. "Thank God, I have returned to Lubia, the land of my ancestors, our land." 

It is a moment many Palestinians dream about - return. But the road is often long.

A Palestinian refugee born in Syria and the son of a former Fatah party member, Rashdan left Syria when the government conducted a wave of arrests against the Fatah movement in the 1980s, before moving to the Gulf for 10 years and then marrying in Sweden.

After receiving Swedish citizenship, Palestine was finally open to Rashdan. He travelled there this summer for the second time and visited his ancestral village of Lubia - one of the hundreds of Palestinian villages erased during the 1948 "Nakba", or catastrophe, which saw the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the displacement of around three-quarters of its population. 

When a sizeable number of Palestinians fled to Syria after the Nakba, the Syrian government issued travel documents for the refugees and their descendants, rather than passports. The documents allowed them to live and work in Syria while maintaining their stateless status. 

"[Lubia] was hard to find because it is no longer on a map. There is no one living there because all the homes were demolished and destroyed," Rashdan told Al Jazeera. "But I visited my roots and felt sorrow to not be able to go back [to how it was]. I met relatives from there for the first time; we ate from the fig trees and olives. I cannot tell you how beautiful it was."

With estimates of tens of thousands of Palestinians from Syria now displaced outside their adoptive country since the beginning of Syria's war, post-2011 newcomers are beginning to follow in Rashdan's footsteps.

Muhammad Nour, another Palestinian from Syria now living as a refugee in Sweden, should receive his citizenship next year, having arrived and claimed asylum four years ago. Stateless Palestinian-Syrians over the age of 18 can apply for citizenship after four years of residency in Sweden.

"If I get the Swedish citizenship, I will travel to Palestine straight away," Nour said. "God willing, I will return."

READ MORE: The Nakba did not start or end in 1948

Palestinian-Syrian refugee Muhammad al-Najmeh, now in Germany, noted: "I'm closer to Palestine than I've ever been before, now that I'm in Europe. For me, the road to al-Quds [Jerusalem] runs through Europe."

But the journey is not without its difficulties.

"In [Tel Aviv] airport, when they saw my Swedish passport and that my place of birth is Damascus, they stopped me for interrogations for at least seven hours," Rashdan said, adding that the authorities asked him "strange, weird questions" about whether he was a member of a "terrorist" organisation or knew fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). 

Rashdan was later allowed to enter the country and began his journey home.

The numbers of Palestinians from Syria who have visited Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories since 2011 are hard to gauge, partly because of how Palestinian-Syrians are classified in European countries once they have claimed asylum.

Countries such as Sweden and Germany generally categorise Palestinian-Syrians alongside other stateless displaced populations, including undocumented or stateless Kurds from Syria, meaning there are no exact numbers on the size of the population. Palestinian-Syrians now residing in the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden will likely be the first to make the journey home, because the wait times to gain citizenship are among the shortest in Europe.

Palestinians' right to return to their homeland was enshrined in the UN Resolution 194. The most quoted clause states that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date", while for refugees deciding not to return, compensation for property and "loss of or damage to property … should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible".

The resolution also established a UN Conciliation Commission (UNCC) that would protect the basic rights of Palestinian refugees and push for a political solution that would see them return to their homes.

However, other than a resettlement programme that saw several thousand Palestinian workers return to newly occupied territories in the early 1950s, that political solution has proved elusive. Faced with persistent Israeli intransigence on the return of Palestinian refugees, the UNCC eventually all but closed down.

Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, said that while UN Resolution 194 lays out a "binding right enshrined in international law … for those Palestinians and their descendants who fled from territory which is now within the State of Israel and who have maintained links with that territory", the future status of Palestinians who have attained nationality in Europe may be more complicated.

"Generally, obtaining another nationality would extinguish a permanent return … but, under the refugee regime, Palestinian refugees are the exception to the rule," Shakir said, suggesting that the status of Palestinians in areas outside of the UN refugee agency's geographic mandate, such as Europe, remains a "matter of interpretation".

READ MORE: Palestinians in Europe hold annual gathering in Holland

Some in the post-2011 Palestinian-Syrian diaspora feel divided about whether gaining nationality in another country means abandoning the Right of Return, or if visiting one's homeland is the only real chance of return they will see in their lifetime.

Hamzeh Issa, from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, fled to the Gaza Strip in 2012 before crossing back over into Egypt when Israel attacked Gaza in the summer of 2014. He says he was held at the Cairo airport for at least a month and told by Egyptian authorities to buy a ticket elsewhere or go back to Syria.

As a Palestinian with next to no travel options and facing military conscription in Syria, Issa was stuck. He was eventually granted emergency humanitarian resettlement to Sweden, where he now lives.

"I fear that these new generations born and raised in Europe will forget the Right of Return. Our issue will be forgotten, buried, erased from the world," Issa told Al Jazeera.

The new Palestinian visitors are arriving with the help of tourist visas and foreign passports rather than the long-imagined Right of Return. But for those such as Rashdan, who have already made the journey, the experience is unparalleled.

"I would tell every Palestinian to travel to Palestine," Rashdan said. "Go see your homeland, your roots and feel the belonging."

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