North Africa, West Asia

Forever a refugee: A "Syrian-Palestinian" in search of identity

Millions have been displaced since the uprising in Syria kicked off three years ago. This is the story of Salim, a Palestinian from Syria, who no longer identifies himself as a citizen of any particular place.

Aya Chebbi
30 June 2014

Over the past few years, more than 2.8 million Syrians have been forced to leave their country. The vast majority remains in neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. They are often living in dire conditions because countries like Lebanon and Jordan are already under extreme economic and political strain. Others may seek refuge in Europe. But Europe has only granted asylum to 89,000 people. Although Europe is failing refugees from Syria, Sweden has been one of the few countries to offer permanent residence to the Syrians that make it to their borders.

Salim Salamah found refuge in Sweden after fleeing from Syria to Lebanon. I met Salim a few weeks ago in Malmö, the most densely populated area in Scandinavia. But he wasn’t a mere Syrian refugee. While he was introducing himself, he was not sure whether he should introduce himself as a "Syrian-Palestinian", a "Palestinian from Syria", a "refugee in Sweden", someone "becoming Swedish", or even just as a human being. As I was confidently introducing myself as a Tunisian African and explaining more about my Africanism, he smiled and replied: "I like that you clearly know who you are, because I am still in search for my identity". 

His complex identity dates back to his family’s displacement in 1948 following the Nakba that expelled Palestinians from their homes. He was born in 1989 and raised in the Yarmouk refugee camp, a historical Palestinian neighborhood established in Damascus during the 1950s. At the age of 24, Salim found himself a refugee "again" and as he says, "the journey continues…"

Images and dates have been engraved in his memory because of their atrocities: "On 28 October 2013 I left Syria. Taking that decision was not easy, because there will be no return to Damascus soon". Falling into a deep depression during his last few weeks in Syria, he was afraid of losing himself by "not doing any good" for himself or his country. "From March to September, the movement was pacifist. But then the security became so tight that we couldn’t move around anymore. People had to fire back and when that happened, there was no place for me there, because I didn’t want to die or kill anyone," he says.

Life in Damascus had become a nightmare for him: "Day after day, moving within and outside Yarmouk had become difficult. When you move between two checkpoints, you never know who will stop you and when you will be arrested! It was just like jumping into fire."

The regime operated an organized process to get rid of activists like Salim, by arresting, torturing or constantly threatening them. "It was the slow death of civil resistance and a peaceful social movement. I was at much risk as everybody else was!" Besides demonstrating, campaigning, and being part of political gatherings, Salim’s particular crime was blogging and telling jokes about the Syrian army. In his poem "A day in Damascus", he writes: "Passing by the checkpoint, I spit on it to return some of my dignity". He was accused by the Syrian authorities of undermining the "prestige of the state".

Once he moved to Beirut for almost four months, Salim tried to recover from the trauma of the war by writing poetry. Despite dealing with his own healing process, Salim was managing a project with the Al Ghawth organization in Syria. He explains: "Unfortunately the project ended after a few months because we didn’t get the funding needed. International donors and NGOs were not interested in finding partners to respond to the urgent needs of Syrian communities and kids in war zones. They were more interested in enslaving organizations for their own agendas".

Travelling outside Lebanon and Syria for the first time in his life, he finally arrived in Sweden in February 2012: "When I arrived, I was surprised with the snow and the short dark days". It took some time for him to adapt to the weather, language, space, currency and lifestyle, as well as understanding his "strange situation".

Despite the terrible developments in Syria, there is an ongoing debate about the legitimacy of the activists’ choices to flee the country and to seek refuge in the United States and Scandinavia. Salim has clearly made this choice out of the need for "individual salvation". "I claimed political asylum because I can’t go anywhere as a Palestinian from Syria, and I made it to Sweden only because I was lucky!"

It is indeed a special case for the Palestinians from Syria. When the United Nations adopted the Refugee Convention and established the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it excluded those falling within the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) from being included in the UNHCR's mandate. "Outside the UNRWA's mandate-area, which is Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we are without protection", says Salim.

A concrete example of Salim’s frustration is the recent case of four Palestinian-Syrian activists who were detained in Sri Lanka just a few weeks ago. "UNHCR Sri Lanka refused to give a statement on the issue," he says. "Husam, Muhammad, Ali and Baha are now at Buddha military prison where they have been maltreated both psychologically and physically".

Recently, Palestinians fleeing Syria are denied help even in Lebanon. Sadly, the tragic cases of Palestinian-Syrian refugees continue, not only in the global north, but even in the Arab region and especially in countries that sparked the revolutions in the region, such as Tunisia and Egypt. "In Damascus we were celebrating the day Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Today, when Syrian Palestinians arrive at Tunis, they remain stuck in Carthage airport with no support."    

As the spokesman for the Palestinian League for Human Rights, Salim closely follows these cases and releases statements to support Syrian Palestinians without national or international protection. Having the advantage of understanding the situation from personal experience, Salim has found himself working with refugees, although he hopes to work more with youth in the future. In addition to joining the executive board of the Palestinian League for Human Rights earlier this year, he helps a Swedish organization with incoming refugees, especially with communication in both Arabic and French.

Partially recovered from the trauma of war, Salim has regained his life, strength and energy, and that is what keeps him moving forward to empower himself and others.  

I recently contacted Salim again to ask him what the World Refugee Day meant to him as a refugee. He immediately replied: "You know… once you are a refugee, you are a refugee forever. At least that’s how I feel". He then took a moment's silence and recalled the writings of his friend Homi Bhabha: "The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers". "Today I have achieved my few feet," Salim continued, “and if I can make one more human being achieve those few feet, I will!”

Having his family in Sweden for six months now, Salim now feels safer, something he has not experienced for a while. But it is still hard for him to be disconnected "twice" from where he belongs, and now having to belong to somewhere else. "I don’t identify myself as a citizen of any place," he concludes.

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