BEIRUT — Syria’s largest Palestinian camp was once bustling with activity: It was crowded with mini-buses and packed with shops hawking falafel, shawarma and knafeh nabulsieh — a sweet concoction of cheese and phyllo dough.
Kids played soccer and brandished plastic guns until men with real guns came in when Syria descended into civil war. Over the past decade, fighting devastated communities across the country, including the Yarmouk camp, on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus.
Today, Yarmouk’s streets are still piled with rubble. Scattered Palestinian flags fly from mostly abandoned houses, the only reminder that this was once a major political and cultural center of the Palestinian refugee diaspora.
Two years ago, Syrian authorities began allowing former Yarmouk residents who could prove home ownership and pass a security check to come back.
But so far, few have returned. Many others have been deterred by fear they could be arrested or conscripted by force. Others no longer have houses to come back to. Still, with the fighting having subsided in much of Syria, some want to see what’s left of their homes.
Earlier this month, the government opened up Yarmouk for a rare visit by journalists to highlight its push for returnees. The occasion: the launch of a new community center, built by a non-government organization.
One of those who have returned is Mohamed Youssef Jamil. Originally from the Palestinian village of Lubya, west of the city of Tiberias in present-day Israel, he had lived in Yarmouk since 1960. He raised three sons in the camp, before Syria’s war broke out.
The 80-year-old came back a year and a half ago, with government approval to repair his damaged house. Of the 30 or 40 families who used to live on his street, there are now four. Many buildings that were not leveled by bombs were looted, stripped of windows, electric wiring — even faucets.
“I’m staying here to guard it from thieves,” he said of his home.
Nearby, the right half of Mohamed Taher’s house has collapsed, while he is repairing the still-standing left half. “There is no electricity,” the 55-year-old said, though in some parts of the camp there is water and the sewer system works.
Yarmouk was built in 1957 as a Palestinian refugee camp but grew into a vibrant suburb that also attracted working-class Syrians. Before the 2011 uprising turned civil war, some 1.2 million people lived in Yarmouk, including 160,000 Palestinians, according to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA.
As of June, some 4,000 people returned to Yarmouk, UNRWA said, while another 8,000 families received permission to return over the summer.
The returnees struggle with a “lack of basic services, limited transportation, and largely destroyed public infrastructure,” UNRWA said. Some live in houses without doors or windows.
The U.N. agency said returns to Yarmouk increased, in part, because the camp offered free housing. At a recent press conference, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said an increasing number of Palestinian refugees in Syria are “basically going back into rubble just because they cannot afford anymore to live where they were.”
In the past, Palestinian factions in Syria sometimes had a complicated relationship with Syrian authorities. Former Syrian President Hafez Assad and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat were bitter adversaries.
However, Palestinian refugees lived in relative comfort in Syria, with greater socioeconomic and civil rights than those in neighboring Lebanon.
Yarmouk’s Palestinian factions tried to remain neutral as Syria’s civil war broke out, but by late 2012, the camp was pulled into the conflict and different factions took opposing sides in the war.
The militant group Hamas backed the Syrian the opposition while others, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, fought on the Syrian government’s side.
In 2013, Yarmouk became the target of a devastating siege by government forces. In 2015, it was taken over by the extremist Islamic State group. A government offensive retook the camp in 2018, emptying it of remaining inhabitants.
Sari Hanafi, a professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut who grew up in Yarmouk, said those returning are doing so because of “absolute necessity.”
“The others who don’t return — it’s because it’s an unlivable place,” he said.
A young man from Yarmouk living in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon agrees. With Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government still firmly in place, he said that if he went back, he “would always be living in anxiety and without security.”
“Someone who returns to the camp, or to Syria in general, is no longer thinking, ‘How much freedom will I have?’ He is thinking, ‘I just want a house to live in,'” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing for the safety of his relatives back in Syria.
At the community center’s opening, the governor of Damascus, Mohamed Tarek Kreishati, promised to clear the rubble and restore utilities and public transportation.
But there’s a long way to go to convince people to go back, said Mahmoud Zaghmout from the London-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, aligned with the Syrian opposition.
Yarmouk lacks “hospitals, bakeries, gas distribution centers and basic consumer and food items,” Zaghmout said.
There are those who hope Yarmouk will be restored to its past glory, like Suheil Natour, a Lebanon-based researcher and member of the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
He pointed to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camp Ein el-Hilweh, which was razed by Israeli forces in 1982 and later rebuilt. Yarmouk can also be “one day a very flourishing symbol of revival of the Palestinian refugees,” he said.
Others are skeptical. Samih Mahmoud, 24, who grew up in Yarmouk but now lives in Lebanon, said not much remains of the place he remembered.
He said he’s not attached to the buildings and streets of Yarmouk. “I’m attached to the people, to the food, to the atmosphere of the camp,” he said. “And all of that is gone.”