‘When I Die, Bury Me in Palestine’: the Journey of a Refugee from Syria

Ahmad Younes and his family are safe for now, but they never know when their situation might change. As part of the recent EU-Turkey deal on refugees, Ahmad and his mother could face deportation if they do not receive asylum in the United Kingdom, the country where they have lived since fleeing Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp nearly two years ago.

Ahmad’s story is one of thousands of harrowing tales of displacement and survival. Since 2011, 110,000 Palestinians, like Ahmad and his family, have been estimated to have left Syria. Caught between rival armed groups and subjected to mass starvation and blockades, Palestinian refugees are one of the most vulnerable groups fleeing the brutal Syrian conflict. It is a situation that highlights the perpetual statelessness of Palestinian refugees, who have lived for decades in thirty-one UN-run refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria after being displaced from what is now Israel in 1948.

The story of Ahmad and his family’s escape from Syria has been highlighted by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), a British NGO that provides healthcare to Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. Leaving with just the clothes on their backs, Ahmad’s mother, sister, and niece traveled by boat, train, and walked on foot for days without food or water to reach Europe. During the boat journey, which was twelve days long, his family lived off moldy bread and severely restricted water supplies. Beaten by police of different nationalities, and exploited by criminal gangs and smugglers, they eventually made it from Turkey to Italy. Nearly a year later, Ahmad made the same perilous journey, spending months in the notorious Calais refugee camp in France before arriving in the UK. His sister and six-year-old niece had received asylum by the time he arrived, while he and his mother remain in legal limbo.

For Palestinian refugees, like Ahmad and his mother, facing deportation from Europe is yet another reminder of their displacement from Palestine. While Palestinians are afforded different rights and opportunities by different countries, what remains constant among most is a yearning to return to the land from which they were expelled.

While living in the Calais refugee camp, Ahmad made a large sign reflecting these deeply held feelings, a poignant illustration of the pain of exile and the hope of return. It read: “When I die bury me in Palestine and write on my grave that I am not a refugee anymore.”

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