- Will you return to Syria after the war?

"A Return to Syria" (Illustration: Timur Sharafutdinov © Fremmed.no)

I first spoke to Hasan a year ago - when, after one of our articles on stateless refugees, he sent me a personal text he had written about his experience as a refugee in Norway. Titled “A message to Norwegians from a Syrian Refugee” - the article went on to become our most read and shared piece, a record it still holds to this day. As time passed, I asked him if anything had changed, and if he would like to share more of his experience. Shortly after, Hasan wrote a new text, which, together with him, I have tried to give some historical and political context.

Hasan Nadeem is a stateless refugee, a concept that may be hard to grasp, considering most of us were born into having both legal papers, and a country we could call home. Hasan, and millions of Palestinians like him, never had this chance. If you ask him, he won’t even remember when he became stateless. You see, Hasan was born to stateless parents, making him stateless from birth. Similarly to Hasan, his parents were born to stateless parents too. However, Hasan's grandparents would probably remember how they became stateless, seeing as they were some of the original Palestinians fleeing in the 1948 Palestine exodus, also known as “the Nakba” (al-Nakbah, “disaster” or “catastrophe” in Arabic).

“Will you return to Syria after the war? I’ve been asked this question many times since I came to Norway. It’s a question that makes me feel bad sometimes. Sometimes I get asked by people who I have never met before. It’s weird that someone would stop me in the street just to ask me this question. Especially when he or she doesn't even know my story. I understand that in the last two years, many Syrian refugees came to Norway. But - I can’t clearly understand what people mean by this question. Sometimes I wonder if what they really mean is - ‘’when are you going to leave?’’. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s only meant as a casual question. You might think it is, but you should see the way some people ask me. I’m a Palestinian refugee who was born and has lived my life as a refugee in Syria. This makes me stateless.”

This part of Palestinian history is most vibrantly reflected in the youngest generation of refugees, and Hasan is no exception. In a period of three years, between 1947 and 1949, over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes - which accounted for about 85 percent of the Arab population of Palestine, or what is today the territory of modern-day Israel. Most of the Palestine refugees settled in neighboring states (Lebanon, Syria and Jordan), where they were promised that their new found places of refuge would be temporary. The promise came from no other than the UN General Assembly, stating; “Refugees who wish to live in peace with their neighbors… should be permitted to return to their homes at the earliest practicable date”. But as time passed, little changed, and for the Palestinians refugees away from home - temporary has become the new permanent. In fact, it has become so permanent, there are close to five times more second, third and fourth generation Palestinian refugees today - than originally fled the war in ‘48.  

“So now I’m in Norway. I am studying the Norwegian language, and after that I’m planning on continuing my education and someday finding a relevant job. I'll pay taxes, and maybe someday I will have my own house, a car, or maybe even a company. Just like most people my age I dream about the future, and just like anyone I dream about one day having my own family. I want to marry, have children and provide them with a future. I want them to study in Norwegian schools and I want them to be Norwegian citizens. Norway will be the country which they will work for and respect as their native country. In this time, even if the war finishes in Syria, there is little doubt that Syria is going to have an unknown future. Just like today, there will be gangs that will run the war there. Would you want to return to that?“

Hasan's frustration is understandable, even today, 70 years later, there is little that has been done for the Palestinians. They are the only refugees in the world where the “refugee status” is mainly inherited; meaning the majority of Palestinians were born with a refugee status in countries their parents were seeking refuge. An estimate from 2012 shows that there are over 4,950,000 descendants of the original “Palestinian refugees”, of which 1.5 million of them are still living in refugee camps. Meanwhile, only 30-50 thousand of the refugees from the original exodus are still alive. This makes the Palestinian refugees the oldest unsettled refugee population in the world. They are also the second largest displaced population, beaten only by the 11 million Syrians displaced by the 2011 civil war.

What makes the situation for the Palestinians even more complicated - is their political status. In most of their countries of refuge, where only the West Bank and the Gaza Strip can be seen as minor exceptions, the Palestinians don’t have basic civil rights. In most cases, they are barred from voting - which in bureaucratic terms would mean that being born Palestinian could be compared to being born as a “second-class citizen”.

“So for those who want us to leave: I’m a stateless person that has lived my last 22 years without a passport. In the Arabic countries they keep telling us; “One day you will go back to Palestine, so you don’t have the right to be a Syrian citizen, or Lebanese, or Egyptian”. Even in Jordan, which is the only country that grants refugees citizenship, they mark our documents with a “P”. Do you understand how crazy this is? And now, after some of us are respected as citizens in Norway and after getting my basic human rights, you expect me to leave it and return? I understand it’s hard to imagine, but try to understand. This conflict was not started by us, and many of us have nowhere to return to.”
Will I just leave my job, house, family, friends and go back? Will the world keep looking at me as a hopeless refugee until that time? Am I a Syrian that should return to Syria? Or am I a Palestinian who should return to Palestine? I don’t believe that is fair. There is nowhere to return. I am working hard to fit in here, and I hope Norway will be a place where I will belong.”

Imagine the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri - the stateless Iranian that inspired the Hollywood movie The Terminal starring Tom Hanks. In the movie, Tom Hanks becomes stateless when a coup in his country of origin invalidates his passport, hindering him from traveling and legally confining him to the premises of the airport for eight months. In real life, Nasseri stayed at the airport for 18 years. Similarly, although not confined to an airport, his story is close to resembling the situation of the 10 million stateless refugees around the world. In the case of the Palestinians, this has gone on for over 70 years - and with no end in sight. With this in mind, the escape of the stateless people of Syria, as well as other countries in the Middle East, was not only an escape from war and poverty, but also a getaway from living in a forever present bureaucratic limbo. A situation restricting them from the right to vote, free travel, jobs and sometimes even basic state care.

Although there are few stateless Palestinians that still believe in a favourable outcome in the conflict with Israel, most still dream of a safe place they can settle and live a normal life. Now in Norway, Hasan stays positive. Like many of the Palestinians asylum seekers lucky to get a new chance in rebuilding their lives, he tries to grip the opportunity of finding a place he can call home.

“Again, thank you Norway, and thank you to all Norwegians who gave so many of us a new chance. I hope I and my fellow refugees will not disappoint the trust you have shown us.“



Arsenii Markov - Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Kulturmagasinet Fremmed. He has a Bachelor Degree in Comparative Politics from the University of Bergen (UiB), where he has previously worked with several research projects on culture and ethnicity. He has previous experience from working with cultural diversity, ethnic and national identity, integration and intergroup relations. Read more...


Hasan Nadeem - Dental student, and graphic designer. Palestinian from Syria. Born in Syria, studied in Russia, came to Norway as an asylum seeker in 2015. He is currently studying Norwegian and is looking forward to completing his education in Norway.

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