Lure of the homeland fades for Palestinian refugees

Bissan al-Sharif with students Bissan al-Sharif is a third-generation Palestinian living in Syria

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The right of return for Palestinian refugees is a major sticking point in the upcoming US-sponsored Middle East peace talks, but some younger Palestinians - having never laid eyes on their ancestral homeland - say they do not actually want to go back.

As a third-generation Palestinian growing up in Syria, Bissan al-Sharif says she feels rooted in Damascus.

"I don't know if I would leave everything and go and live [in my ancestral village] because I don't know the place," says Ms Sharif.

"It is difficult to go somewhere and start everything from scratch," she says in between drama lessons for her nine-year-old students.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967. Some 450,000 of them, and their descendants, now live in Syria.

Start Quote

Why would a businessman leave their comfort zone? Home is where the heart and the money is”

End Quote Sami Mubayyed Political analyst

Ms Sharif's family has told her about what life was like in their ancestral home, and she still wants to visit a future Palestinian state, but not necessarily to move there.

"It is an absent part of my identity," she says. "I know that I have a village in Palestine and I feel I have the right to know it. But I live here, my friends and my work are here, this is my world.

"The other side is an anonymous place to me. It is unknown."

Divided loyalties

With generations of Palestinians now having lived in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, they have established deep roots outside their ancestral homeland.

But it is rare for them to publicly admit these views.

"On the record, because it is politically incorrect to say otherwise, all of them would say 'Yes, we would return to Palestine'. But once you sit with them in private, you hear a very different point of view," says political analyst Sami Mubayyed.

"Why would a businessman leave their comfort zone? Home is where the heart and the money is."

Man in Yarmouk camp

Even the staunchest supporters of the right to return admit that they have split loyalties.

"I feel like I have two countries - Syria and Palestine," says Yasser Jamous, the 23-year-old lead singer of the Refugees of Rap.

The group is made up of five young Palestinians who grew up in Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus.

They rap about a homeland they have never visited.

Mr Jamous says it is "Palestine first and Syria second" for him, but that he would definitely miss Syria if he moved to a future Palestinian state.

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It is a right for any Palestinian to go back to his land, his home. If anyone decides not to use this right, this is his decision”

End Quote Mousa Abou Marzouk Hamas deputy leader

Although Mr Jamous' neighbourhood is identified as a camp, there are no tents or slums in sight. It is a residential area with beauty salons and internet cafes.

The Palestinians who live here are well integrated into society, some even hold government posts.

'Our choice'

Most of the Palestinian political factions operate freely in Syria, including Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that won elections in 2006.

In order to meet Hamas deputy political leader, Mousa Abou Marzouk, we must walk through an airport-style security scanner.

"It is a right for any Palestinian to go back to his land, his home," says Mr Marzouk. "If anyone decides not to use this right, this is his decision."

Memorial plaques imprinted with a picture of Jerusalem Memorial plaques with images of Jerusalem are made for Palestinian families

On the rooftop of a community centre, young Palestinians in their 20s make round plaques imprinted with a picture of Jerusalem.

They aim to produce 60,000 to give to Palestinian families - aimed at keeping the memories of their homeland alive.

"Maybe I'm selfish this way, but I wouldn't give up my right to go back," says Noorhan Abdulhafiz.

"We have the right to have our own land. If we want to leave and live in another country it has to be our choice."

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