Ayman Abo Hachem was born in 1969 in the Handarat Palestinian Refugee Camp north of Aleppo. The camp was established in the early 1960s and was previously called “Ein el-Tal” camp. What makes it special is its location on a hilltop overlooking the Queiq River surrounded by Syrian villages, such as Handarat, from which it got its name, as well as Haritan and Bashkoy.
“I have many memories of the camp and its surrounding area, and I feel there’s a special bond connecting me to it. During my childhood and adolescence, I met Syrian people from neighboring villages and I shared good times with childhood friends in the camp,” says Ayman. “We always mentioned the camp in Palestine. When our parents came and built their houses in the camp, they tried to reignite their memories of Palestine by building the houses in the same way and planting trees and plants found in Palestinian neighborhoods.”
In the early 1970s, the camp contained only two schools, one for girls and one for boys. Both schools were operated by UNRWA. “Whether from the camp or from Aleppo, Palestinian teachers played a major role in educating students about the Palestinian memory and identity, always reminding them that they belonged to Palestine and instilling in them love for their native land and the right to return to it. There was always a group of elites making sure to promote culture, books, and discussion among the youth, as well as the contribution of the factions,” Ayman says.
Most people living in the camp worked in Aleppo, either in the public or private sector in factories, construction sites, and stores etc. There were a few people inside the camp working with UNRWA but in the early 1980s the majority worked in the education sector, when there was a significant proportion of educated people. “In 1956, while Shukri al-Quwatli was in office, law 260 was issued, granting Palestinians the same rights as Syrian citizens, such as the right to be employed, work and own property to name a few,” says Ayman. “So, Palestinians joined all areas of cultural, economic, political and social life. One exception was that Palestinians were prohibited from running for public office.”
Ayman went to high school in Aleppo, where he came into contact with Syrian society for the first time. “Our relationship with the Syrians living in areas adjacent to the camp was normal and restricted to visits on some occasions, namely through parents and not through direct contact between Syrian and Palestinian youth,” he says. “When I studied in Aleppo, I mingled with a wider group of Syrians from both Aleppo and its vast countryside, as well as people from the Syrian clans that came and lived near Aleppo after the events of 1982.”
In 1981, Ayman joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine just like all young people who joined Palestinian factions to manifest their presence and express their political position. He then transferred to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command because some of his friends and relatives were a part of it and because he wanted to undergo military training since the front had established training camps inside Syria.
The General Command was based in al-Jabriya area in Aleppo. Ahmad remarks that many young Syrians frequented the office in order to volunteer in Palestinian guerilla acts, either because they wanted to escape difficult social or family circumstances, or because they believed in the Palestinian cause and the duty of defending it.
Ayman passed his high school examinations in the literary stream, ranking second in the Aleppo Governorate. He wanted to major in journalism, but couldn’t because his family couldn’t afford the high fees of the university in Damascus. So, in 1987, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Aleppo. “During that period, I became more mature in both political and university activity, especially with the Palestinian student union that was very active from the 1970s to the early 1980s,” he says. “I was very involved in student activities. For instance, I was a member of the administrative body of the student union. My major was mainly theoretical and didn’t require me to attend classes, so I had the time to move around the campuses of the university and encourage students to join the organization or to participate in the union’s activities. This also allowed me to meet a wide spectrum of students from all over Syria who considered us a part of the country and not strangers. This perception reflected the Syrians’ empathy and solidarity towards us, as well as their feeling of duty towards the Palestinian cause.”
After graduating from university in 1991, Ayman moved to Damascus to pursue higher education because he didn’t want to stay in Aleppo after the changes the city had witnessed on many levels. “The general nature of the Palestinian factions was that of rivalry as well as factional and ideological fanaticism,” he says. “The city’s interest turned towards consumption with the absence of cultural manifestations. Many libraries were transformed into shops, and all the attention was given to business and trade, even in the countryside and the camp. All of this coincided with the growth of social conservatism on the religious level, which made me uncomfortable and pushed me to move to the more open city of Damascus.”
Ayman lived in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, and noticed the differences between this camp and others in Aleppo. “Yarmouk camp was characterized by a privacy and status that was different from those of the Handarat and Neirab camps in Aleppo. The latter were far from the city center and had limited social and economic activity due to their small geographic areas. However, Yarmouk camp was more like a sui generis city that exceeds the notion of a camp. It was home to more than 150,000 Palestinians as well as Syrians from several regions of Syria.”
The Yarmouk camp was a political, social, economic and cultural center that brought together Palestinians from all over Syria, although it was a center of gravity to the Palestinian factions as well. According to Ayman, the level of intolerance between these factions in other camps was lower than in Yarmouk camp. “All Palestinian factions and most of their bodies were in the Yarmouk camp,” he says. “The educated and innovative class was from the Yarmouk camp, and in general the Palestinian identity was more present and manifested in this camp. In fact, during that period, the camp witnessed more political and cultural activity than any other part of Syria due to the presence of cultural centers and various events, as well as 4 publishing houses which mainly published young Palestinian and Syrian authors from the camp.” However, the highly-populated and disorganized neighborhoods and surrounding areas of the camp caused social problems and disturbances, which negatively affected the camp’s residents. Ayman experienced this situation in his work as a lawyer. Among the problems were fights between young men caused by the unemployment and poverty prevailing in informal settlements, and these could sometimes escalate into criminal offences.