Nour Owais grew up in Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees just south of Damascus. She completed both her elementary and middle school education at UNRWA-run schools.
She recalls the marches the students would take part in during Palestinian special occasions, such as Jerusalem Day and Nakba Commemoration Day, or in protest of particularly heated events happening in Palestine.
“We would march through the streets of the camps,” says Nour, “until we reached the Martyr’s Cemetery. There would be a marching band, with drums and wind instruments, and we would chant songs and slogans about the Palestinian cause. Like, ‘For shame, for shame, they sold Al-Aqsa for monetary gain.’ When we got to the cemetery the activists would make rousing speeches about Palestine and its cause.”
Nour says that those marches weren’t spontaneous gatherings, but were planned by the different Palestinian political parties at the camp, and that members of the ruling Baath party were always on hand to prevent students from leaving the marches.
Though there were many Syrians living in the camp as well, it retained a distinctly Palestinian character. There were pictures of Palestinian martyrs and leaders throughout the camp, and the streets bore names of different Palestinian cities, villages and martyrs.
Nour made a lot of Palestinian friends at the camp during secondary school, after she moved from the UNRWA-run school to a public one, as UNRWA schools didn’t offer a curriculum at the secondary level.
Nour’s mother, who was a teacher, encouraged her constantly to continue her schooling and go on to work. “We are Palestinians,” she would tell her, “and we own no property or land. Our education is our only weapon in life.”
“Most of the women in the camp worked,” says Nour, “and many of them wore the hijab. It was just another normal item of clothing. There were also quite a few women who traveled. There was no religious conservatism in the camp.”
Nour went on to study at Damascus University, earning her law degree. After finishing up her training in 2009 at a firm in the area, she found a job and began working as a lawyer.
“After finishing university and training,” says Nour, “I found myself plunged right into the heart of Syrian society. And that was when I actually discovered that I was considered a second-class citizen.
“Everyone introduced me as a Palestinian,” she continues, “and only then would I remember that I wasn’t Syrian. People would immediately change their behavior toward me when they found out. I could work at any profession I chose, even in the public sector.
The law didn’t forbid me from anything, rather, it was the way people treated me that made certain things impossible.”
Nour worked with a number of different Syrian NGOs, then found a job with UNRWA.
“I was so happy with my work at UNRWA,” she says, “working with Palestinians and feeling like I belonged there, like it was the right job for me. I was lucky to have support and encouragement to progress, which was not the case at all in my previous job. Sadly, even after over sixty years since the Nakba befell us, Palestinians are still treated with disdain and discrimination.”
Many people at the camp, says Nour, worked in public sector jobs, or at different NGOs, such as UNRWA. There were also many who worked in the different commercial establishments that had proliferated throughout the camp, which became one of the most important shopping centers in all of Damascus. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the camp witnessed an economic boom, and there was a lot of new construction and a lot of financial investment from Damascus. It was considered a rapidly developing area, growing in both commercial and residential infrastructure, with its marketplace turning a much bigger profit than the markets at the capital. The camp transformed into a commercial and service center for all the surrounding areas.
This economic change was accompanied by a similar change in the social behaviour and appearance people exhibited at the camp, such as the transformation of wedding celebrations, traditionally large affairs with people dancing the Palestinian dabke, from mixed to segregated by gender.
“Weddings at the camp became more like Damascene weddings,” says Nour, “with men and women separated in different spaces. Still, everyone retained their Palestinian accents, and there were many who wore the traditional Palestinian headdress, or who sported Palestinian symbols, such as medallions with the colors of the flag, or other things like that.”
The security situation at the camp was good, though not ideal, says Nour. Conflicts and fights sometimes broke out where people brandished knives or other weapons, though not guns. There were policemen and even a police station, and troublemakers and criminals were arrested and imprisoned. The Syrian government was responsible for the general security at the camp, not the local Palestinian political leadership. In general, it was rare to find any armed presence within the camp.