In 1948, Akram Atweh was an infant when his family left the city of Safad in Palestine to seek refuge in southern Lebanon. Later, they moved to Neirab camp in Aleppo. “We lived in Neirab camp for a while, but the situation was bad there and the services were poor,” he says. “My family, which consists of 8 members, lived in a small area in a greenhouse with tens of other families. So, we moved to Azaz in Aleppo countryside.”
In 1964, Akram moved to Aleppo city to pursue his education because there were no high schools in Azaz. He finished high school then enrolled in the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Aleppo.
In 1968, at the start of his university studies, Akram joined the cadres of the Palestinian movement Fatah and became the president of the Palestinian Student Union at the University of Aleppo. Between 1969 and 1970, he participated in several training camps in Amman, Jordan with the aim of surveillance or political advocacy in Jordan. He then moved to Irbid where he was arrested. However, he was able to escape from prison, go back to Syria, and continue his studies. “Part of the clandestine activity I used to carry out was meeting with students coming from Gaza and the West Bank to study in Jordanian, Syrian or Lebanese universities, and discussing the possibility of these students working for the Palestinian cause. In other words, I was trying to build certain connections that could serve guerilla activism in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” he says.
After 1971, when guerilla activism in Jordan was banned, this activism moved to Syria and particularly Lebanon, where the presence of the Palestinian leadership became permanent. “During that period, guerilla activism changed but it maintained its major values and ambitions and lasted until the October war in 1973,” says Ayman. “After that, talk of reconciliation and a peace conference between the Arabs and Israelis began. Palestinian factions came up with what was called the Transitional Program, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The program was met with opposition from Fatah and some other factions. I was personally against it because we considered it as going back on the original principles of the cause. However, our opposition was useless because the program was adopted by the PLO in 1974 and was approved by all factions.”
The situation of Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries was good. They fully exercised their rights when the resistance factions and the PLO were in a strong position. However, when the Palestinian leadership weakened, the Palestinians were affected.
“Since 1948, Syrians had been keen to treat Palestinian refugees just like Syrian citizens,” says Akram. “Laws were reformed to serve this purpose in all areas, including education, health services, and the right to work. However, Palestinian refugees were deprived of 3 main things: holding a passport, owning more than one house/piece of agricultural land/store per family, and running for office and voting. Nevertheless, our situation in Syria was much better than that of Palestinians in any other Arab country.”
He adds, “Camps were considered to be just like any neighborhood in Syria. It’s true that the majority of camp residents were Palestinians, as was the case in Yarmouk camp in Damascus for example, but the camps also housed Syrian residents. As a result, the relationship between the camp and its social surroundings was just like that of any normal neighborhood. It was often good, comprising affinity, work relationships and so forth.”
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provided 3 types of services for Palestinian refugees: health services, provision of food - especially to children, and financial assistance for poor families. “Among the excellent services provided by UNRWA is education, which is good quality compared to that provided by Syrian public schools. UNRWA schools are more serious, and the teachers do their job well because their salaries are higher than those of public school teachers.”
Akram was interested in poetry, especially texts that expressed thoughts on the Palestinian cause and the right of return. “I published a book of poetry that addressed the Palestinian cause and our Arab issues in general. I was interested in this kind of resistance poetry and always read poets like Samih al-Qasim, Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish among others. In fact, I first started by writing a story but I found out that poetry served me better in this regard because it could be read aloud on all occasions, and was easier than reading a story.”
Akram participated in 3 festivals or events, which he considers to be the most important of his career. These are a festival in Tahrir Square in Egypt at the time of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, a festival in a city in Spain organized by the Moroccan community in commemoration of Land Day in 2011, and a third event at the University of Aleppo in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. “These were 3 of the most touching events of my life because I was born in the year of the Nakba, so I turned 60, the same age as the cause. I felt hopeless that day, so I recited a poem about the return of the soul to Palestine after death, given the difficulty of the Palestinian people’s physical return to their homeland.”
Akram played a role in establishing the “Aidoun Group”, which brought together Palestinian figures from Lebanon and Syria who opposed the Oslo Accords and the danger they posed to the Palestinians’ right of return. The group had two branches, one in Syria and the other in Lebanon. It organized festivals in all Palestinian camps as well as a central festival at Damascus University called the International Festival, which attracted writers and intellectuals from all over the world to speak about the right of return and its importance for the Palestinian people. “Another important activity we organized was the Palestinian Youth Camp, which brought together more than 100 young women and men from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. The main emphasis in youth activities was also the right of return and the importance of holding on to it.”
Akram graduated in 1975 as an agricultural engineer and worked in the public sector in Aleppo until 1994, when he resigned and opened a computer institute for software training. He says, “Despite my nostalgia for the city of Safad that I have never seen, I have always loved Aleppo, its society, and its rich heritage.”