Life in the Yarmouk Camp- An Interview with Mazen Rabia

October 26, 2010
Yarmouk Camp, located on the southern outskirts of Damascus, is home to approximately 250,000 Palestinian refugees. Mazen Rabia lives in Yarmouk and works as an Arabic teacher. Joshua Brollier interviewed Mazen to ask for his insight into daily life in the camp over fifty years after the first Palestinians were forcibly displaced to Yarmouk from Palestine by the newly forming Israeli state.

Yarmouk Street, Damascus, SyriaYarmouk Street, Damascus, Syria

Joshua: This is an interview with Mazen Rabia. I’m sitting here with Mazen in his home in Yarmouk. So to start off, Mazen, tell me a little bit about yourself. And what it is you do here in Yarmouk?

Mazen: Yani, actually I’m a Palestinian. I’m living here in Yarmouk since long, long time. My family came after they left Palestine to Lebanon. They came here and they lived in Syria. And I’m living here since a long, long, long time. I’m teaching Arabic in Yarmouk to foreign students in general. I studied in Syria. I did everything in Syria. Yani, my work is a teacher.

Joshua: Okay. As your teaching, do you approach your lessons with any kind of certain philosophy?

Mazen: Yani, actually I’m teaching Arabic. Sometimes, I’m working with some researcher. When I work with a researcher…something…. you know, it’s related to my opinion, my political idea and some philosophy. Yes. But with the students who just start to learn Arabic, I don’t think that I can. Yani, philosophy of teaching… you know… it’s a way to make people like the language and the culture and accept them. Yani, this is the main issue, I think, to be able to teach Arabic in a good way.

Joshua: Sure. Okay. So how long have you been teaching Arabic and what was it you were doing before that?

Mazen: Actually, I started to teach Arabic since 12 years. Before that, I studied theatre and I worked in a theatre and in TV programs. I decided to work as a teacher when I worked with foreign students in a play. I found that it would be good to me to teach Arabic and use Arabic teaching as a… you know… I can get good money, live and survive. Yani… this is because I’m living here in Syria. It wasn’t easy to me to find work. So teaching Arabic is like a private work. I can do it at home and it doesn’t cost a lot. It’s nice.

Joshua: You can make your own schedule.

Mazen: Yes.

Joshua: I mean, I’ve experienced from being here and taking lessons with you that people are always dropping in. You house, in a way, is almost like a community center. People are always coming in… coming by… you’re always preparing food. I was going to ask you to tell us a little bit about the Thursday night gatherings that you have- the film screenings that you have. And what is your aim in getting people together?

Mazen: Yani. It’s like, you know… It was like, in our society, we like to meet and talk and exchange opinions. Since a long time, we have this kind of meeting at home with people from my community, but when I started to work as a teacher I began to communicate with the foreigners from different sources. So… you know… we used to meet and talk, eat together, prepare things together, live like small communities with my students… with my people around. It began to be like… you know… from time to time, we improve our meeting to make it more useful. We watch a film. We talk about a book. We make a small workshop about photography. With certain people who can teach something, we also helped kids from time to time to learn English or French. It depends. It’s not very… yani… frequent. But we do it. When some of the people around need it and ask about it, so we can do something like this. But in my neighborhood, I feel very comfortable. The people accept me and my life. They don’t feel strange to have foreign or to do party at home. This is why I feel comfortable and I do it like every week, almost every week.

Joshua: Yeah, sure. I mean, as a foreigner being here, I’ve experienced Yarmouk to be very welcoming. The people are open.

Mazen: This is depend on the family and the person itself, and the circumstances around him. I think this is not easy, in general. In general, the people in Syria are welcoming foreign, they like to talk with foreign… yani… invite them to their houses. But also this is like there is difference from person to person. Hala, this is part of my work in general, and this is how I communicate with people. I have a lot of friends who do journalist work, artist, photographer. This is like, to make our life more rich. Okay, so its okay. Hala, the problem is with the people around- how they accept our life, how they accept what we are doing. I don’t think that is possible everywhere. Yani, the people are very open, but they can’t accept like a party every week. It’s not easy to them. But in general, they are of very open mind, despite that that they are from the background of Muslims. In general, we talk about them like they are conservatives. But I don’t think so. No one from my friends came to my place had or faced any problems; girls or guys. So I think it’s really nice… like …to meet with others, live with them, talk with them. So it’s okay.

Joshua: I think people would be interested to hear more about life in the Yarmouk Camp in general. Can you give us a bit of history about the camp? How did it come to be?

Mazen: Yeah. Now, the camp it looks like a city… yani. You know, it has improved a lot. In the beginning, the camp started and they funded the camp since 57. It was very simple houses without ceilings. The people put some metal. You know the streets wasn’t very good. Their weren’t any services, but now the life of the people has started to improve and they could really improve their life. We see that there is a very big change in the camp. We used to live in very simple houses. Its simple, our houses, but it’s better than what we used to have before, yani. We rebuilt our houses and everyone has a part from the house. In the camp, you know, there are many different services here. We have services from the Syrian government. We have another services from UNWRA, the UN. And we have services from the Palestinian movement or the PLO. So, I think it’s good. It’s started to be good. The people don’t suffer or need a lot. But, in general, they still connect to their issue, their right and their cause. And they know they have rights and they want to talk about it. This is why a big number of the people are involved in political life. So, yani, we see the influence of what’s going on in Palestine or around us in the life in Yarmouk.

Joshua: Sure. Do you know approximately how many refugees came in the first place in 1957?

Mazen: To Syria or in general?

Joshua: To Yarmouk.

Mazen: Actually, I don’t know exactly. The organization that is in charge of life in Yarmouk is called Gabar. Actually, they don’t give access to any researcher about these numbers. I don’t know why, but now I think the number of Palestinian inhabitants of Yarmouk is almost 2,500. I mean 250,000. Because this is the biggest camp in Syria. In Syria there is almost 500,00 Palestinians. They are living in many different camps and in many different cities- in Haleb, in Latakiye, in Homs, in Hama, in Daraa. And there is people that live in cities, yani. Like here, there is people that live in the center of the city and different places. Hala, the camp still has 250,000 that live here. When they started the camp I wasn’t sure the number of the Palestinian. Yani, but the life changed. A lot of people finished their studies, started to work. Some people immigrate. Some people still live here; they didn’t go anywhere. You know, the life of people changes from time to time and according to every family and their relationship to their relative. When they could gather themselves in a certain country, they do it. Hala, the majority of my family, for example, live in Lebanon. But I can’t go to see them or live with them there. This is a small part of my family that lives in Syria. This is my father, my mother and my brothers.

Joshua: Well, it seems natural that people would want to group together with their family. So with this, you know, approximately 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria right now, what about integration into the Syrian society and political system? How has that process worked or not worked? And has it changed a whole lot since…

Mazen: Yani, actually the Palestinians who live in Syria, the Palestinians who came in 48, the Syrian law improved or changed from time to time. They start to deal with Palestinians exactly how the way they deal with Syrian citizens. So we can go… we have the right to go the university. We live exactly like Syrians, but we haven’t political rights. We can’t participate in Syrian parties, so we have a different cause. This is why the Palestinians are involved in Palestinian movement and not in Syrian political… For example, we don’t talk about democracy in Syria. This is not our issue for the Palestinian. This is not our problem. It is the problem of the Syrian. But I don’t agree with that because I know that we are living here and that we have the same circumstances. Yani, we have to be part of what’s going on. The things that happen to the Syrian happen to us to. I can’t separate Palestinian life in Syria from the Syrian life. We live in the same place and we face the same problems- economically and politically and in everything. Hala, but in general, Palestinians are politically separated from Syrians, but economically they are not. Also, socially, yani, we still have a big group of Palestinians that live in one area. In Syria, we live exactly like Syrians- economically and in social terms we are the same. We can work in Syrian companies, in the government, in everything. But we don’t participate in Syrian political life.

Joshua: There are many 3 and 4th generation Palestinians born in Yarmouk who have never seen their homeland due to the state of Israel’s refusal to recognize the refugees’ right of return under international law. For example, I recently met a young man around my age, somewhere between 25 and 30. He was recently able to travel to the West Bank for the first time in his life. He said he was excited to take the trip and see his country and homeland, but that he felt a strange feeling of being a bit out of place and that he longed to be back in the camp.

In your opinion, what kinds of psychological effects do you think it has on the thousands of Palestinians living here in Syria, so close to Palestine, to know that, at least presently, they have a very small chance of ever seeing the land so loved by their mothers, fathers and grandparents?

Mazen: Actually we have very, very strong memories. And our families transfer their memories about Palestine. And we feel that we are very attached to this place, politically and even in the whole feeling that we feel. Hala, sometimes I try to talk with the kids in Yarmouk and I ask them, “You are Syrian?” And they answer in a very nervous way. “No we are not we are Palestinian.” They are very attached to their identity. Not because they still deal with them like they are refugees, but because they have a lot memories. They have a lot of valuable things in their education from their family. And they know how much it means for them a lot. This land means a lot to the Palestinian. Hala, some people, some journalists ask me “do you think that the Palestinians change from generation to another generation? …their opinion or relationship with this land has become weaker?”. I don’t think so. Yani, the people are a little bit, they are not very happy with the whole political event or what is going on with the Palestinian Authority and Israelis. They want peace, but they are not very satisfied. They don’t feel that they will be able to get their rights in this way. But they still insist that they have a right. For them, psychologically, we talk about Palestine. Actually, everybody has his image in his mind. And he works to liberate it. He will go one day in a different way. A lot of people want to get another citizenship to be able to go to visit the place. They are fighting for it in many different ways, but they couldn’t see it. But they have really strong, strong ideas about it. Hala, I don’t think the times will make the Palestinian feel in their land or in their cause in a week way. They will continue in having or teaching their kids this relationship with this land. And I think the nature of this being they created in Palestine… yani… they kicked the Palestinian out. This being there; the people know that this being is very racism. And it doesn’t deserve to stay in this region. That is why it helps them to make their fight more serious and it gives them more continuity. Until now they are not dealing only with Palestinians in a racism way. Israel, they are dealing with Syrian and Jordanian, the whole Arab, with Muslims also. They try all the time to create war. It’s not the Palestinians or the Arabs who create the war. Israel can’t live without war, in my opinion. If they go back to live in peace, their society would destroy from inside. I’m sure from that. They haven’t a very strong society, but they depend on the conflict which they create with Arab and Palestinian.

Joshua: You’ve kind of taken it this direction and opened it up by what you were saying. My next question thinking of, including Yarmouk, but beyond Yarmouk, Where do you see things heading for the Palestinian movement? Have there been any positive or negative developments in recent years in such a prolonged struggle? Where do you see things heading?

Mazen: Positive or negative, in which sense? I don’t understand.

Joshua: As far as the movement to free Palestine, have there been any positive or negative developments in recent times? And where do you see things heading from here?

Mazen: Actually what happened in Palestinian history, that… you know… there is a movement. They start to work and raise a lot of slogans for liberation. And, yani, since they start to work, against the occupation, there is a lot things changed. We faced a lot of wars which put us in a dangerous big question about our existence and our identity. Hala, now we have a conflict about how we are going to realize or achieve our goals- about right of return, to build a Palestinian state, how we can live in one state or two states. We don’t know if the Israelis are really serious towards peace or not. In my opinion the Palestinian movement is a little bit, yani, confused. They have a lot of problems because some people, one group, they choose to go towards the peace and they don’t care really about the opinion of the people around them. They want to solve the problem, but its clear now that they are not able to realizes or achieve anything. This is why some in the movement don’t want to make the conflict bigger for Palestinian life. They try to wait to see if this group, the Palestinian Authority for example, could realize or achieve something. Until now we didn’t see anything, so we see that …. These people want peace, but they don’t see the Israelis dealing in a positive way for the peace. They are very difficult to decide the way how they will continue building their strategy or policy towards how we can realize or achieve our goals. Hala, we have a movement like Harakat Hamas that says there is only one way because we don’t trust this racism of Israel. These people who really don’t want to make peace. And we have the other group, Abu Mazen and his team, who, now, they don’t care about Palestinian rights in my opinion. They care to get the satisfaction from the United States for their own benefit. But Palestinians, in my opinion, they don’t trust them. These people hasn’t any credibility in Palestinian life. They lost a lot of credibility. So now they people, not because they don’t want peace, but because, really, they try now since a long time, since Oslo, but nothing happened. They couldn’t get any things from, yani, this negotiating, this peace process. So I think they want to find another way.

Joshua: Outside of the dealings of like the PA and the Israeli government, do you think there is any hope in the idea of the boycott, divestment, sanctions call? Has this picked up?

Mazen RabiaMazen Rabia

Mazen: Actually, we have. Actually the people in general practice it. Boycott Israel? Yani, this is something the people do naturally. No one accepts to buy something if they knew this is an Israeli product, or even American. A lot of people avoid to buy American because the people know the Americans give the weapons to kill the kids in Gaza to the Israelis. So they don’t feel comfortable to buy or be forced to buy American products. Hala, we do it, but there is a lot of smuggling. There is the black market. They fake the production and what they wrote on the production.

Joshua: The stamps on the production.

Mazen: In general, we have a problem like this, but now they don’t talk about boycott because it’s real. What Israel tries to do during this process is to cancel the boycott to be able to sell their production in the Arab world. But they don’t want to give the Palestinian or Arabs anything in front of that. So I think this is one from what we have to do and focus on it. But there is many different ways also, not only boycott. I am from the people who say that if we put more pressure on America and Israel, not only political, we have a different way. Yani, they fight, they kill people. So I think they people have a right to defend themselves too. Yani, the American thinks only the Israeli has a right to defend themselves. Excuse me, yani, the Americans don’t understand anything. They don’t know what is the meaning of rights because Israel has rights. They stole the land of the people, and at the same time they are the only one who has a right to defend themselves. The thieves help the thieves, so it’s okay.

Joshua: Which is a right under international law-the right to defend your homeland, to resist a foreign occupation…

Mazen: Oh no.

Joshua: … a human right.

Mazen: International law, yani? This is a human right. This is like something natural. When someone comes to steal your home, to kill your kids… the only natural reaction you have to do is to defend your home and defend yourself.

Joshua: Well, thanks for doing the interview with me. That’s all the questions I have.

Mazen: Ahlan wa sahlan, ala rasii…

Joshua: And thanks for having me as your student. It’s been good to get to know Yarmouk…

Mazen: I am very happy to be with you and to deal with a lot of American students. Actually, I have very, very interesting discussion with my students in general and where I learned a lot about Americans. Actually, we haven’t this feeling that we are against Americans like what the government in the United States tries to talk or market in the streets, in the media and the propaganda. Actually the people here, everyone loves the Americans and the American way to live. The problem is only that if the Americans only want to take our resources and give the Israelis the weapons to kill Palestinian and Arabs…

Joshua: This is a problem.

Mazen: We have a problem with the government and her policy, not with the people of the United States.

Joshua: Sure. Alright, well thanks again Mazen.

The opinions expressed in this interview not attributable to Voices for Creative Nonviolence.