Palestinian girl studies in Hong Kong after family flees war in Syria

Civil war forces family to flee, with one daughter ending up in Hong Kong studying

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 6:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 12:24pm

Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops, Neveen Abuelula looks like your typical 18-year-old student. She chats about her classes as she gives a tour of Li Po Chun United World College in Sha Tin, and talks of her dream of becoming an architect.

But one thing sets her apart from every other student on the sprawling campus: the black and white scarf she is wearing. The simple cotton scarf, a keffiyeh, represents the fight for Palestinian freedom from Israeli occupation. It is a fight Neveen has known all her life.

Born and raised in Syria's largest refugee camp, Yarmouk, Neveen and her family were forced to flee last December as the civil war that has ravaged the country since 2011 edged closer to their home.

Neveen is now one of the 2.2 million refugees who have been displaced since Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad launched military attacks on anti-government groups after protests erupted in early 2011. Of the Syrian refugees that have fled the war-torn country or been internally displaced, 235,000 are Palestinian, according to the United Nations.

"The humanitarian situation in Yarmouk is desperately bad, with the figure of those displaced telling its own tragic story," said Christopher Gunness of the UN Relief and Works Agency.

Yarmouk, on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, is home to a large portion of the half a million Palestinians in Syria.

When Neveen and her family dropped everything to escape the escalating violence on their doorstep, they became refugees for the second time.

In many ways, Neveen's journey began decades before she was born. In 1948, her paternal grandparents had to leave their hometown of Shafa Amr in Palestine after the Israeli occupation began. They walked for days before crossing the border and entering a refugee camp in Lebanon. Poor living conditions prompted them to flee again in 1951, this time to Syria, where they settled in the newly established Yarmouk camp.

As time progressed, houses replaced tents and it became a district of the capital. In 1960, Neveen's father was born and he went on to study medicine in Cuba. He returned to Syria to work as a doctor for the government, a role that saw him posted to new locations every few months. By the time Neveen was 12, she had moved home nine times.

Neveen said: "I found it quite fun because it's in villages that you feel the different cultures, more so than in the city … Sometimes we lived in villages that were all Alawite (the minority sect of Shiite Muslims) and we were the only Palestinian Sunnis."

When she was 13, Neveen's family moved back to Yarmouk and she enrolled in high school. It wasn't until early 2012 that the Syria conflict reached them.

"At first, the war was in Homs, and then Aleppo, but then it moved to Damascus," Neveen said. "There are a lot of Palestinian camps in Syria, but Yarmouk specifically has a lot of trouble because the Free Syrian Army uses it as a base, so the government is attacking it a lot."

Neveen and her three sisters stopped going to school because it was simply too dangerous. "You can't study with the bombing and the shooting … You just want to live."

The family's two-bedroom flat became a safe haven for dozens of relatives whose homes were more exposed to the bombing.

"Our home was tucked away in the alleys and was on a low floor so sometimes we had 40 people inside.

"At first, we refused to leave; we are refugees already, we don't want to be refugees again," Neveen said.

But with food and water supplies scarce, the cost of basic items such as rice and bread tripling, and attacks getting more frequent, the family decided to leave Syria last December.

"It was getting worse and worse. Rockets and bombs started falling in our alley and there was a lot of shooting."

Leaving most of their belongings behind, Neveen with her mother and three sisters, took an eight-hour car journey to Aen el-Helwe, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Less than a week later on December 16, a Syrian jet dropped bombs near a mosque and school in Yarmouk, killing dozens and injuring many more.

Her dad, who had left Yarmouk just hours before the air attack, eventually made it to the Lebanese camp. There, they faced new violence.

"A mother who was walking with her kids was killed because of two young men who were shooting at each other. That happened a lot when I was there."

In March this year, with the help of aid workers, Neveen and her family were able to secure visas to Turkey and left Lebanon.

In July, Neveen was granted a partial scholarship to study in Hong Kong.

Her journey has left her with mixed emotions. "I smile but I can't enjoy everything, even the school trips. I feel like I am betraying my family if I am happy and forgetting about them."

She talks with her family on Skype several times a week: "I miss them but I need to do this. It is the right thing to be here."

She added: "I always wanted to do architecture because of the refugee camps. I just want to do something that can help.

"I knew of life outside the camp so I had a normal life. But others, they are born in the camp, live in the camp, always in that situation. So I want to be a green architect."

Neveen knows it may be decades before she can return to Syria.

"It's getting worse and worse now and I don't think it will get better, not even in 100 years. People are so afraid of being from a different religion. It will become like Iraq; they are still suffering."

She added: "You will never be healed from what has happened. It is just better but it will never be normal. You will never be happy in a place that you didn't choose; you will never be happy remembering all those people who died."

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier online version of the story wrongly stated that Neveen fled Libya.