Ahmed Dweik’s family knows a thing or two about the refugee experience.
Theirs started in 1948, when his father fled his Palestinian home town as Israeli forces captured the village of West Batani near Ashdod in present-day Israel.
From there, he settled in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, further south, until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war pushed him to search for an easier life abroad. He went first to Egypt to study, then to Yemen to find work.
That is where Dweik was born. But like his father, he too sought better opportunities, migrating to Syria to look for a better paying job and settling close to Yarmouk, the largest camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria.
“But what happened to my father after the 1967 war happened to me in 2012,” Dweik told IRIN.
In mid-2011, Dweik was in Yarmouk when the authorities opened fire on demonstrations and he was forced to take shelter for a few hours until it was safe to be on the street.
“I knew it was time for me to leave, but where to?”
Yemen, where he grew up, was facing its own unrest, and other Arab countries have made it harder for Palestinians to enter.
That left Gaza, the tiny strip of land under siege by Israel and Egypt, where living conditions are difficult and expected to worsen, according to a recent UN report.
More than 60 percent of the population does not have secure access to food, 39 percent live under the poverty line, and 29 percent are unemployed.
Dweik, his wife and child are among some 150 families who have returned to Gaza from Syria, according to the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (begun by a number of Palestinian figures and NGOs in response to the flight of refugees from Syria). Of those, 154 people have registered with the UN relief agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).
Syria is home to more than half a million Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homes in the 1948 and 1967 wars. The UN and Palestinian officials are increasingly concerned over their fate in the bloody Syrian conflict.
The Action Group had documented the deaths of 990 Palestinian refugees since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, while many others are missing.
Tens of thousands have sought refuge from the violence with host families in Syria and in government or UNRWA facilities in Syria. Another 20,000 and 5,500 have fled to Lebanon and Jordan respectively, though Tariq Hamoud, who coordinates the Action Group and recently published a study on the impact of the Syrian crisis on Palestinian refugees, says the number of Palestinians who have fled Syria, including to Turkey, Egypt and Libya, may be as high as 50,000.
A difficult return
But the return to Gaza is particularly challenging, according to UNRWA’s head of operations in Gaza Robert Turner.
"We don't expect a significant number of returning refugees because of the difficulties reaching the Strip,” he told IRIN.
In December, following a heavy round of shelling in Yarmouk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the international community to help Palestinian refugees in Syria to return to the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).
But “nothing changed”, Adnan Abu Hasna, of UNRWA’s communication division in Gaza, told IRIN.
Gazans who wish to cross through the Egyptian border require proper travel documents, and Egyptian officials are reportedly subjecting Gazans returning from Syria through Egypt to “profound security examinations”.
When Faragallah Abu Jarad, who lived in a Palestinian camp in Dera’a for more than three decades, was forced to leave Syria with his family of 11, he and his two sons ended up in an Egyptian prison for one month where he was subjected to questioning before he was allowed to return to Gaza, he told IRIN.
Egyptian authorities at the Rafah border crossing also denied Dweik entrance to Gaza because he did not have a proper visa or permission. The only way in was through a network of illegal underground tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt.
“It was risky,” Dweik said. “But here I am.”
But these Palestinians are returning to a place that can offer little in the form of security or opportunity.
After Dweik’s tortuous journey and an attempt to rebuild a life in Gaza, war hit again - and right next door.
The eight-day Israeli offensive on Gaza last November brought memories of violence flooding back. Dweik lives near a government building that was pounded in an Israeli attack.
"Everything was shaking: windows, doors, even the building, but thank God that my family wasn't hurt,” he said.
He was afraid once more, "but what can I do about it? I suffered a lot to come back here, and I'm afraid that the Egyptians will arrest me if I leave to Egypt, because I entered Gaza via a tunnel.”
Abu Jarad said he is glad his family is safe; but finds it hard to cope with Gaza’s high unemployment and poverty levels.
“It’s not only safety we want,” he told IRIN, “but we also want to rebuild our lives, which have been stolen by war… We left almost everything.”
He is now fixing an old house that his parents inhabited for decades. The walls are cracked and some windows broken because of the Israeli bombardment in November.
Many, though not all, of those fleeing Syria have extended families in Gaza that offer some support.
The returnees also have access to the same UNRWA-provided services as all other Palestinian refugees in Gaza: food, education, health care. They can also apply to UNRWA’s job creation project for six months or one year of employment to get them started, UNRWA’s Abu Hasna said.
“More than that we cannot offer them.”
A Gaza government official, speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity, said returnees can seek social assistance from the government, as can any other resident of Gaza. But he said it would be very difficult, not only politically, but also logistically and financially, for Gaza to take in a large number of Palestinian refugees from Syria who were not originally residents of Gaza.
Dweik called for more attention, including financial and housing assistance, to those who fled their countries of refuge, "because they left with nothing in hand but themselves, looking for a safer place where they can live, not to be refugees all over again.”