DANNOUN, SYRIA // A year before Srur Ali's father died, he gave his son a bundle of papers, wrapped in a pillowcase and a plastic bag, with instructions that they were a priceless inheritance and must never be lost. Aged 15 at the time, Srur, a Palestinian refugee living in Syria, gave little thought to the contents but promised to protect them. For the next half-century the documents were hidden away.
Yesterday, Srur Ali, now 65, and with sons of his own, allowed them to be shown publicly for the first time. The fragile, yellowing papers are title deeds to hundreds of acres of farmland in Palestine, issued to his father by British mandate authorities before 1948. Since then, the land near the city of Safad, has been part of Israel. "My father always believed that if he kept the paperwork he would one day be able to return to his property," Mr Ali said. "He had faith in the papers, even when he knew he would not go home, he gave them to me believing that I would be able to use them.
"Now I'm old and I've not been able to do anything except pass them to my son, with the same instructions my father gave to me and the same hope they will be useful to him, or to my grandsons, one day in the future." Alongside old cooking pots and traditional Palestinian farmers' clothing, the papers formed part of a small cultural display in a makeshift tent in Dannoun Camp, 25km south of Damascus, one of the first areas in Syria settled by Palestinians who fled their homes during the Nakba, or "catastrophe".
Staged by Wajeb, a organisation advocating the right of Palestinian return, the event was designed as a way of ensuring the Dannoun community, a small part of Syria's 450,000-strong Palestinian refugee population, does not lose its collective memory of a homeland in Palestine. "The deeds are so important," Mr Ali said. "They are proof that the land was ours, they show that in a way that is impossible to dispute; they are something you can see and touch. It's a direct link to the land, and to our rights. It makes it impossible to forget what was taken from us."
With the passage of time, the connection between refugee Palestinians and their forefathers' lives and land inevitably becomes less direct. Newer generations, born in Syria, have never even seen the Palestinian territories and, instead of having their own memories of the place, borrow them from their fathers or grandfathers. Some, like nine-year-old Issam Ismael, do not even do that. "I don't know anything about Palestine, and I don't know why I'd go back there. I'm from the [Dannoun] camp," he said, as adult refugees filed past the display of title deeds. He had to be told by older friends what village in Palestine his family originally came from. "My dad doesn't talk about it at all," Issam explained apologetically.
In Dannoun, those who were actually born in Palestine are increasingly few in number and those who are old enough to have a real sense of where they came from are fewer still. Khazna Ali Yusif was 14, and had already been married for a year when, in 1948, she and her husband left their village, believing they would return in a day or two. Now in her late 70s, she accepts her own return is unlikely, with the prospect of an Israeli/Palestinian peace accord as remote as ever. Even if a peace deal were to be signed tomorrow, the Israelis have insisted there can be no return of Palestinians to land inside Israel.
But Mrs Yusif says she was careful to teach her sons and daughters that their real home was not in Syria, where they were born, but in the Palestinian village near Safad where she lived as a young girl, an area currently in northern Israel. "We will not forget our land, we must not forget it," she said. "No one should forget what was theirs by right, no one should forget what was taken from them."
Mrs Yusif, her face marked with the tattoos once common among Palestinian farmers, was also at the Wajeb community exhibition, talking to those who cared to ask about her history. Like the land ownership deeds pinned to the tent wall, she represented a direct contact between the refugees' past and their present. Maher Sharwish, an official with Wajeb who helped organise the event, said he did not believe younger Palestinians would abandon the right to return as long as they were brought up to understand the Palestinians' history.
"Ben Gurion [the first Israeli prime minister] said that when the old die, the young will forget and we must challenge that theory," he said. "The deeds proving land ownership are so important for that; they link us to our homes. "It becomes more essential with the passing of so many years since the Nakba. The first generation of refugees had the experience of Palestine and we want to make sure that the current generations inherit that memory and understand that by law they should be free to return to their land - we even have the legal contracts to show that it belongs to us all."