"This is how I understand the struggle...To stand steadily like spears, and never give up." Naji Al-Ali

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Understanding the Palestinian Refugee Crisis

Abbas interviewing Palestinian Girls in his refugee camp
Last night I had the pleasure of watching Ziad Abbas of the Middle East Children’s alliance address a full room of students at City College of San Francisco with his presentation, “Cultural Resistance of Marginality: a Personal Perspective on the Untold Stories of Palestinian Refugees.” I had seen Ziad’s slideshow once previously, at a workshop for educators and community organizers on how to teach the history of the conflict, but this time it evoked much stronger emotions in me than before.

Perhaps because most of the students in the room were still raw with emotion from seeing a performance of Seven Jewish Children given in the school library just a few minutes before, or maybe because the presentation was so deeply personal, Ziad clearly struck a nerve. I saw tears well up in the eyes of people I couldn’t have dreamed would still be paying attention after nearly two hours, and hands spring into the air with questions that betrayed a level of critical thinking and understanding that can only manifest when one’s attention is truly gripped.

In his presentation Ziad flows seamlessly between historical lessons and personal narrative, flashing from a map of Palestine in 1878 marking the first Zionist settlement to a picture of the small tent his mother, father, brother, and sister called home in the first weeks after they were forced from their village of Zakariyya. He shows pictures from the Israeli archive opened in the late 1990s –a village being blown to bits after it was cleared, a group of Hagana soldiers leaning against their military vehicle, a trail of men, women, and children saddled with blankets and baskets as they walk into the distance. The last one, he says, reminds him of his mother.

“She locked the door behind her and left our house barefoot, one child on her hip as she took the other by the hand, thinking she’d be back as soon as the fighting ended.”*

He calls her naïve, exhaling warmly.

Next he moves to images of Palestinians, some trying to escape the fighting on their own, some being forcibly transferred.  He lingers on one in particular. In it we see ragged-looking men and women sitting in a tattered bus as tidy, uniformed Jewish soldiers stand guard nearby, guns slung over their shoulders. He turns to us and asks, “What does this remind you of?” A girl I know, unfamiliar with the conflict, shouts, “The Holocaust. The trains.” I’m shocked. How obvious it all is to those with new eyes.

He speaks of the UN making the decision to turn the tents in his Dheisheh refugee camp into brick and mortar rooms, each about 81 square feet and housing at minimum six people. Every few hundred rooms had two bathrooms, one for women and the other for men.

“We felt like we were always waiting,” he said, “waiting in line for food, waiting in line for the bathroom. Waiting, waiting, waiting.”

And he tells us that when the Abbas family finally got their own private bathroom years later, there was a celebration.

He talks about how difficult it was to live under curfew, especially in the beginning when there was no running water, no electricity. Even after these luxuries became commonplace it wasn’t easy. From 1979 to 1995, refugees in his camp spent nearly 4 months out of every year locked down. The longest single stretch happened during the Gulf War; it was 49 days.

Despite these hardships, Ziad has clearly kept his sense of humor. He laughs when he explains how when he got into particularly bad fights with his mother he would run outside and throw stones at his own house in protest, or how every time he had to escort his older sister to the communal bathroom he would ask for change in return.

“It’s how I made my income!” he jokes.

The most moving part of the presentation comes when he begins to delineate the role of the Jewish National Fund in “greenwashing” Palestine’s ethnic cleansing.  He shows a picture of Zakariyya in the 1920’s, and points out the empty hills rolling into the distance. Then he shows a current view of the same village, the hills now covered in non-indigenous trees, the houses gone.

Next he flashes to a sign for a nature reserve. The upper portion is written in Hebrew, but below you can read in English, “Funded in part by a congregation in Kansas City, Missouri.”

“We call it the Israeli-American occupation, sometimes. You see why.”

Here the mood becomes even darker as he tells us in a somber tone that his uncle passed away only two days ago. He was the last person in his family from the “catastrophe generation” as Ziad calls it, referring to those who actually lived through the 1947-48 cleansing. He recalls the time he smuggled his uncle into Israel to see their village a few years ago. By this time his uncle was quite old, and so when he started pointing to forests and nature reserves, giving them Arabic names and describing the villages that used to stand in their stead, Ziad first thought he was simply confused.

“You’re turned around, that’s all. We’ll find our way.”

When his uncle insisted that the reserve they were standing on was in fact Ziad’s mother’s village, Ziad thought the old man had lost it.  

“No!” He bellowed, shaking his head, wringing his hands. “No! This. Is. The. Village!”

Here Ziad becomes very quiet. I realize he isn’t looking at us anymore, but somewhere above our heads. I close my eyes and imagine the scene.

“The stones, the trees, they all started speaking. My uncle is an artist you see, and he listened. Within 30 minutes the village stood before us, as clear as if we had lived there our whole lives. He described the house, the window, the view from the front steps. I saw it all. And then we started digging. I found that step buried in the ground, that first step. I stood on it, imagining what my mother saw as a girl every morning.”

He called it life-altering. I bit my lip to stop from weeping at the thought of it.

He focused the rest of his energy that night on resistance, showing us pictures taken in and around Dheisheh. As I saw boy after boy bravely stare down tanks and armored soldiers, their childish hands clasped around rocks, their shoulders strong and defiant, I felt ashamed. How could I be such a coward? How could I ever let something as silly as the fear of offending someone stop me from raising my voice, when here stood these little children, fighting against the oppression of the longest occupation in modern history with their bare hands?

 More moving than that was the video he showed us, made by a young girl named Zainab. She wasn’t interested in rocks at all. No, Zainab wanted to become a lawyer, “to give rights back to the Palestinian people.” She was so precious, she reminded me of my baby sister.

I became enraged. How could anyone deny her anything, let alone her basic human rights? As if reading my mind, Ziad finished his presentation with these words:

“We aren’t interested in peace. We are interested in justice. And we aren’t asking for miracles, or even anything special. We are asking for what was given to us by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and by resolution 194. There are nearly 7 million Palestinian refugees now. We cannot be ignored.”

*Quotes are not 100% exact but taken from notes