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Najwa Ahmed, a Palestinian refugee in Khan Younis

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 04.05.2008:

UNRWA Commemorates 1948: My Father’s Lost Paradise

By Najwa Sheikh Ahmed

I am a Palestine refugee who was born in Khan Younis Refugee Camp in the southern Gaza Strip. To me Khan Younis is home. It’s the place of my childhood friends and my memories. For a long time, I never thought or cared about my origins. To me al-Majdal, where my parents and grandparents come from, meant little: it was simply a place they remembered and spoke about.

All this changed when one day my teacher asked each of us to write an essay about our origins. I vividly remember how anxious and excited my father was when I asked him about this. He was like a child given the chance to talk about the thing he treasured. With passion, grief, and a sense of loss, my 70-year-old father spoke about al-Majdal, near Tiberias, where he grew up. His words touched me so deeply that at one point I stopped taking notes, although I didn’t stop listening to him speak with pride and sorrow about his beloved town. Al-Majdal was like a paradise, he said, a place where people lived very happily even though they had only enough to meet their basic needs.

My essay immediately drew my teacher’s attention, and I was asked to read it in front of the class. Gathering my courage and taking a deep breath, I began to read what my dear father had recounted to me. With the sound of the students’ applause, I felt a new sense of pride and a nascent passion to know more about my origins – the lost paradise, as my father called the town that he and my mother will never forget.

I delved into books in my search for my roots. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. It was like an inner spark glowing ever more intensely.

As the years passed, the only reference to my origins remained the books I read and the stories my mother told us. Then, in 1998, I had the chance to visit my two brothers in the United States. I was fortunate at the time because I was allowed to collect my visa from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. On the way back from Tel Aviv, I asked my friend to drive me to al-Majdal. In the car, I tried to remember what my parents had told me about their home, the mosque in the centre of the town, the sweet fruits from the fig tree. I remember that day very clearly. My heart was beating fast. I felt elated. My body was shaking with anticipation.

When I got back to Gaza, my parents were anxiously waiting for me. All they wanted to hear about was al-Majdal: What had I seen? Was everything still as they described it? Was the mosque still there? With bated breath, they asked to hear more and more. I felt the loss, grief, and desperation in their voices. I wished that I could take them to visit al-Majdal, but unfortunately that was impossible.

What breaks my heart is that over the years my father often asks me about my colleagues from abroad, who are able to travel freely and who can visit al-Majdal. He asks me to find out from them if the places he remembers are still there or if they have been destroyed. Each time, I feel overwhelmed by his sense of loss. I feel helpless as I see him fighting against losing the thing that he has held so dear in his heart for so many years.

My grandparents died dreaming of their home, the fig tree, and the water from the spring. It pains me to know that my parents will likely pass away dreaming of the same thing.

Najwa Sheikh Ahmed is an UNRWA staffer in Gaza. She is a Palestine refugee who lives in Nuseirat Refugee Camp with her husband and three children. She can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

May 2008

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