One Hundred Years of Palestinians in Chile
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 26.03.2008:
By Xavier Abu Eid
Chile is located in the southern part of the world and inhabited by 16 million people. Ethnically speaking it is composed mainly of a mixture of Spanish colonisers and indigenous people. For more than 150 years, however, several foreign communities have been settling in Chile. These include large groups of Germans, British, Italians, Yugoslavians, and Spanish. Many of these people were actively encouraged to immigrate by the Chilean government. After their arrival they received subsidies, land, and numerous social amenities within Chilean society.
On the other hand, and at almost the same time, a small group of Palestinian Christians, most of whom came from the Bethlehem area, began to settle around Santiago. Unlike the European immigrants, Palestinians in the beginning were not welcome in the country and suffered much discrimination. They were often called “Turks” – a derogatory reference to the Ottoman occupying power in Palestine.
After a while – at the beginning of World War I – this small group of individuals was joined by several other young Palestinians. The forced recruitment into the Turkish army frightened Palestinian Christians, and this is how the first wave of Palestinian immigration moved from Bethlehem to Chile.
Although they faced several social and economic problems, the first immigrants managed to survive without even knowing Spanish. The community was mainly composed of poor merchants, whose meeting point was also their first institution – Saint George Greek Orthodox Church – which was built in 1917. Its first priest came from the northern Palestinian port of Akka (Acre).
Later on, immigrants began to settle around the same church – a place which is nowadays known as Patronato, a traditional commercial area where numerous popular restaurants offer falafel, shawerma, katayef, or baclawa.
Saint George Greek Orthodox Church was an incentive to consolidate the community in Chile. Later the church was followed by a Palestinian social club and a Palestinian sports club.
By the mid-1920s, Palestinians seemed to find their own enclave within the economic arena. They developed the incipient Chilean textile industry and shifted from being simple merchants to innovative business leaders by the mid-1940s. This fact illustrates well the role of Palestinians as the main example of collective social mobility in the history of Chile. The income obtained by these businessmen was enough to ensure that their children would be educated. By the late-1940s, Palestinians in Chile were not only known for their lucrative textile industries but also for having distinguished doctors, business administrators, engineers, and lawyers within their community.
In addition to this social and economic development, the political skills of the community were also developed. In 1947, at the time of the partition plan for Palestine, a group of first-generation Palestinian students in Chile led by Alejandro Hales created a strong lobby that convinced the Chilean government to change its vote on the eve of November 29, 1947. Nevertheless, Alejandro Hales was later appointed as a minister and one of the main leaders against the Pinochet dictatorship. By that time, Chile was a strong supporter of the partition of Palestine. But even being a member of the “Chilean Committee for a Jewish Palestine,” President Gonzalez Videla cast his lot with those who abstained in the General Assembly vote.
Despite the efforts by Palestinians throughout the world, the partition of Palestine was approved, and we began to hear news reports by the Red Cross and the United Nations about 31 massacres and 550 destroyed villages in addition to several other war crimes committed by Zionist gangs against Palestinian civilians.
After this tragic period, another wave of Palestinian immigration arrived in Chile. Yet the new arrivals were able to start working with their relatives who had earlier made their way to Chile. A difference between the first and second waves of immigration was that while the first left Palestine with the aim to make a new life in Chile, the second left the country believing that in a matter of months, Palestine would be freed by Arab armies and people would be able to return. Unfortunately, that never happened. And many people received letters from their own relatives asking them to stay in Chile and to send them money since the political situation hadn’t changed.
Another wave of immigration came after the June 1967 War, which was followed by political persecution against Palestinians who were involved in the national movement. At that time several young men from Beit Jala, Bethlehem, and Beit Sahour were members of the Palestinian Communist Party and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). They were also persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and forced to leave.
During that time, Palestinian political movements were already present in Chile. For example, a cell of the PFLP – which was working under the guidance of Jael Al Arja, who was killed by Israeli intelligence members in the well-known Entebbe Operation – was responsible for occupying the Jordanian Embassy in Chile after Black September in 1970.
In addition to the pioneer PFLP, other Palestinian political groups emerged within the community such as the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and the Palestinian Federation.
On the other hand, the community continued to develop its social institutions. That’s why today, the Palestinian Club is considered the biggest private club in Santiago. It is composed of numerous tennis courts and two football fields, large gardens, an Olympic swimming pool, a gym, and a clubhouse with large salons, a theatre, and restaurants. In addition, Chile has three Arab schools; the main one is based in Santiago. It is the only place where Palestinian-Chilean children and teenagers are able to learn Arabic language and history, as well as Greek Orthodox and Islamic religion. University students who are interested in learning Arabic language and history have the chance to join the Center for Arab Studies at Universidad de Chile.
Being a wealthy community, today we are able to find Palestinians in almost every area of Chilean interest: social, cultural, economic, and political. As a matter of fact, the Palestinian Federation is being advised by a group of prominent young Palestinian-Chilean politicians who represent all points on the spectrum from the far-right to the Communist Party. There are seven Palestinian-Chilean members of the Chilean Parliament, including the most prominent social democratic MP, Eugenio Tuma, president of the Palestinian-Chilean Inter-parliamentarian Group; the group also includes Chilean lawmakers who represent the entire Chilean political spectrum, such as socialist MP Isabel Allende (daughter of late president Salvador Allende) and Ivan Moreira (spokesperson for the Chilean far-right). The vice president of the group was considered to be the most efficient Chilean parliamentarian during 2007, not to mention the youngest Chilean MP: Palestinian-Chilean Francisco Chahuan.
The biggest youth organization, the General Union of Palestinian Students, is led by a 20-year-old law student, Anwar Makhlouf, who is the youngest president that the GUPS has ever had. He has been instrumental in encouraging an increasing number of Palestinian-Chilean students to become involved in the national political and cultural cause.
In addition, a new board of the Palestinian Federation was recently elected, and it is composed mainly of young professionals and businesspeople. The president, Mauricio Abu Ghosh, is a 40-year-old business administrator. He is the youngest president in the history of the Palestinian-Chilean community.
The paradigm has changed, though, as today Palestinians in Chile are working toward forming a national congress to be the representative body for the tens of thousands of Palestinians living in Chile. The aim is not only to repeat the historic calls for “Palestinian Statehood and the Right of Return,” but also to focus on developing the organisational skills that are necessary to effectively achieve those objectives.
Moreover, an incipient communications network is being developed. There is a Palestinian-Chilean News Agency (www.oicpalestina.org) as well as two other websites that provide daily updates and op-ed regarding the situation in Palestine (www.palestinalibre.org and www.ugep.cl). These are the main sources of information for Palestinian Chileans as well as other people who are interested in the situation in the Middle East.
On the other hand, a social magazine called Al Damir is being printed by the Bethlehem 2000 Foundation (www.palestinos.com), which is the only monthly Palestinian magazine in Spanish. It aims to publish success stories of Palestinian Chileans as well as briefings about the activities of the community and the humanitarian situation in Palestine.
An emergency committee has recently been created to coordinate with the Chilean government concerning the arrival of 100 Palestinian refugees from Iraq. The community has appointed Jaime Abedrapo to be president of the committee. Thirty-four-year-old Jaime has a PhD in international law and teaches at several universities. The committee has also developed a communications strategy and is being advised by several experts in various areas.
The professionalism that is evident within the community reveals that Palestinians in Chile are different than they were 30 years ago. Independent research that was conducted by Bethlehem 2000 Palestinian Foundation shows that less than 30 percent of the community are from families where both parents are of Palestinian origin, which provides evidence of significant integration into Chilean society.
At present, the exact number of Palestinians in Chile is not known. However, all the estimates indicate that there are between 100,000 and 300,000. As a way to successfully face this new scenario, a group of young professionals led by Jorge Daccaratt, executive director of Bethlehem 2000 Foundation, are implementing several projects, including the creation of a Chilean branch of the Young Arab Leaders organization, the renovation of the Palestinian Club, and the management of the Palestino Sports Club.
The most important Palestinian institution, Palestino (www.palestino.cl) is now working toward becoming a corporation. It plans to sell one-third of the club – worth almost two million dollars. The club is well-known for selling good young players to Europe and the rest of Latin America. This will not only foster investment but also encourage Palestinian businessmen from all over the world to get involved in a diaspora project with the only Palestinian football team that plays in a premier league.
In conclusion, it is important to note that the current challenges to the Palestinian community in Chile are mainly related to the younger generations and how they can go to Palestine to experience not only Israeli occupation and colonization but also Palestinian culture, hospitality, and language. For young professionals, the links with their counterparts in Palestine and the rest of the Arab world will be the key that enables Palestinian Chileans to contribute to Palestinian freedom and statehood. After 100 years of immigration, a clear vision and long-term strategy are needed in Palestine.
Xavier Abu Eid is a Palestinian-Chilean political scientist and the former vice president of the General Union of Palestinian Students in Chile. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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