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Palestinians in Britain

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 08.03.2008:

By Ghada Karmi

The British Palestinian community constitutes one of the most important of the Palestinian diaspora. This is not because of its size, which is not accurately known as we will see below, but because of its prominence in the professional, journalistic, and political fields; and also for the fact that several major Arabic-language newspapers, for which Palestinians write, are published in Britain.

It was probably inevitable that Palestinians, dispersed from their homeland, would find their way to Britain rather than other European countries. Firstly, their main foreign language was English, and hence they were drawn to the English-speaking world. That is why, for example, the other major Palestinian diaspora community is in the United States. But secondly, it was Britain that was the ruling authority in Palestine during the crucially formative period of Palestinian history between 1920 and 1948. It followed from that, and as has been noted in other colonial situations, colonised people frequently gravitate towards the country of their coloniser. Despite all his abuses of them, they are familiar with his language, system, and customs. By an irony of fate, they end up embracing the very agent of their misfortune. Such was the case for Algerians migrating to France, and this was replicated for Palestinians after 1948.

As a child growing up in London, I remember asking my father why, given what the British had done to us Palestinians, we were living amongst them. My father never gave me a straight answer to this question but was clearly embarrassed by it. He could have said that it was precisely because of the catastrophe that British action in Palestine had visited on us that he was forced to find work wherever he could. Like many other Palestinians, he took his opportunity where he could, even in the land of those who had betrayed us. He spoke their language and had worked for the Mandate before 1948, the only employer for educated and professional Palestinians at the time. It was therefore natural for him to slot into a job in England, working for the same kind of people he was already familiar with. The few other Palestinian families and individuals we met in the 1950s were in the same predicament: caught between the need to survive and their misgivings about the source of their livelihood. My mother, however, was never in any doubt that our presence in England was an anomaly. She never once forgot what the British had done and resented living in their land and accepting their bounty. However, even she recognised our helplessness as a people in the face of dispersal and exile, forced to survive as best we could.

The fact that we and thousands of other Palestinian exiles overcame that initial shock and went on to establish successful lives, institutions, businesses, and organisations is a remarkable story of achievement in the face of adversity.

Size of the British Palestinian community

One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to study this community is the lack of accurate data on its demography. That is because the British national census has no specific category for Arabs, let alone Palestinians. The census of 2001, the most recent one, created exciting opportunities for those wishing to investigate the size of Britain’s ethnic and religious composition because it included specific questions on ethnic origin and religious affiliation. But it had no specific category for Arabs or Palestinians. Other sources for foreign nationals usually cited are embassy registration figures, but in the Palestinian case, these are not of much help either, since Palestinians who hold Arab citizenship will appear on the lists of those Arab embassies and thus be invisible. The only exception is that of Jordan, where we can infer that the majority of “Jordanians” will be of Palestinian origin. Furthermore, Palestinian asylum seekers will not be included in the census figures, nor those born in Britain of mixed parentage, since they may not designate themselves as Palestinians.

As a result, the exact size of the community is unknown. Unofficial estimates dating from 1997 put the number of Palestinian at 15,000, but that was almost certainly exaggerated. This is not unusual for many minority groups which inflate their numbers because it makes them feel more important. In fact the migration of Palestinians into Britain was a relatively minor phenomenon throughout the period from 1948 to 1980. But it started to increase towards the end of that decade and even more so in the 1990s due to political upheaval in the Arab world, most particularly in Iraq and Lebanon. It is now likely that the total number of Palestinians is in the region of 15-20,000. Like all Arabs, the great majority live in the London area, but there are smaller communities in many of Britain’s other major cities, driven there by London’s high cost of living.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Palestinian men outnumber women. Their age group is younger that that of the white British population, and they have younger families. This is the same pattern as that of Muslim migrant groups in Britain. It is usual for males to travel abroad first and then for families to follow, and those who migrate are usually young and fit. Since refugees and asylum seekers are a feature of Palestinian migration, the gender imbalance in favour of males is more pronounced.

Occupation and lifestyle

For a long time Palestinians came to Britain as either students, professionals training for higher qualifications, or as temporary visitors of various types. Today this is no longer the case. With increasing numbers of Palestinians from all walks of life entering Britain, they have come to resemble other settled communities here with a more “normal” distribution of jobs and activities. Hence, it is now possible to find Palestinian shopkeepers, restaurant owners, cab drivers, and builders, as well as the more traditional professionals, businessmen, and journalists. We can divide the community into four types: the rich, the professionals, the workers, and the asylum seekers. It is difficult to give accurate figures for the numbers of people in each of these categories – and a trial census of Palestinians begun by the Palestinian Delegation in the early 1990s was never followed up – but Palestinians in whatever category tend to be better educated than other foreigners in similar occupations. This is no accident but the direct result of the well-known fact that the Palestinians, as a group, are the best educated in the Arab world, forced to be so by their dispersal and need to survive in hostile environments.

A number of interesting Palestinian classes have sprung up in today’s Britain. Because of the many wealthy businessmen who have found Britain congenial to their activities and family life, there is a flourishing Palestinian cosmopolitan “upper” class whose members relate to their peers across nationalities. When I meet such people, I am impressed by their facility in European culture and customs. At the other end of the scale, Palestinians in humbler occupations have found companionship with each other on a family basis, socialising together rather as if they had been back in some corner of the Arab world. In between these extremes are the many professional, managerial, and journalistic groupings that engage with and across the other classes.

In all this, one senses the need for Palestinians to congregate and try to re-create their previous unity – a kind of shadow homeland in exile. This has led to the appearance of several organisations attempting to bring the community together. The most prominent of these is the Association of the Palestinian Community (APC), of which I was president in 1999. Although it has never functioned as well as its supporters had hoped, the APC remains the basic structure for gathering the Palestinians together. In addition, the Palestine Return Centre in London is run by Palestinians and is one of the most successful Arab organisations in Britain. Its main remit is, as its name implies, the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. It functions as a research and publishing centre, arranges high-level meetings and, most recently, has established a Palestinian cultural centre in London, the first of its kind. Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is a medical charity also based in London. Originally set up by Palestinians, its board includes non-Palestinian members, a prestigious British president, and a highly qualified British chief executive. MAP is the only British charity that operates solely on behalf of the Palestinians and has gained an enormous reputation. Its annual dinners are a high spot in the Palestinian annual calendar of events, addressed by a variety of prominent British figures and well-attended by Palestinians and their friends.

Other Arab and pro-Arab organisations in Britain include Palestinians and promote the Palestinians cause. The Arab Club is an all-Arab organisation, mostly engaged in social events, and the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CABU) is a British association that lobbies on behalf of the Palestinians and the wider Arab cause. In addition, Palestinian student organisations exist in all major British universities, and there is a General Union of Palestinian Students which campaigns actively for Palestinian causes. This is not to mention the myriad informal and unofficial groups and organisations run by Palestinians or their friends, selling Palestinian produce, working in churches to promote understanding, holding meetings, and generally being involved in the effort to promote the Palestinian cause. Several Arab schools exist, working usually on Saturdays to teach Arabic and sometimes Islam as well.

A prominent community

The foregoing account has attempted to draw up a demographic and social profile of the British Palestinian community. This is not easy, given the lack of accurate figures. Despite these handicaps, however, it is clear that this is a community that is distinguished by the achievements of its parts, rather than its whole. The leading Arab newspapers, Al-Hayat, al-Sharq al-Awsat, and Al-Quds al-Arabi, which originate in London, have attracted a number of talented Palestinian journalists. Likewise, the BBC Arabic service, radio and TV, has traditionally drawn on Palestinian talent for its broadcasters. Many of these went on to enrich the Al-Jazeera TV channel when the BBC TV shut down ten years ago. In political activism, British Palestinians have also led the way. They have a long history of political organisation and a close working relationship with the political movements in Palestine and the Arab world. The earliest political magazine in English, Free Palestine, was published in London in 1968, and the earliest political organisation, Palestine Action, was established in 1972. True, there is no Palestinian member of the British parliament as yet, but it is only a matter of time. The younger Palestinian generations, born in Britain, are even more passionate about Palestine than their parents. This cause will not disappear with them.

Today there are prominent Palestinians in several walks of life in Britain. One has but to think of Abdul Bari Atwan, the outspoken editor of Al-Quds; Michel Abdul Massih, the first Palestinian QC; Professor Yasir Suleiman, professor of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University; Reem Kelani, the fine singer of Palestinian folk songs; and many others. But it is not famous individuals only who make up the fabric of Palestinian success in Britain. Rather it is the less-publicised but remarkable everyday stories of initiative and resourcefulness that the community produces that make up this achievement – the men and women who come without wealth or support but who succeed by their wits. For me it is summed up in this true example. A Palestinian refugee from Safad arrived in London in 1960 with little money and no friends. He was eventually able to find a job working for a Jewish estate agent as a lowly assistant. But from the first moment he made sure he learned every trick of the trade, following his boss closely in his work and making notes. “No one knows this business like the Jews,” he told me, “I was glad to learn from such a good teacher.” When he had learned enough, he resigned and set up his own estate agency, taking a list of the old firm’s clients with him. In a few years he had become a wealthy man with a secure business, a beautiful home full of antiques, and a benefactor of Palestinian charities. No one, seeing him today, could have guessed at his humble origins or hard life.

The moral is this: Palestinians with such an indomitable spirit will be irrepressible, whether in Britain or anywhere else. Their success is that, far from succumbing, they have turned adversity into achievement.

Ghada Karmi is a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, England, and the author of Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine as well as In Search of Fatima.

This Week in Palestine

March 2008

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