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Palestinians in the Diaspora

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 03.11.2011:

A Story of Existence

By Mohammed A.K. Owaineh

TWIP November 2011

As a young child, I saw Palestinians in the diaspora as merely numbers I learned about in my “national education” books, a subject of discussion that my father and older brothers used to have, or, as I recall, videos of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon that were shown on TV. These were the very first images that were shaped in my mind about this particular Palestinian group. As I grew older, my understanding has grown along with me. Things became clearer as I began to understand that these people are not as miserable as I thought they were, and that misery was just a single aspect of this group.

On one September morning in 2003, while I was walking to school, I saw pictures of Edward Said (the Palestinian-American intellectual) spread all around my home city of Bethlehem. When I came back home that precise day, the first question I had was, who is Edward Said? I asked my father, and he answered me, “Son, people like Edward Said are why Palestinians are still not whipped on this planet.” Then he gave me a short biography about him that I don’t remember understanding a single word from.

It took me four years to understand what my father meant. It was then, and only then, that I began reading Said and I found out that he is truly “one of a kind.”

Every time I read more about the achievements of Palestinians who have lived outside of Palestine, I came to the same realisation that these people and their achievements have participated heavily in setting Palestine on the world map.

The mass emigrations of Palestinians began in the late nineteenth century, keeping up with Arabs from other communities, such as Syria and Lebanon. They mainly emigrated in order to flee the policies of the late Ottoman Empire, which included conscription and high taxes forced on peasants and landlords. The emigration of the Palestinians came to a climax in 1948 during al-Nakba (or the Palestinian Exodus), as approximately 720,000 Palestinians (nearly 70 per cent) fled to other countries after being forced to leave their villages and towns in an attempt to escape the brutality and the mass murders of Zionist groups, which were in the process of creating their own state.

Understanding the accomplishments of Palestinians abroad is essential to understanding our background as a determined people. Members of the Palestinian diaspora have defied every single barrier put in front of them. Let us take refugee camps (outside Palestine) as an example. Palestinians are well known in the Levant region for their contributions in different areas such as the press, arts, and literature. People like Ghassan Kanafani, Salma Jayyousi, Naji al-Ali, and Ismail Shammout have affected the literature and the arts of the areas they lived in. Despite spending their childhoods in refugee camps, they were able to shine by presenting new forms of writing and painting, and adapting existing ones in order to make them more lively and descriptive. The aesthetic value of their works is highly appreciated all over the globe. Others like Abdel Bari Atwan and Jamal Rayyan have left an impact on modern Arabic media.

The political involvement of Palestinians living abroad is a significant achievement as well. Even though they do not have a state, their “instinctual political subtlety” has allowed them to be one of the most politically active people around the world. Even though most of them were not born or raised on Palestinian soil, they have been carrying their people’s matters for a long time in order to present them to the international community. Their writings and thoughts have largely impacted international activists, helping them to see things in a clearer light. However, Palestinian political involvement has never been just “local.” Their participation has also been strong in other political regimes, such as in Jordan. The most notable person is HRH Queen Rania of Jordan who is originally from Tulkarem. Palestinians have also been able to leave the borders of their region by holding posts internationally, for example John H. Sununu, the former governor of the American state of New Hampshire, and Antonio Saca, the former President of El Salvador, who won the 2004 presidential elections against another candidate with Palestinian origins, Schafik Handal.

One could argue that it is not just Palestinians, every minority has its achievements that it boasts about. This is true. But what distinguishes Palestinians is they have not dissolved completely into the communities they are living in. They still believe that being a Palestinian cannot be limited to living in one particular spot on earth, but it is more of a “state of mind” in which they must somehow contribute to what they see as “Palestinian global achievements.” Because of this, Palestinians who are living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria still keep the keys of their old houses, and pass them from one generation to the next, as if they were a precious family belonging. They do this to remind their children and grandchildren about their homeland, even though they have been far from it for 63 years, and because they still believe that the right of return is an undisputed right.

I’d like to finish my article with this statistic. There are approximately eleven million Palestinians on this planet and around 4.3 million (which is less than half) are currently living in what is called the Palestinian Territories. The rest are either emigrants, refugees, or Palestinians living within the areas occupied in 1948 and 1967. The numbers illustrate the significance of the diaspora to us. They might not have shared this land with us, but they share our common history of despair and destruction, which caused our shattering. That is why whenever a Palestinian travels abroad, the probability of him or her coming back and saying, “I met a Palestinian there,” is quite high.

Mohammed Owaineh is a Palestinian who was born in Dubai and spent his early childhood in Jordan. He now is fortunate enough to live on the land of his grandfathers. Owaineh currently works at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation (CCHP) and can be reached at

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