The Forbidden Palestinians in North America

The survivors of the 1948 massacres in and expulsions from Palestine are everywhere.  Scattered to the four corners of the earth, we have only to look in our own communities to find them. Seven million Palestinians live outside Palestine, compared with five million inside. At least half a million live in Chile alone.  Why, then, should we bring Palestinians from the refugee camps in Lebanon to tell their stories in North America?

Many have said that we should not. They say that these Palestinians are toxic, that they are hardliners, resistance fighters, fanatics and terrorists, and that there is no benefit in trying to engage them.  We believe the opposite, that because they have a different viewpoint, the full Palestinian story cannot be told without their voices, and that, in fact, they speak for many other Palestinians who who think as they do.

The western groups that invite Palestinian speakers from Palestine inevitably act as a filter.  It is easy to find Palestinians that preach nonviolence and reconciliation, but how often have we heard from the rest?  How many speakers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been on speaking tours of North America? Do they not have a viewpoint and should we not hear it?

That is, of course, impossible.  Our societies will not allow it.  So we decided instead to bring sympathetic voices of people who are from these societies but have no affiliation to any of the political parties or resistance groups.  Unlike Palestinians in other countries, their societies have been frozen in refugee camps since 1948, because they are considered foreigners and refugees in Lebanon, without permission to work, own land, or partake in the life of the country.  They are stateless, with no citizenship of any kind and few, if any, opportunities to travel.  It was something of a miracle to get their US visas.  In many ways, their condition has not changed since the time of their expulsion.

The North America Nakba Tour, sponsored by the Free Palestine Movement, the Northern California chapter of the International Solidarity Movement and Al-Awda Palestine Right to Return Coalition, brought 86-year-old Mariam Fathalla from the Ein el-Helweh camp in southern Lebanon and 22-year-old Amena Ashkar from the Bourj el-Barajneh camp near Beirut to San Francisco at the beginning of April, 2016.  In the next nine weeks they logged more than 11,000 miles by car and spoke at 26 events throughout North America.  Sadly, their Canadian visa did not arrive in time, so those five events were conducted by electronic connection.

The tour was an acclaimed success.  More than seventy organizations sponsored the events, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups, as well as university, social justice and community organizations.  Astonishingly, there were few confrontational situations.  The primary outcome was greater understanding.

Mariam and Amena delivered a message that they want all their rights restored: their lands, their properties and their country.  Everyone in the camps has lost everything they ever had in Palestine.  There is nothing left to preserve.  The issues at the “peace talks” are meaningless to them.  They don’t want a Palestinian state.  They want Palestine.  They don’t want land in Palestine. They want their land in their village in Palestine.  They don’t even want equality with Israelis.  They want justice.

One questioner asked, “What is the solution? Two states? A single state for all? A binational state?”  Amena responded, “I don’t accept any of those, because none of them restores what we lost, and doesn’t give us our rights.  International law is on our side.” Her message was understood, with sympathy, and there was no confrontation.

• If you missed the live presentation, you can see one filmed in Denver on May 20, 2016 at The North American Nakba Tour: Exiled Palestinians living in Lebanon

Paul Larudee is a retired academic and current administrator of a nonprofit human rights and humanitarian aid organization. Read other articles by Paul.