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US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
From One Refugee to Another
By Ramzy Baroud
February 9 2015
Whenever the word ‘refugee’ is uttered, I think of my
mother. When Zionist militias began their systematic onslaught and
‘cleansing’ of the Palestinian Arab population of historic
Palestine in 1948, she, along with her family, ran away from the
once peaceful village of Beit Daras.
Back then, Zarefah
was six. Her father died in a refugee camp in a tent provided by
the Quakers soon after he had been separated from his land. She
collected scrap metal to survive.
My grandmother Mariam,
would venture out to the ‘death zone’ that bordered the separated
and newly established state of Israel from Gaza’s refugee camps to
collect figs and oranges. She faced death every day. Her children
were all refugees, living in shatat – the Diaspora.
mother lived to be 42. Her life was tremendously difficult. She
married a refugee, my dad, and together they brought seven
refugees into this world - my brothers, my sister and myself. One
died as a toddler, for there was no medicine in the refugee camp’s
No matter where we are, in time and place, we
carry our refugee ID cards, our undefinable nationalities, our
precious status, our parents’ burden, our ancestors’ pain.
In fact, we have a name for it. It is called waja’ - ‘aching’ - a
character that unifies millions of Palestinian refugees all across
the globe. With our refugee population now dominated by second,
third or even fourth generation refugees, it seems that our waja’
is what we hold in common most. Our geographies may differ, our
languages, our political allegiances, our cultures, but
ultimately, we meet around the painful experiences that we have
internalized throughout generations.
My mother used to say
– ihna yalfalastinieen damitna qaribeh – tears for us Palestinians
are always close by. But our readiness to shed tears is not a sign
of weakness, far from it. It is because throughout the years we
managed to internalize our own exile, and its many ramifications,
along with the exiles of everyone else’s. The emotional burden is
just too great.
We mask the unbearable aching somehow, but
it is always close to the surface. If we hear a single melody by
Marcel Khalifeh or Sheikh Imam, or a few verses by Mahmoud
Darwish, the wound is as fresh as ever.
Most of us no
longer live in tents, but we are reminded of our refugee status
every single day, by the Israeli occupation, by the Gaza siege and
the internally-displaced Palestinians in Israel, by the Iraq war
and the displacement of the already displaced Palestinians there,
by the despicable living conditions of Palestinian refugees in
Lebanon, and throughout the Middle East.
But for us,
Syria has been our greatest waja’ in years. Aside from the fact
that most of Syria’s half a million
are on the run again, living the pain of displacement and loss
for the second, third, or even fourth time.
Nine million Syrian refugees
are now duplicating the Palestinian tragedy, charting the early
course of the Palestinian Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948.
Watching the destitution of the Syrian refugees is
like rewinding the past, in all of its awful details. And
watching Arab states clamor to aid the refugees with ample words
and little action feels as if we are living Arab betrayal all over
I watched my grandparents die, followed by my
parents and many of my peers. All of them died refugees, carrying
the same status and the same lost hope of return. The most they
ever received from the ‘international community’ was a few sacks
of rice and cheap cooking oil. And of course, numerous tents.
With time our refugee status morphed from being a ‘problem’
to an integral part of our identities. Being a ‘refugee’ at this
stage means insisting on the
Right of Return for Palestinian refugees as enshrined in
international law. That status is no longer just a mere reference
to physical displacement but also to a political, even a national
Political division may, at times, dominate
Palestinian society, but we will always be united by the fact that
we are refugees with a common cause: going home. While for the
Palestinians of Yarmouk near Damascus, being a refugee is a matter
of life and death – often by starvation – for the larger
Palestinian collective, the meaning of the word has become more
involved: it has been etched onto our skin forever.
what can one say by way of advice to the relatively new refugees
of Syria, considering that we are yet to liberate ourselves from a
status that we never sought?
There can be only reminders
and a few warnings:
First, may your displacement
end soon. May you never live the waja’ of displacement to the
extent that you embrace it as a part of your identity, and pass it
on from one generation to another. May it be a kind of fleeting
pain or passing nightmare, but never a pervasive everyday reality.
Second, you must be prepared for the worst. My
grandparents left their new blankets in their village before they
fled to the refugee camps because they feared they would have been
ruined by the dust of the journey. Alas, the camps became home,
and the blankets were confiscated as the rest of Palestine was.
Please remain hopeful, but realistic.
Third, don’t believe
the ‘international community’ when they make promises.
They never deliver, and when they do, it is always for
ulterior motives that might bring you more harm than good. In
fact, the term itself is illusory, mostly used in reference to
western countries which have wronged you as they have us.
Fourth, don’t trust Arab regimes. They lie.
They feel not your
pain. They hear not your pleas, nor do they care. They have
invested so much in destroying your countries, and so little in
redeeming their sins. They speak of aid that rarely arrives and
political initiatives that constitute mostly press releases. But
they will take every opportunity to remind you of their virtues.
your victimhood becomes a platform for their greatness. They
thrive at your expense, thus will invest to further your misery.
Fifth, preserve your dignity. I know, it is never easy to
maintain your pride
when you sleep
in a barren street covered in cardboard boxes. A mother would
do whatever she can to help her children pass into safety. No
matter, you must never allow the wolves awaiting you at every
border to exploit your desperation. You must never allow the Emir,
or his children or some rich businessman or sympathetic celebrity
to use you as a photo-op. Do not ever kneel. Don’t ever kiss a
hand. Don’t give anyone the satisfaction to exploit your pain.
Sixth, remain united. There is strength in unity when one is
a refugee. Don’t allow political squabbles to distract you from
the greater battle at hand: surviving until the day you return
home, and you will.
Seventh, love Syria. Yours is an
unparalleled civilization. Your history is rife with triumphs that
were ultimately of your own making.
Even if you must leave to distant lands, keep Syria in your
hearts. This too shall pass, and Syria shall redeem its glory,
once the brutes vanquish. Only the spirit of the people shall
survive. It is not wishful thinking. It is history.
Syrian refugee, it has been 66 years and counting since my
people’s dispossession began. We are yet to return, but that is a
battle for my children, and their children to fight. I hope yours
ends soon. Until then, please remember the tent is just a tent,
and the gusts of cold wind are but of a passing storm.
And until you return home to Syria, don’t let the refugee become
who you are, as you are so much more.
- Ramzy Baroud –
www.ramzybaroud.net - is
an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an
author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.
He is currently completing his PhD studies at the University of
Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s
Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).
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