Ain el Hilweh in the heart of Montreal

The Ayoub family in the basement of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce church, Montreal, 2004. (Darren Ell)


I went to visit the Ayoub family while I was recently in Montreal. It was freezing cold and snow was falling as along with two activists with the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees, I approached the side door to Notre-Dame-de-Grâce church. We found Khalil Ayoub huddled outside, smoking a cigarette. The small alley and adjacent yard are as far as any of the family can go without facing arrest by Canadian police.

Khalil led us inside, down the steps to the basement, where church members were holding a rummage sale. We made our way through the tables of books and clothes and into the small room that has been the Ayoubs’ world for almost one year.

Khalil Ayoub, 67, his brother Nabih Ayoub, 69, and Nabih’s wife Thérèse Boulos Haddad, 62, sought sanctuary in the church after Immigration Canada issued a deporation order against them in January 2004. The Ayoub brothers were born in the village of Al-Bassa, near the port city of Akka, in northern Palestine. In 1948, when Israel was established in their country, they fled to Lebanon and over the years moved among several refugee camps, trying to escape the horrors of the Israeli invasion and the Lebanese civil war. In 2001, they obtained visas to the United States, and in April that year crossed into Canada and applied for refugee status. Stateless, with no passports and no where to go, their claim was rejected and they were ordered deported. This is when they sought refuge in the church.

For many Palestinian refugees living underground in Montreal, the Ayoub family is a local symbol of the larger Palestinian refugee struggle, representing the fate of the forgotten majority of Palestinians in the world who live in diaspora, denied the right to return to their own country. Whether the Ayoubs and 100 other stateless Palestinians threatened with deportation will ever find a place they can call home and live in peace depends most immediately on whether Canada’s Immigration minister will decide to regularize their status in Canada. I had always thought that Canada has been exemplary in upholding international human rights and humanitarian principles. But while I was there, Ahmed Nafaa, a stateless Palestinian, was deported to the United States to face an uncertain fate. What will become of the Ayoubs if they are deported? Who will take them in if Canada will not?

What was so shocking and moving about the situation Ayoubs find themselves in, in their church basement room in Montreal, is how reminiscent it is of the conditions they fled in Lebanon’s Ain el Hilweh refugee camp. The little room was like so many refugee homes I have visited in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. One room suffices for all the family functions: a home despite itself. All their clothes and belongings are meticulously stacked and ordered, sometimes covered with brightly printed cloths to hide any semblance of clutter.

The Ayoub family in Palestine, in 1948, as the family was being expelled to Lebanon.


As we visited with the family, Thérèse sat on a chair, shelling peas, while Nabih and Khalil joked and speculated on their future. When I told Nabih that my family is from a village in the West Bank, he told stories of people he knew from our area, describing moments of his life as if they had occurred yesterday. But all the stories he told occurred before 1948 — before his life was incomprehensibly shattered into pieces that have yet to stop careening in unknown directions. He described the family’s search for shelter after they heard about the deportation order — the terror of not knowing what would happen to them from one hour to the next. After they came to the church, they found a certain tranquility, but no peace.

As we sat and talked, Khalil got up, insisting on making us Arabic coffee, despite our protestations that he should not trouble himself. This gesture is the most commonplace among Palestinians, and it is also the most powerful. To offer someone coffee, to serve it with your own hands, is a way to say “welcome to my home.”

Related Links

  • Action Items: Stop the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees from Canada, EI/CADPR (8 December 2004)

    Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada