A Palestinian refugee’s open letter to Obama

Senator Barack Obama addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) forum on Foreign Policy in Chicago, March 2007. (Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

Dear President-elect Barack Obama,

I would like to congratulate you on this victory, a victory that is not only yours, as you said in your speech, but also for those who believed in you, and who are full of hope for the change you promote and the wish that it comes through you and your efforts to lead your country and the world for a legacy and a heritage that is meaningful, and plant hope in a time of despair.

I have been fortunate and blessed in my life. I received a scholarship to continue my studies in France where I stayed nine years. I returned to my occupied country with a PhD because I believed that I could make a change and that I am a change-maker in breaking cultural stereotypes, and could show another image of my people and their beauty and humanity through nonviolent resistance against the ugliness and violence of the Israeli occupation. This was my goal in creating the Al-Rowwad Center with a group of friends, to allow our children to use theatre and the arts for social change and nonviolent means of self-expression to keep them alive, instead of becoming a number on a list of martyrs, or handicapped for the rest of their lives, or perish in prison.

I believe that everybody is a change-maker, and nobody has the right to say, “I can’t do anything” or stay neutral at a time when injustice is committed every day. I believe, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed, that travel breaks cultural stereotypes, and if people have the opportunity to meet with each other as human beings, they will have no reason to go to war against each other. I believe in change, exactly like you, and hope that change will come with all the efforts we are doing. And because of this, I was rewarded as the first Ashoka Fellow-Social Entrepreneur in Palestine.

When I first visited the United States, in 2004, the immigration authorities asked me about my name, date of birth, place of birth, etc. Because there is no Palestine listed as a country in their computers, I was Jordanian — because I was born in 1963 in Jordanian-controlled Bethlehem. My father was Israeli, because he was born in 1910 in his village of Beit Nateef under the Ottoman Empire, even though it was called Palestine at that time, because this village was occupied and destroyed and became part of present-day Israel, which was created in 1948. What would be the feeling of anyone who only exists as a “terrorist,” but not as a “human being?”

I believe in human values and human rights. I believe in freedom, justice, peace, democracy and equality. You mentioned opportunity. I believe that occupied people have the right to defend their country against the occupation, in a time when the occupied victim is represented as the oppressor and the terrorist, and the occupier as the victim who defends himself. I believe that people who fight for justice and against oppression are heroes, like you. I believe that you are a role model, and you will affect generations to come.

My name is Abdelfattah Abusrour. I was born in Aida Refugee camp, on land rented for 99 years by UNRWA, the UN Agency for Palestine refugees, from Palestinian landowners of Bethlehem. My family originates from Beit Nateef, one of 534 destroyed Palestinian villages in 1948 by the Zionist bandits.

I grew up in Aida refugee camp, as a refugee in my own country. I remember the 1967 War which broke out when I was four years old. I remember the sky full of planes, and all of the young children covered by black blankets, and cherished by their mothers. I remember the field around the camp, where we used to play, to perform our theatre plays in the open fields. I remember the big holes in the ground, when they were filled with water, they were our swimming pools.

A segregation fence was built in 2002 which was transformed into a 30-foot-tall apartheid wall in 2005, encircling the camp from the east, the north and part of the west.

Like you, I was fed the love of my country. Like you, I remember my past and present, and remember the rusty keys of my parents’ home in Beit Nateef, keys for doors that exist no more, but keys that have their doors in our hearts and our imaginations. These rusty keys are still with me. I remember that we were brought up with this eternal belief that right is right, and nothing can justify ignoring it. I remember that our right of return to our original villages and homes is eternal, and nothing can change it, neither realities on the ground nor political agreements, because it is a right which is also granted in international law and UN resolutions.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, we were living in lies and broken promises of change, and when change comes; it is for the worse and not for the better. Nothing improves with all the negotiations. No promise of independence for Palestinians was fulfilled, even after 60 years.

I believe in peace and nonviolence, in hope and right and justice. I believe in the values that make humanity what it is. I have never hated anyone. My parents were full of love and peace. They never taught me or my brothers anything other than respect of others and endless love to give and help others. They taught us that when you practice violence you lose part of your humanity. But at the same time, they taught us to defend what is right and to stand against what is unjust and wrong. Therefore, I do dare to say that you have great challenges facing you, and you are fully aware of that. But what remains after all is what you have said, the values you defend, and the heritage you want to leave to your two daughters and the generations to come. I do fear the day when my three sons and two daughters, or any child in my occupied country or in any other country comes to me tomorrow or in ten or twenty years from now, asks: “What did you do to make a change in this world?” This is why I continue to work to make a positive change and work for a better tomorrow at a time when every day that comes is worse than the day before. This is why I continue, so I may respond and say I did something to make a change.

I don’t know if you will read these words or not, but I do hope that such words that come from my heart will reach yours, and you can find the hope and strength our people still have in them. I do hope that you will fulfill your promise of change, that your daughters will remain proud of their father and his achievements. Right is right, and justice is justice. All people are equal, and no race or color is superior above the others.

I wish you strength and power to carry the big burden you inherited from the previous government and the courage to keep hope and force through the change you want to make, and the ability to keep inspiring people that it is never too late for a change to come.

Hope is alive as long as we are the change we want to see. And my hope is that our children can enjoy a peaceful, safe, clean and just world. My sons Canan (9), Adam (7) and Ahmad (5), and my daughters Rafa (3) and Safa (4 months), my wife and I wish you the best in bringing to the world the change we need.

Abdelfattah Abusrour, PhD is the Director of the Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center, an independent center for artistic, cultural, and theatre training for Palestinian children in the Aida Refugee Camp. The Center provides a “safe” and healthy environment to help Palestinian children creatively discharge stress in the war-time conditions in which they live.