Still refugees, wherever we are

Tawfiq and Sawsan with a picture of the author’s grandmother, Jamileh. (Mohammed Asad)

I grew up with snippets of my family history told in short, evocative sentences.

“We had the largest field of figs in the village,” or, “Your grandfather loved horses and he used to own several.”

Most heard, however, was: “We lost everything during the Nakba.”

Much of my information came from my late grandmother, Jamileh. I remember gathering around her with my siblings during power cuts, listening to her stories about my grandfather and their life before the Nakba. She would smile when she described their village, al-Masmiya al-Kabira, recalled her memories of the harvest season, or how she fell in love with my grandfather.

I am of the third Nakba generation. But though I was born almost 45 years after the fact, we all remain refugees, displaced and dispersed. My early life was dominated by UNRWA, the United Nations agency that was set up to cater to Palestine refugees. And “refugee” is a word that I used to hear everywhere: at the UNRWA schools where I studied for nine years, at the UNRWA medical centers, and in Beach refugee camp, set up by UNRWA, where I grew up.

My father was born in Gaza in 1954. His grandparents had taken refuge there, some 40 kilometers south of their village, during the 1948 Nakba after they heard news and rumors about the Deir Yassin massacre.

“I remember my father talking to my mother about it,” my grandmother, who was 16 at the time of the massacre, once told me. “They had heard that they forced the women to take their clothes off and sent them in buses to other villages in order to frighten and threaten them. The men of our village were afraid of a similar massacre in our village, and we decided to leave. Later, we heard that they destroyed it.”

Sawsan, a refugee mother

My mother is originally from Nilin in the central West Bank. She, too, lived her whole childhood as a refugee in Jordan, where she was born in 1967, and later Syria, after her family fled their village during the Nakba.

For me, to be the son of two refugees is to live in a continual state of insecurity and nostalgia. I never really knew my relatives from my mother’s side or many of my father’s siblings. The Nakba affected me directly this way and in all areas of my childhood and life.

After my parents got married in Syria, in 1984, my mother started to see her family in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus much less. My father was working as a journalist with the Palestine Liberation Organization and they had to travel a lot.

And by moving to Gaza in 1994, after the Oslo accords, and being issued with one of the newly created Palestinian Authority passports, my mother effectively gave up hope of full freedom of movement. She knew that from then, meeting her family, in Jordan or Syria, would be very difficult because Palestinians needed visas that were – and are – almost impossible for them to obtain.

It didn’t stop her from trying. Many of my childhood memories revolve around us applying for visas to spend our summer holidays in Syria and Jordan and then waiting for what would be the inevitable rejection.

Every year brought more disappointment for my mother and every year her children saw her vexed and frustrated. She missed the weddings of her siblings, and she missed the births of their children. She was not there as her parents grew older.

In 2005, and after a decade of trying, we were finally successful, though, as always with Palestinians, not completely: my father and an older brother were not granted visas.

Eventually, I managed to travel with my mother and two sisters to Syria through Egypt. It would be just the third time my mother had seen her parents since 1984. Despite my young age, I was 11 at the time, I remember the minute details of that trip. It was also the first time I met my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. All those people had been nothing but photographs to us, our mother’s children. They suddenly sprang into warm, loving life.

We came back to Gaza after spending one of the best months in my life. However, I haven’t met my grandparents since then, though my mother did see them for a week in Syria in 2011.

My grandparents are still in Syria. My uncles and aunts are divided between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The only way my mother can meet them is online. They share laughs, tears, dreams, fears, and a lot of childhood memories, but only through technology and only at an enforced distance.

Tawfiq, a refugee father

My father’s situation wasn’t much different from my mother’s. Born in Gaza, he returned there with my mother in 1994, joining his parents and two sisters, but leaving two brothers and two sisters abroad in Jordan, Spain and Canada.

This was much to my grandmother Jamileh’s despair, especially on New Year.

“It’s another year without your uncles, aunts, and cousins around me,” she would always say. “I’m not sure I’ll be alive for another to meet them.”

In 2012, we learned that my grandmother was dying after years battling cancer. I would spend the nights with her in her small square room at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. She spent all night praying for each one of us by name, starting with my late grandfather and ending with her great grandchildren.

Hers was an “isolation room,” reserved for the terminally ill. But I understood she felt isolated in more ways than one, especially from her absent children.

My father called all his siblings to get them to make arrangements to come. It was not to be.

Neither sister had any success in obtaining the needed papers and my uncle in Spain found his passage blocked at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. As a Spanish citizen, he had to try to come through the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint, but EU status was to prove of no benefit: he was arrested at the airport and spent the night in detention before being sent back to Spain.

Another uncle, who lives in Canada, took a more risky route. He came through Egypt and traversed the smuggling tunnels into Gaza. It was desperate. And late. His mother passed away before his arrival and we were forced to postpone a funeral which three of Jamileh’s other children were unable to attend until he made it through.

Today I live in Paris. My parents and siblings are in Gaza. I have relatives across the Middle East, Europe and Canada. But nowhere can we feel safe or settled or permanent.

Ours is a state of temporariness and a longing for the security of our own homes on our own land whether in al-Masmiya or Nilin and those fig trees my grandmother would recall so fondly.

Mousa Tawfiq is a journalist, formerly based in Gaza, currently living in Paris.