“We walked and walked and walked for days until we finally settled on the beach of Damour,” said 80-year-old Um Zohair. “On the beach we fetched green banana leaves together and with bamboo sticks we made a hut that sheltered us for three months on the sand.”
Sixty-six years ago, Um Zohair — Nada Mousa — was one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homeland, Palestine.
“That was the first time we were displaced,” she said. Since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, a series of upheavals and struggles has marked Palestinian refugees’ nomadic life in exile. A new chapter in this history of dispossession has been added by the violence against Palestinian refugees in Syria.
“Palestinians from Syria are living in sewers. Come and look,” Um Zohair told me.
Abedlrahman, a young Palestinian refugee from Syria, led the way. At an alley’s dead end, we needed to leap over the reeking water to get into the entrance of a murky dungeon. Once inside, it seemed like we had crossed into an invisible parallel world — except that the sewer’s stench stang the nostrils as a reminder of the dark reality surrounding us.
A dim, windowless subterranean room once an underground bomb shelter in the 1980s “War of the Camps” — and later a storage room — is now home to eight members of a fragmented family. Inside sat an old woman surrounded by four smiling faces and a fifth whose permanent scowl was hard to break: arms crossed, 14-year-old Mahmoud sat on the edge of a decomposing sofa.
Um Zohair’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren have fled to Lebanon without their breadwinners, their exact whereabouts in Syria remain unknown. As Um Zohair watched over her grandchildren, their mother, Um Mahmoud, left her five children (Ahmad, 10; Issa, 8; Haytham, 6; Mahmoud, 14; and Huda, 15) and went around Shatila refugee camp, hunting and gathering, looking for any menial job she could score in exchange for money or food.
The mother’s daily struggle to put food on the table is but one part of the bigger burdens of finding $200 to pay for Lebanese residency permits for each of the four family members who are over the age of ten. As if the Lebanese residency fees weren’t hard enough to find, she also has to come up with rent money for the dungeon that shelters them: $200 per month.
Six-year-old Haitham has stopped going to school because of a new-found intolerance for loud noises and overcrowded places. The eldest boy, Mahmoud, said: “I wish I could find a job; I’ll take any job so my mother won’t have to go out every morning and beg people in humiliation for money and food.”
Mahmoud pressed his lips, his frown tensed to prevent tears from gathering, and hissed, “I cannot find a job in the camp, and I’m afraid to venture outside Shatila. We don’t have residency permits. I do not want the police to catch me. I swear I’ll work at anything.”
The three meter by four meter storage room Um Zohair and her grandchildren rent comes with a faucet and a bucket hanging from it, functioning as a kitchen sink. In the corner opposite the kitchen is the toilet: a caved-in drain in the floor enclosed by a curtain made from a vintage bedsheet. The black hole in the room, a drain/toilet, continuously emits unpleasant smells.
The floor, never having seen tiles, is a clammy, uneven bumpy surface of olive green cement. The beds are but two sponge mattresses no more than five centimeters thick. When there is food to cook, Um Zohair and her daughter-in-law use a little camping stove donated by a sympathetic neighbor.
In 1917, Arthur James Balfour, then Britain’s foreign secretary, proclaimed that nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Almost one hundred years later, Zionist settlers continue to degrade the identity, history and wellbeing of the original inhabitants of Palestine.
This failed promise that nothing should be done to prejudice Palestinians’ rights has today developed into what can be safely called apartheid.
Um Zohair, like many Palestinians, is more accustomed to displacement than any human being should be. One year ago she and her family fled war-ravaged Syria. Their last home was in a Palestinian refugee camp near the Damascus international airport.
Um Zohair, who seems to suffer from numerous health problems, held her cane in one hand and rummaged through a plastic bag full of medicine in the other. When asked about Palestine she jerked her head high and her eyes sparked as she reminisced. “I am from Safed, Palestine; my village and place of birth is called al-Qatiyya. Do you know it? It is right next to Naameh. I was 13, a young girl, when we were attacked, our house burned and later forced to leave by the Haganah [a Zionist militia].
“That day is always in my memory. I remember, before the assault, elders in the village kept warning us about the Haganah gang who were coming to attack us. My father said those were rumors and we should not leave our land and house. Rumors kept increasing about the arrival of European Jews to attack our village and take our homes; this prompted some people to leave, but we stayed.”
Um Zohair went silent for a minute and looked again in her medication bag. Then, as if the memory of her hometown came back to her, she resumed talking.
“Long walk to Lebanon”
“That morning they broke into houses and forced everyone out to the streets. The Israeli Haganah soldiers started shouting for us to go out and gather in the village’s square. I remember our neighbors, they were Jews, those were our friends and we coexisted for as long as I remembered.
“It was not they, our neighbors, who attacked us; it was the nationalist Israelis, the Europeans. They pointed their guns at men who were in the village and led them to the village’s outskirts. My father was taken with two of my uncles and we never saw them again afterwards. Our Jewish neighbors came to our defense at first and I remember clearly how they shouted in Hebrew at the Israeli militants.
“However, our neighbors could not stop the Israeli militants as they started to burn down one house after another in the village. I don’t remember what happened after that but I remember my mother, my two sisters and I, together with other families, stayed put in the village’s square for two days until the European militants came again and forced us to leave. They started shouting, asking why we were still in the village, and ordered us to join the others who fled their villages from the Safed region. We fled and started the long walk towards Lebanon.”
Um Zohair can still remember her home where she was born and raised in al-Qatiyya. She recalled the serenity and simple life she took for granted at the age of 13 in her family’s stone house and her father’s wheat field.
She wished for her grandchildren to return to al-Qatiyya and have a chance to live with dignity.
“Palestinians are there for each other. Those around us in Shatila know about our plight; they too are not in a much better situation but they still share with us the food they cook. Palestinians are exhausted from being homeless for so long.
“In Syria, my sons used to work from morning until night at a brick factory. I had four boys and two girls; one of my girls was killed last year by shrapnel.
“My other daughter is still in Syria; they cannot afford to flee. Two of my four boys have been missing since last year; one of them is the father of these kids with me. Each night as the eight of us gather to sleep we hope that this will be the last night on the floor of this room.”
Being ethnically cleansed means that Palestinian refugees are estranged from their homeland. They move from one place to another, never feeling at home.
Palestine, their homeland, is still occupied and their internationally-recognized right of return is continually denied and violated by Israel.
The urgency and determination to return to Palestine was broadcast to the whole world during the attempt to return while commemorating the Nakba three years ago on 15 May 2011.
Then, more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon headed to the border with occupied Palestine. The vast majority of them were young Palestinians determined to fight for their right to return to Palestine. In response, as the whole world watched, Israeli occupation forces did what they have been doing best for the last 66 years: they hunted down and killed Palestinians with sheer cruelty, killing nearly a dozen.
Um Zohair’s story is a tale of a lifelong struggle. She is one of millions of Palestinians stuck in exile, banned by Israel from returning to their roots, their villages and orange trees.
Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter: @MoeAliN.