Only One Place we Belong

Mary Shoufani - Athens, Greece

My name is Mary Rayya. I am from Al-Bassa village in Akka District in northern Palestine. My village was totally demolished and destroyed and renamed Shelomi settlement. The whole population of my village, Christians and Muslims, was expelled in 1948. They were allowed by the Lebanese army to go to south Lebanon, to the town of Al-Nabatiyyah. Then they were moved again further north to Al-Damour. The Christian population of my village was convinced to move further north to live among the Christians in the northern suburb of Beirut. They lived in tents for almost 2 years and then UNRWA intervened and built a camp for them in Dbayeh (established in 1956). Our camp had 4 streets with barracks built on both sides; it was very crowded with houses stuck on top of one another.

UNRWA built us a school which was sponsored by the Catholic Pope Missionary. It was a public primary school, later a high school was added. The whole population of our camp was catholic with 5 Maronite christian families. Our camp was built in that part of Beirut in the hope that we would integrate in the Lebanese community or that was what the Lebanese government hoped for. But that did not happen. We lived in a very closed community, we never had any relations with our Lebanese neighbors. We did not feel welcomed by them, they looked upon us as primitive, uneducated and uncivilized. My father used to say to us that “sooner or later they will kick us out from here.” We were never allowed to join Lebanese schools and that is why UNRWA built us a school and when we finished school we used to go abroad or to universities in the western part of Beirut, where the majority were Muslims and more compassionate towards us. We used to work outside the camp, within the nearby Lebanese community, as agricultural and construction workers. The first generation of Palestinian university graduates, went to work in Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Libya, and Kuwait, which financially helped their families and contributed to raising the standard of living of people in the camp.

In the camp, we had our own shops (small mini-markets), our own clinic (we had doctors from UNRWA coming twice a week), our own nurses who took care of us until the doctors would come, our own school, etc. So we lived our life the same way we lived it in Palestine; we cooked the same food, we celebrated our Christmas, Easter and all the holidays the same way as we did in our village. Life in the camp was however not exactly the same, because in our villages in Palestine we owned our own land; in the camp, as in all of Lebanon, we were not allowed to own.

We stayed in the camp until the civil war broke out. We were expelled by the right-wing Lebanese Christian forces in February 1976. My family lost one brother in the civil war, he was killed by the Phalanges. Our camp lost about 40 people, most of them between 17 and 35 years old. The camp was partially destroyed during the civil war. Most of us had to go and live in the western part of Beirut while few stayed in the camp. We joined the schools there and eventually went to university. I studied in the American University of Beirut and my brothers went to the United States and Turkey; my parents sent them away because they did not want to lose another son.

I studied business administration, although I never worked in that field. I worked for 3 years as an executive secretary in one of the oil companies in Abu Dhabi and then for a few months as a teacher in Athens and then I had to quit to take care of my children.

My family was forced to leave Lebanon and moved to Canada in 2003 because my brothers, while holding refugee travel documents, could not find work due to a law that prohibits Palestinians from working in over 70 types of professions. They also could not get visas to work in Arab states. All of my family is separated and now lives in either Canada or Arab countries. I moved to Greece with my husband after his work transferred him there.

The Nakba immensely affected my whole family. We never felt that we belonged anywhere. Even my brothers who are now Canadian citizens and work in Canada do not feel that they belong to the Canadian community. We have great difficulty adjusting and integrating to any society. I also do not feel that I belong to the Greek community, although in Greece I am not afraid to say that I am Palestinian because the Greeks are very supportive and compassionate towards Palestinians and we feel very welcome here. Yet, to me, it is not home. Palestine is my home and there is where I should live and raise my children and theirs. In order to preserve our identity, we raise our children and teach them that they are Palestinians and that they should never think of themselves as anything other than that. This is the conflict we are living in; our children live in European and Canadian communities, yet they should conform to our Palestinian values, culture and traditions. It is a big problem for us to raise our children with conflicting identities, but I think we have no other choice. They should know and maintain the bond to their country.

I have recently been involved with the right of return committee and I hope to continue to contribute to their work, but my problem is that I am living in a community that has little interest in what is going on around us, especially regarding the Palestinian refugees. I think that the Palestinians have suffered an immense injustice inflicted by the international community and the United Nations, which is controlled by the United States. Since 1948 and due to the total blind international support for Israel, not one resolution issued by the United Nations has been implemented, while we see that other minor resolutions adopted by the United Nations and not related to the Palestinian issue are easily implemented. That is why I think there will be no solution to the Palestinian problem and no peace in Palestine and the region until there is a change in the balance of power.

This could happen if the Palestinians reunite their forces, change their strategies and direct it towards fighting Israel and revealing its nature: a discriminatory apartheid-like regime over the Palestinian people in the 1967 occupied territory, 1948 Palestinian territories and in exile, and impose on Israel and the whole world a new strategy of negotiations towards peace that takes into consideration forming an independent state for Palestinians with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees. Of course this will not happen in the short run simply because the Zionists and their allies will not allow it unless Israel suffers a major defeat. This will take time, I know that, but to us this is the only solution.