The 64th anniversary of Al Nakba: Palestinians remember and US students learn
May is the month when Palestinians all over the world commemorate the Nakba—the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestinians, perpetuated by Zionist militias to create the state of Israel in 1948. This time of year, MECA gets many requests to speak about the history of Palestine to high school, junior high and college classes around the Bay Area and throughout the country. As we commemorate the 64th year since the Nakba, I, once again, find myself here in the United States, thousands of miles away from my homeland, talking to schoolchildren. As always, I expect to have to start with the basics.
I talk to students about history, about human rights, about Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return. I explain to them about what happened to my family, how I came to live in a refugee camp, and how thoughts of my village have been in the front of my mind, every day of my life since I was a young child. I explain to them that it is not just me. No matter where Palestinian refugees live—in refugee camps, in “Israel,” the Arab world, Europe, America, or anywhere else—they still feel their refugee status because they are not free to go back and live in their original villages, on their family’s land.
These conversations are not easy. When I talk about my own family’s village near Jerusalem called Zakariya , they ask me, “Does Zakariya village exist right now?” I explain yes, it exists, but only in history books, on maps before 1948, in Palestinian or Arab maps, and referred to by people in solidarity with Palestine. The name has been changed to the Hebrew “Kfar Zakharia,” and only Jewish Israeli families who came from Poland, Germany, Russia, and other countries, are allowed to live there now. The mosque still exists, but it is abandoned and almost collapsing. The school building still exists, but it has become a supermarket. Zakariya is a broken place, an occupied place, a place stripped of its story, a place that longs for its people to return and bring it to life. In many ways, Zakariya lives in everyone: in the Nakba generation, and in the generations after, like me. Although, I am usually forbidden from going there, my roots are in Zakariya.
I usually expect the students to know very little about Palestine. But recently something has changed. I am surprised to hear students use words related to the Palestinian struggle like Nakba and Intifada (uprising). They know the meaning of these words and they have some understanding of Palestinian history. When I ask students “Why do you think Israelis worked really hard to plant trees after the Nakba?” some answer, “because they don’t want refugees to come back,” or “to erase history.” Some say, “to change everything on the ground.” Others say “to make it beautiful.”
Students know more than in the past. They are more interested and they have immediate access to more information than ever before. Sometimes when I am speaking about Palestine, students are looking things up on their computers or smart phones, in some cases adding things I have left out. Once, the Palestinian perspective was silenced, Now, information is accessible, and all we need is the desire for people to learn.
Schools are also more supportive than ever before. I recently spoke at a middle school where children study a curriculum on the Middle East for four to six weeks, and in the end present different peace proposals for Palestine. I was amazed at how deep they were going into issues such as water, walls, statehood, Apartheid, and even questioning what they have been told about the history of the region. They raised many critical questions about the official peace proposals that ignored international human rights and rights of Palestinians as indigenous people. One girl declared, “What is going on there is messed up!”
The growing awareness and, in many cases, activism of young people here is inspired by young people in the Arab world. Along with the Arab Spring, we are seeing the blooming of a Palestinian Spring. The creativity of Palestinian resistance has expanded to different forms using art, music, dance, media, technology and social media. Rejuvenating this struggle is the creativity of individuals who are taking it upon themselves to challenge the entire system of Israeli oppression. We saw political prisoners Adnan Khader and Hana Shalabi confront the Israeli policy of administrative detention (indefinite arrest without charges or trial) and now thousands of other Palestinian political prisoners following them on hunger strike. Even schoolchildren in the United States know that what Israel is doing cannot be justified. Israeli propaganda used to justify atrocities is beginning to lose momentum. People realize that no matter what happens to the Palestinian people, they will continue insisting on their own basic rights, especially the right of return. More and more people around the world are inspired by the strength and commitment Palestinians have shown towards the global struggle for truth and justice.
At the Middle East Children’s Alliance we are committed to working with people living in refugee camps, and grassroots organizations and movements. We support people’s lives in Palestine by building playgrounds, water purification systems, finding scholarships for students, sending medical aid, and supporting programs for children to visit their original villages. We do this because we stand by the Palestinian right to return, and we continue to be inspired by the new generation’s commitment, both in and out of school, to learn and bring new energy to the struggle for justice in Palestine.