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‘We fled on foot’: Palestinians in the US remember the dispossession of the Nakba

Los Angeles United States – Leila Giries was just eight years old when she fled with her family from Ayn Karim, an idyllic Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, during the creation of the state of Israel and violent expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians in 1948.

More than seven decades later, their memories live on: families rushing to pack up their most vital belongings, prayers like a truckload of refugees traversed a path along a cliff, the searing pain of her mother using a burning piece of cloth to cauterize an open wound when she stepped on a nail.

“We fled on foot, we only had the clothes on our backs,” Giries, who now lives in a suburb of Los Angeles in the US state of California, recalled in a recent phone call with Al Jazeera. “The sky lit up with cannon fire. It felt like the end of the world.”

Leila Giries’ house key in Ayn Karim is now framed in her Los Angeles home (Courtesy of Leila Giries)

The world of Leila’s childhood, of Ayn Karim as a vibrant Palestinian community where people greeted her in the street and children played in rows of almond trees, was shattered along with Palestinian society in the 1948 violence.

For Palestinians, it is a year that marks the beginning of decades of ongoing violence and dispossession, referred to simply as Al Nakba: The Catastrophe.

violent expulsion

Giries’ experience is not unique. In fact, she quickly adds, every Palestinian family has a story like hers, memories of displacement and exile that keep ringing.

“1948 is a melting pot where many of the elements of Palestinian identity as we understand it today are formed,” Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arabic Studies at Columbia University and author of several books on Palestine, told Al Jazeera on a call. recent telephone. . “It is indelible in the consciousness of the Palestinians and much of the Arab world.”

A black and white photo of Leila's childhood home.
A photo of Giries’ childhood home in Ayn Karim, which was depopulated by Israeli forces in 1948 (Courtesy of Leila Giries)

The abandoned remnants of ancient Palestinian communities are scattered across the landscape of modern Israel, silent reminders of the more than 400 cities and towns that were depopulated to make way for the creation of a Jewish state in a land where, in 1948, the vast majority of the population was Palestinian.

As Israeli forces razed villages to prevent Palestinians from returning to their homes, refugee camps sprang up to accommodate their displaced inhabitants.

Today the United Nations estimates that there are almost six millions Palestinian refugees, about a quarter of whom continue to live in 58 UN-recognized camps scattered across the region from Gaza to Jenin, from East Jerusalem to Jordan, from southern Lebanon to Syria.

Khalidi points out that, in addition to the trauma of the expulsion, the events of 1948 were a devastating blow to Palestinian society, breaking existing ties and organizations.

“The depopulation of places like Jaffa and Haifa cuts to the heart of Arab civil society in Palestine,” he said. “It makes reorganization much more difficult.”

‘Everything I loved is gone’

Giries’s story differs in one crucial respect from that of many others: After time in Jordan and Iraq, she and her family were able to move to the United States in 1958.

Leila Giries in front of framed items, like the bag her mother used when she fled during the Nakba.
Leila Giries poses at her Los Angeles home on May 11 (Leila Giries)

“In Baghdad, I had to stand up in school and say that I was a refugee. I was proud when I received a US passport because I was no longer stateless,” she said.

The passport has also allowed him to visit his old home, a dream that remains enticing. out of reach for many Palestinians.

But the experience is bittersweet: the Ayn Karim she remembers no longer exists.

“I cannot get Palestine out of my heart. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be back,” Giries said.

“But now when I visit Ayn Karim it is not the same. My family is not there… when I walk down the street nobody knows me. They not only stole my land, they stole my memory. Everything that I loved is gone,” she said. “I see my old house and it’s just a pile of rubble.”

Michael Kardoush, a Palestinian who has lived in the US for more than 50 years, left his home in Nazareth in 1954 and walked 11 miles (18 km) across the Lebanese border. He said it was preferable to live under the military rule that Israel applied to Arabs living within its borders until 1966.

“You still live in the same place, but you wonder, is this still my home? Is the air mine? Is the sky mine? Kardoush, who now lives in Houston, Texas, told Al Jazeera by phone. “Living under occupation is unbearable. I wanted to live again.”

Remains of Leila's house today
Giries is back to visit the ruins of his childhood home in Ayn Karim (Courtesy of Leila Giries)

Kardoush continued his engineering studies in Egypt before finding work in Germany and then, in 1969, in the United States, where he moved to an apartment near the ocean in Los Angeles.

For years, Kardoush said, he used his US passport to visit home without issue. But in 2006 he arrived at the Tel Aviv airport and was told that a new law stipulated that he could only enter with an Israeli passport since he was born in a city that is now part of Israel.
He says he sent all the necessary documents but hasn’t heard back 17 years later.

“I have a big family, there are a lot of weddings and it hurts that I can’t be there,” he said. “Now I’ll never go back.”

United States participation

Giries and Kardoush say they have been lucky to make a good life in the United States. But for many years, they say, most people in the US had little understanding of the Palestinian experience.

“All the time, when people heard our story, they didn’t understand,” Giries said.

Michael Kardoush at his home in the US
Michael Kardoush, seen here at his home in the US city of Houston, says the Israeli authorities have not allowed him to return home to his family in Nazareth in more than a decade (Michael Kardoush)

The United States is Israel’s most important ally, providing about $3.8 billion in assistance to help Israel maintain a powerful military advantage in the region. In US politics, a formidable number of advocacy organizations promote strong support for the Jewish state and lead efforts to oppose lawmakers who call for conditioning or reduce US aid.

“The war against Palestine is a joint venture,” Khalidi said. “You have American weapons, you have the United States on the Security Council, you have collaboration, coordination and collusion at every stage since 1967.”

But in recent years, Giries says she’s noticed a change: For the first time she can remember, she’s seeing more sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and knowledge of its history.

In March, a YouGov/Economist poll found that, for the first time, Democratic voters said they sympathized more with the Palestinians than with the Israelis by a small margin. margin from 21 to 19 percent.

“I’ve been in this house for over 30 years, and this last year was the first time I was able to explain things to my church group and have them receptive and understand,” he said. “But I don’t think that in my lifetime I will see peace in Palestine. I wish I could see peace, I wish I could see them (Jews and Palestinians) living together.”

In her Los Angeles home, a small bag her mother carried while fleeing Ayn Karim is framed on the wall, a symbol of the feelings of exile and connection to the land that remain alive all these years later.

An embroidered sack framed on the wall of Leila's house
Giries has the bag her mother carried when they fled home framed in her home, a reminder of the hardships of exile and her family’s resilience (Courtesy of Leila Giries)

“Sometimes your mind finds ways to protect you from bad memories,” he said. “But the moment the car starts to take me down the road to Ayn ​​Karim, my heart starts to pound.”

“Next time I go,” he said. “I will take a piece of the rubble from my house.”

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