Exiled Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon yearn to return home
Amman - Each year, Zahra Abu Laban takes her black, embroidered Palestinian dress out of her cupboard to add one more flower to a bouquet on the bodice.
“I have ten and I keep thinking that putting on more will make the neck to belly area look crammed,” sighed Abu Laban, 73, a dignified grey-haired woman, who fled her home in Jaffa, now an Israeli suburb of Tel Aviv, on May 14th 1948, as a 5-year-old girl along with her parents and ten brothers and sisters.
Abu Laban sewed the dress in 1994, months after Palestinians and Israelis said they reached a broad framework of a peace deal that may eventually allow some refugees to return to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, but not Israel proper.
“I thought of wearing the dress for my relatives whom I didn’t see since I was a kid,” she said in an interview at her family’s modest brick-and-cement two-storey home in the squalid Wihdat camp in the heart of the Jordanian capital, Amman. She also said she plans to dye her hair black.
Jordan hosts the largest number of 2.1 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants displaced in the 1948 and 1967 Mideast wars. It is the largest concentration of Palestinians outside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In Palestinian camps in Lebanon, refugees were upbeat and many said they could not wait to return to the Palestinian territories.
At al-Bas camp in Tyre, on Lebanon’s southern coast, Ibrahim Haj Mousa, in his 80s, has had it planned. Sitting outside his home, he told his grandchildren that he wants his remains to be buried in his native Acre, in what is Israel’s coastal plains.
“We will never give up on our right to return to our homes”, he said, speaking in the presence of The Arab Weekly. “There’s never despair. And, if we can’t go back alive, then we’ll return in a casket to be buried there next to our ancestors.”
Sitting next to Haj Mousa was one of his grandchildren, Sabri, a 30-year-old pharmacist, who said he and other young men in the family would carry the banner after their elders cannot.
“We want to return home to the land of our ancestors and we have all the pertinent property deeds with official British seals and stamps, as well as the keys to our house there,” he said.
Hamida Othman, a women’s rights activist in Bas, insisted that Palestinian women everywhere instil a rare sense of nationalism in their children. “They told them all about the Israeli massacres against Palestinians in camps and outside the camps, so that they will always be reminded that Israel will never be a friend,” Othman said.
In Wihdat camp, one of 11 UN-run settlements for Palestinian refugees across Jordan, electrician Saed abu-Keileh, 25, said he visited his native Nazareth, a northern Israeli village known as the Arab capital of Israel for its heavy Arab concentration, in 2012.
He said he visited as a Jordanian citizen, with an Israeli tourist visa stamped in his passport.
“I saw all my cousins, uncles, aunts, the family elders and learnt so much about our background and history firsthand,” he said, pointing out that he wanted to overstay his visa but was afraid to be caught and expelled by Israelis.
“I can’t wait until they’d let us back home,” he said. He said he would take his wife and 1-year-old daughter to live there.
“I can work as an electrician there and I know I can earn a living.”
Zahra Abu-Laban said she has been having a strong internal feeling telling her she will return home.
“I know I will wear my dress to Palestine soon,” she said, “but if I didn’t live to see my dream come true, I know for sure that future Palestinian generations will see to that.”