The continuous Nakba: Two Arab refugees

Picture Samir and Yusuf, two Arab teenagers, who faced the same Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe): the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

Both were uprooted from their homes and their countries, and lost their family assets. They both became homeless, penniless refugees; their worlds turned upside down, their dreams and future plans shattered.

Samir was born in Bayt Daras, Palestine, during the British rule. Arabic was his mother tongue. Islamic culture and history was part of his education. He was brought up in the Islamic faith. His family, well-to-do landowners, had been living in Palestine for many centuries.

Yusuf was born in 1930, in Taht El Takia, in the old city of Baghdad, Iraq. Arabic was his mother tongue. Islamic culture and history were part of his education. He was raised in the Jewish faith. His family, importers of woolen and silk cloth, traced their ancestry 26 centuries back to Babylonia, the ancient land that is today known as Iraq.

Although both teenagers faced the same Nakba, each saw, felt, interpreted and reacted to the same event very differently. Their attitude shaped the lives of their families and future generations.

It all began on November 27, 1947. The UN voted in Resolution 181 to partition Palestine to two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, living side by side. The Jewish leadership accepted the partition plan. The Palestinian and Arab leadership rejected the plan and began preparing for war. On May 15th 1948, the day that Jews declared their independent state, five Arab nations with a combined population of over 20 million – Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt – declared war and invaded the newly created State of Israel, with a population of approximately 600,000.

The 1948 war was not about the perceived inequality of the UN partition plan giving the Palestinians less land than they wanted. This war was a declaration that a Jewish state – even one the size of a postage stamp – should not be allowed to exist. The Arab Armies failed to take over all of Palestine. The Jewish State of Israel survived. May 15th, 1948, Israel’s Independence Day, is commemorated by the Palestinian as Yom Al Nakba, the Day of the Catastrophe.

An estimated 650,000 Arab Palestinians out 750,000 were coerced by their Arab leaders or forced to flee fearing retaliation by Israeli extremist groups. They left behind their homes, land and businesses. They became refugees.

Not all Palestinians fled their homes and became refugees. Some 100,000 native Palestinians Arab refused to leave and stayed. They became Israeli citizens.

Samir and his family, fearing for their lives from advancing Israeli fighters, fled to Gaza some 25 miles away. To accommodate the influx of thousands of fleeing Palestinians refugees, tent cities were rapidly erected. Samir became a homeless, penniless refugee.

Yusuf graduated in June of 1948 from Al A’adadia high school in Baghdad. He obtained a visa to go the United States to pursue higher education. But sadly, he was denied an exit visa to leave Iraq, because he was Jewish. Iraq’s failure in that war turned the Iraqi government against its Jewish citizens. Accusation of Zionism and summary arrests, torture and execution sent fear into every Iraqi Jewish heart.

In December 1949, at age 19, Yusuf and his 16-year-old brother Nory were smuggled out of Iraq to Iran. From there he was airlifted to Israel.

Samir was taken to the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza Strip; Yusuf was taken to Beit Leed refugee camp about 5 miles from the city of Natanya. Both lived in tents, anchored in the sand, slept on straw mattresses and stood in line for food.

Samir in Gaza continued to speak his mother tongue, Arabic. Yusuf in Israel had to learn Hebrew, a different language than Arabic, his mother tongue. Even his name was changed to Yosef. Under Egyptian rule in Gaza, Samir became stateless.  In Israel, Yosef became an Israeli citizen the day he arrived.“

“The Arab armies will soon regroup, reorganize, and attack Israel and throw the Jews to the sea,” the Arab leaders assured Samir. He remembered the good life with his family and friends. He waited obsessively for Yom Al Awda (the Day of Return) to his native village Bayt Daras, now part of Israel. His life in the camp was temporary.

“I will never return to Baghdad,” Yusuf concluded. “Nothing is worth returning, when my life is in jeopardy”. Yusef remembered the trauma of the Farhud. On June 1st & 2nd 1941, Muslim mobs looted and burned Jewish homes and businesses, murdered some 180 Jewish men, raped and killed the women and threw babies in the Tigris River. He was 11 years old. There was no one to run to and nowhere to go. In Israel, he tasted freedom for the first time in his life. It was his Promised Land.

Samir continued to suffer in the refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He put his life on hold. Gaza was not his home and not his place to build his future. The days became weeks and weeks became months and months became years. His patience wore thin. This was a life of humiliation and victimhood. Boredom turned to anger.

Although Samir and Yusuf faced similar tragedy, their different decisions took their lives in totally different directions. Samir was waiting to go home to Beit Daras to build his future; Yusuf never waned to go back to Baghdad to claim his home. Israel was his home and his future.

After spending six years in Israel, including two years and four mouths in the Israeli Navy, Yosef traveled to Canada in pursuit of his dream of a college education. But with no money and no aid, he put his dream of attending college on the backburner. He immersed himself totally in earning a living and building a family. By 1967, he was married with three children and lived in Montreal. He was full of hope to give his children the best life and the best education.

Over the years Samir grew disgusted by waiting, his boredom turned to frustration and his despair turned to anger. A new hope energized Samir and the Palestinian refugees when Gamal Abd Al Nasser became the president of Egypt after the coup of 1953. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and forged a pact with the Russians to supply him with arms. “The time has come when Jewish blood will be flowing to the sea, and Palestinians will return to their homes victorious,” Radio Cairo boasted in May 1967.

While Yusef and his family in Montreal were exploring Expo 67l, in June of 1967, the Six Day War broke out. It was a decisive defeat for Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel occupied Sinai, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and Gaza. For 19 years, Samir lived under Egyptian rule in Gaza as stateless. Now he faced a new reality. He became under Israeli occupation. He continued living with his children supported by UNRWA, United Nations Relief and Work Agency. His hopes of returning to Beiyt Daras anytime soon were dim.

Yusef joined by his brother Elisha and his sister Marcelle and their families in Montreal. With very little money and severe cold weather, they all struggled to support their families by working hard.  They were full of hope for the future of their children.

In 1993 the Oslo Accord was signed, in Washington DC. Israel handed the Palestinian Authority rule of the Gaza Strip. By 2005, Israel totally withdrew from Gaza. Samir, in his 70s, is still waiting for Yom Al Awda. His life is still on hold.

In 1978 Yusef moved with his wife and three teenage children to Santa Monica, California. His brother and sister continue to live in Montreal. As loyal citizens, they all concentrated in building good and successful lives for themselves and their children.

Yusef, his brother Elisha, and his sister Marcelle had eight children altogether: four are MDs, two PhDs, one school teacher and one the winner of a world prize in solving puzzles. It was worth noting that not one of the three parents had a Bachelor’s Degree.

The only time we hear from Samir is through his granddaughter, in an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. She detailed her pain and the hardship of living in a refugee camp with her family, yearning to return to Bayt Daras.

Samir and Yusuf’s micro stories are but a sample of the macro reality of two peoples.

First, some 650,000 Palestinian who fled Palestine in 1948 are still in refugee camps in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon Egypt Kuwait and other Arab countries. They are still living as stateless in their Arab host countries. After 67 years they are still dependent on UNRWA for free food, health care, shelter, schooling and other necessities of life. In 2015 their number with their descendants is estimated to be between 4-5 million.

In contrast, an estimated 850,000 Jews were living in Arab lands before the 1948 war. In 2014 there is less than 4,000 left. Some 650,000 found shelter and a new home in Israel. The rest were scattered across Europe, Canada, and the US. There is not a single Jewish refugee from 1948 still living in a refugee camp. No one of them or their descendants desires to return to the lands from which they were expunged, and claim the homes and the assets they left behind in Iraq, Syria, Egypt or any Arab land.

They were forced to flee from harassment, persecution, torture, imprisonment and public executions. Their homes, properties, businesses institutions were confiscated. They left behind their culture and history as old as 2,500 years.

At present the population of 100,000 Arabs who refused to leave Israel in 1948 is estimated to be 1.2 million. They enjoy the best health programs, quality education and more political freedom than their brothers in any Arab land. In the recent Israeli elections the Arab party won 13 seats, and became the third-largest political party in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

The twentieth century wars and conflicts resulted in over 100 million refugees worldwide. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) aided in the permanent resettlement of refugees, rather than leaving them in temporary camps indefinitely.

A new UN agency, UNRWA, was created in 1948 to care solely for the 650,000 Palestinian refugees. Contrary to UNHCR, its purpose is to provide food, shelter, health and other programs rather than to settle them permanently. There are 21 Arab countries; many are basking in oil wealth. They could easily make efforts to resettle their Arab refugees brethren and offer them a way to become citizens.

There is only one Jewish country: Israel. It absorbed and resettled a number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands far larger than the number of Palestinian refugees. None have been living in refugee camps for decades. One question: Why can’t their brethren, the Palestinians refugees, be as lucky?   

About the Author
Joseph Samuels was born in Taht El Takia, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Iraq in 1930 and he now resides in Santa Monica, California. He is a member of the Speaker’s Bureau of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa)