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Voices of Palestine

Palestinian diaspora at McGill discuss their roots and identity

This feature is a compilation of personal statements by five McGill students who are Palestinian and their thoughts on Palestinian identity.

Anonymous – U2 Science
The concept of home has been foreign to me all my life. It’s what I’ve heard people talk about when they were going ‘home’ for the break or ‘home’ to see their family, but for me home was a feeling that ran through every vein in my body. I guess I just inherited my parents’ displacement: I inherited their perseverance, determination, and longing for the day we would return ‘home,’ heads high. As a third-generation Palestinian, all I knew of my home were numbers, statistics, and death tolls on the news. Numbers. Numbers that I couldn’t even fathom until middle school and couldn’t understand until high school, while I was living a privileged life of safety, education, and comfort in Saudi Arabia. Being so distant came with the guilt and self-resentment of having access to all the luxuries that others my age in my homeland would never experience.

And when I finally visited Palestine, I swiftly passed the thousands of Palestinians on the King Hussein Bridge, who had been waiting for days to get past the borders to see their families. While I, the privileged holder of a Canadian passport, was welcomed into ‘Israel’ with open arms. Being able to just briskly cut through the line in my separate air-conditioned bus, sipping my Starbucks and reading Albert Camus, is something that I, to this day, cannot get over. The guilt is overwhelming.

For the first time in my life I saw people behind those numbers. Furthermore, the numbers came to life as apartheid walls and illegal settlements next to my hometown, Hebron, checkpoints, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. My people welcomed me into their humble homes, shared their food with me, and let me sleep in their beds when we hadn’t even met before. “We knew your grandfather,” they said. “His grandson is our grandson, and our home is yours.” In that moment, I finally understood how it felt to be home.

Do not be mistaken. My honesty is not a call for sympathy. I write this solely to help you put a name to the faces you see on the news, as a reminder that the occupation of Palestine is not a distant foreign issue – it’s here.

I’ve screamed “Free Palestine” at protests and I’ve always worn a chain of the Palestinian map around my neck, but I’ve never really known ‘home’ until I had actually been home. Seeing the plight of my people, I realized that the only way to overcome my guilt is to use my privilege to help those less fortunate than myself. McGill – although not the most accommodating of places – has opened doors for me in order to achieve this: through the amazing friends I’ve made and through the groups I have been working with to advocate for Palestinian rights. I won’t stop screaming, I won’t stop calling people out, I won’t apologize for my activism until I return home; but with a Palestinian passport, through Palestinian borders, on the same bus as my Palestinian brothers and sisters.

كيف ما ضربتو بيجي واقف
“No matter how hard you hit it, it will stand.”

Nour Nahhas – U3 Arts
“Write down! I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.”
– Mahmoud Darwish

It was a warm Damascene night when my grandfather sat me on his lap and began telling me stories of a place he called “home.” At the time, I was eight years of age and was struck by confusion as I realized he was not talking about Damascus. My grandfather continued to describe his experiences as a little child running around the streets of the Old City, befriending Jews, Muslims, and Christians. He reminisced about the days when he played in the backyard of his house or around the Al-Aqsa Mosque after completing Friday prayers with his father.

As he spoke of 1948, the look on his face dramatically shifted from a sweet nostalgia to that of disappointment and anger, though it never touched on hate. He was driven out of his home during Al-Nakba [which literally means “the catastrophe” and refers to the Palestinian exodus].

From that day forward, I have carried with me the pride of being half Palestinian. I was born and raised in Damascus by a Syrian father and a Palestinian mother. I have cousins who were born and raised in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and further extended family who refuse to ever leave. Growing up I had learned that a cousin of mine had once been shot and wounded during the early 2000s. Soon enough, my nickname at school became “tiflet al-hijara” or “stone-child,” due to the eruption of stone-throwing by Palestinian youths during the second Intifada. Despite the giggles it brought to my closest friends, I could not have been more proud.

My position had never been contested back home and my stance on Palestine was never challenged due to the homogenization of the Arab mentality regarding the occupation. I was surrounded by people who constantly and collectively pushed me deeper into supporting the Palestinian cause – whether it was family, school, the media, or other members of civil society. After moving to Canada at the age of 17, I became exposed to the other side of the conflict, which without a doubt, I had regarded as fallacy. However, hiding behind my keffiyeh was not enough to refute an argument made by a Zionist. I became more interested in the history of Palestine; I was eager to read, analyze, and defend my cause, rather than unquestioningly enforcing it on a younger generation of Arabs through Pan-Arab rhetoric.

It troubles me to know that I have yet to discover half of my identity without being able to see, hear, smell, or touch any topographies of its land firsthand. I have to rely on my grandfather’s photographs, my cousins’ storytelling nights, and the daily ruthless images shown on the news to understand what I am fighting for. The quest for this missing portion of my identity will continue to trouble me until the day I walk down the streets my grandfather played in, climb the olive trees planted by my ancestors, and show my own children the boundaries of a wall that once divided the Occupied Palestinian Territories from the rest of its historical land.

From the golden dome of Al-Aqsa to the mosaic walls of Umayyad, my identity stretches across disputed land known for its people’s generosity, religious tolerance, and ethnic pluralism. Today I am a child of conflict, oppression, and occupation; I am a child of persistence, resistance, and struggle. However, in the near future, I shall become a child of tranquility, prosperity, and finally, a child of peace.

Adam Albarghouthi — U3 Science
I was born in Kuwait, grew up in Jordan, and now I live in Canada, yet I refer to myself as a Palestinian. An erratic and anchorless introduction to say the least, but that’s how it is. The Palestinian name is somewhat of a self-determined identity today, it’s barely tangible, but as a people full of pride and hope, it is being moulded over the decades into something bigger than itself. Our name is what we have left, that’s what we live for, and that’s what we struggle to keep alive. I could say we’re a people of unfortunate circumstances, but the way I see it, we’re running an endurance test. With every military checkpoint that must be crossed, every curfew, every bit of humiliation, we pass this test every single day. And as for the Palestinians that live abroad, we carry the Palestinian name wherever we go. Regardless of the foreign documentation we pull out at customs, our blood flows and our hearts sing, we are Palestinian.

Anonymous – U2 Student
I remember saying goodbye to the family that I have not seen again to this day, their last words still echoing within me. As I said goodbye to my parents, their words, too, I have not forgotten. As I left each person I had ever known who identifies as a Palestinian, they have all said the same thing: upon facing adversity while at McGill, they told me to stay true to who I was. But it was more than academic hardship that they meant, and I only fully understood this once I arrived in Montreal. They were telling me to never forget where I came from.

Being Palestinian is something I have never hidden. Despite the fact that I was never raised there, it has consistently been my immediate answer, without hesitation, as to what my origin is. I owe this pride in my roots to the resilience that the Palestinians have demonstrated for the past 65 years, to the continued fight for what is rightfully theirs, and to the tenacity in the face of human rights violations that have somehow gone unnoticed, undocumented, and unpaid for.

Time and time again, I have been asked whether I am afraid that the stranger I have just met is a Zionist. I cannot lie, on many occasions the thought has crossed my mind – but it has never instilled any fear within me. After encountering countless situations like this, I would like to believe that I have grown beyond the naive ideal that I can change the opinions of those who do not listen, or those who disregard my own experiences and still cite religious texts for validation of murder. Presenting evidence on a factual basis is the only path toward understanding why the plight of the Palestinian people still exists to this day without meaningful intervention.

Each time I announce my heritage, I usually receive positive responses. Overwhelmed with questions, a flame ignites within my heart because I am asked about Palestine. I am not asked of my fears, but rather about the truth. I am asked about what it is like to visit – the checkpoints, the terrorizing soldiers with guns everywhere you look, the restrictions on which land you can and cannot enter. I am asked about my family, and although those asking are strangers, they are believers in humanity and thus care for the wellbeing of a human, whomever they may be. That is what is important. That is what we overlook so often: that we become lost in the politics of war and forget that we are human first and above all else.

Yasmine Mosimann – U1 Arts
I’ve been trying to write this piece for the past three days, but it has launched me into a bit of an existential crisis. If circumstances were a bit different, I may not have ever identified as a Palestinian. If blood were the determining factor, it certainly would not have taken as much of a precedent. I have three other nationalities to call my own, with passports that allow me access to most places without question. I did not grow up around my Palestinian family or other Palestinians. I speak a broken Egyptian Arabic that Palestinians laugh at. The blonde peach fuzz on my forearms isn’t particularly ‘Palestinian-looking’ – whatever that is. And I certainly wasn’t born in Palestine. Yet I don’t feel closer to any other nationality than my Palestinian one.

Palestinians are in the uncomfortable predicament that there once was a Palestine and that there could have been a Palestine. We live knowing that our families once had a deep connection to a land where our ancestors had lived for generations. Growing up with this knowledge feels like something much greater was stolen away from you besides the land, the olive trees, and the shores of the Mediterranean: a sense of belonging, that minorities may not be able to feel fully in countries out of their origin, without completely ridding themselves of their distinct heritages. This tension between integrating and keeping your culture is still present in societies that claim to value diversity, like Canada.

I grew up in constant envy of everything permanent around me. 15 apartments, ten schools, ten father figures, and four countries later, I am here with very little sense of being grounded. But as selfish as it sounds, in a way, my sense of not belonging has been healed by my people’s displacement. Because in our exile, I feel an affinity with the common feelings of loss, but also hope for the future. A free Palestine, for me, would not only ground an entire people as a collective, but also myself.