DSPR: 75th Year of Nakba
Written by the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches
The Palestinian “Nakba” is not an abstract term for many of us in the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches. Some of the earlier employees and staff members of DSPR were themselves, refugees. Others who presently work or volunteer with DSPR had known about the ‘Nakba’ from the accounts of their parents and grandparents who had gone through the experience firsthand. The mass exodus of over 726,000 Palestinians from their country resulted in a refugee crisis that is still being felt by the descendants of these refugees. Today, there are over 6.5 million registered Palestinian refugees according to UNRWA Statistics a majority of whom live in sixty refugee camps scattered all over the Middle East, primarily in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
“Nakba” according to Oxford Languages Dictionary is the “term for the events of 1948, when many Palestinians were displaced from their homeland by the creation of the new State of Israel.” The origin of the term is Arabic, and it literally translates into “disaster.” The term has become part of the Palestinian narrative and it indicates the disintegration of Palestinian society and culture. It also refers to the exodus of Palestinians from their villages and neighbourhoods that was followed by the demolition of many of these villages and their replacement by Israeli towns and neighbourhoods.
DSPR MECC was established in the late forties and early fifties as three deacons of the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem and the Holy Land saw the misery of life for the refugees who were housed in impromptu tents near Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and the other towns of the West Bank. The three deacons together with Palestinian and Jordanian public figures started the DSPR Committees in Jerusalem and West Bank and in Amman, Jordan. From these beginnings, DSPR MECC spread to Gaza, Lebanon and Israel itself where thousands of Palestinians became internally displaced.
In Jerusalem, speaking of the experience of “Nakba” of our own families and kin, most refugees hailed from the neighbourhoods of the Western part of the city: Katamon, Musrara, Romema, Baka’a, the German Colony, Beit Hakerem and Talbieh. These were neighbourhoods where Palestinians of middle-class backgrounds lived and prospered. These were real communities with the spirit of togetherness, neighbourliness, and ongoing social and cultural interactions. Thanks to an article written by Maria Chiara Rioli, “Catholic Humanitarian Assistance for Palestinian Refugees: The Franciscan Casa Nova during the 1948 War,” some of the names of our families and kin who had become refugees and were housed in the Casa Nova between 1948 and 1952 were documented. Rioli states: “Some of the most frequently recurring last names are Morcos, Sabella, Atallah, Koury, Seraphim, Safieh, Ayoub, Saad, Nesnas, Karam, Habash and Calis.” For us in DSPR these names are not abstractions as we know them personally as parents, family and close friends, teachers, printers, and photographers among other occupations and associations. Indeed, we have touched their pain of displacement and their stories of refuge, similar to thousands of other stories and these have impacted us in our own lives and work.
While some of these families had stayed put in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, many among them ended up migrating to the USA, Central and South America and in the mid-sixties to Australia, which opened its doors to immigrants from the Middle East. The stories of our own families, in DSPR MECC and across Jerusalem and the Middle East reflect the determination of parents and grandparents to start anew. Those who had a well-established printing press business, like Tawfik Habash, restarted the business in the Old City of Jerusalem. Others like the Safiehs and the Sabellas, who were employed as municipal and local government employees ended up employed in the newly formed municipality of the Old City of Jerusalem. Our parents insisted that the best way to secure the future was through a good education and so, despite limited means and the situation of displacement, they sacrificed to enrol their children in private schools such as the Freres, the Sisters of Sion, the Schmidt’s Girls School and the Bishop Gobat School among others.
Despite the grim overall situation of refuge and displacement, the fifties for those of us who had experienced them in Jerusalem were pleasant years. We learned to laugh and made our parents laugh. We were determined that “Nakba” will not break our spirits. This was the spirit of our own upbringing both at home and at school. There was insistence on the future and while not forgetting the painful experience of refuge and displacement, we were all determined that life and community should go on and that, regardless of difficulties, the challenge was to overcome and keep up the dignity of our spirits.
DSPR MECC today continues with this spirit of imbuing dignity and hope for the future among the refugee stakeholders. In the context of the “Nakba” and its aftermath, our vision is to create the kind of society that is accepting of all and that instils the dignity of the human being as a primary objective, irrespective of different characteristics and preferences.
Like our parents’ refugees, DSPR MECC accepts the challenge of a better world to come where the aspirations of refugees and their descendants for the fulfilment of their rights go hand in hand with a life of dignity and fulfilment.