in Motion

Raed al-Sakakini:
Nakba 2.0: A story of love, hope and displacement

Raed al-Sakakini and Ayda Addas made a painstaking decision: leave Lebanon in search of safety for their children.

Raed al-Sakakini opened his eyes to a world at war and a country that was in a state of fear and uncertainty. It was 1967 in Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, and war was all he knew until age eight.

Q:How many Palestinian refugees are there?

Read the answer

A: The total Palestinian population is about 12.4 million people, according to Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2015. Of that, about half - 6.2 million people - live in historic Palestine (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea).

Who was fighting whom, and why, he didn't know; the youngster could not fully comprehend the war, let alone his people's historical or political context within it. "I thought living in a state of war was the norm," Raed remembers.

But this confusing reality set the scene for the birth of a new generation of Palestinian children in exile, like Raed, and would go on to be a significant period in Palestinian history.

The years that followed were second only to the Nakba in importance, the catastrophe of 1948 during which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled, were killed, or forcibly displaced, to pave way for the modern Israeli state.

Q:Do Palestinian refugees want to go back?

Read the answer

A: The Palestinian right of return is an individual as well as a collective right. Resolution 194 grants every individual refugee a choice to remain abroad or return to the home or land from which he or she was expelled. The question is not if they wish to return, but rather that they be allowed to exercise this right if they so choose.

Raed's dreams and memories of a homeland

Both of Raed's parents were born to humble beginnings. His mother's family worked as fishermen on Haifa's shores, while his father's family were well known in Haifa at the time for being plumbers, electricians and appliance makers. They met and married in their hometown, before being forced to flee Palestine in their early 20s.

They were simple people living simple lives when they were thrust into the history books during the Nakba.


in Motion

Read Ahmad's story

Ahmad al-Haaj comes from a long line of Palestinian peasants, forced from their homes by Zionist militias in 1948.

His parents told him little of their childhood in Palestine, especially as their lives as refugees became ever more difficult, and they struggled just to survive. In the face of such hardships, it seemed like there was no time to reminisce about the past.

What little they did manage to tell him, though, he held onto like an oasis in the desert.

He would often go to South Lebanon as a child "just to breathe the same air" as the air in Palestine. From that area along the border, he could see his family's homeland in the distance, and it was there that he first felt free enough from his daily struggles to dream about Palestine.

Raed's future wife: Ayda Addas

Meanwhile, Ayda Addas - Raed's wife-to-be - was born in Cornish al-Mazraa, a beautiful neighbourhood in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, three years after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Like Raed, who was born a few years earlier, Ayda was too young to know that the country was in a state of chaos and war. Also like Raed, despite being born and raised in Lebanon, her family had a long history in Palestine.

Her father, Adnan, was born into a Palestinian farming family in 1946 in Haifa, a coastal city in the north of Palestine. They worked in Haifa's vast, green pastures.

Still an infant two years later during the Nakba, Adnan fled Haifa with his parents, who sought safety in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. He only knew Haifa through his parents' fractured memories.

Q:What is the current status of Palestinian Refugees?

Read the answer

A: The existence of the majority of Palestinians in exile since 1948 is a direct consequence of their inability to exercise their right of return. The peace process never intended to solve the refugee problem on the basis of international law. The convenors always aimed to strip the issue of its international legal character and resolve it within the framework of a regional Arab-Israeli political settlement

Perhaps it was destiny or a love of the land that was passed onto him from his parent's tales, but Adnan would also go on to work as a farmer in Lebanon; that's also where he would meet and later marry his Lebanese wife, Faiza al-Kharfan.

Q:Where were the Israeli people before Israel was created?

Read the answer

A: No people identified themselves as Israelis. But starting in the late 19th century, the Zionist movement infused a sense of modern nationalism into various Jewish communities, starting in Europe and then spreading to the rest of the world. It is around these nationalistic sentiments that the idea of Israel was created.
(Source: Eugene Rogan: The Arabs, A History)

While Ayda never knew Palestine herself, one of the fondest and lasting memories from Ayda's childhood is her grandparents' descriptions of their life on a farm in Haifa.

They didn't work the land, but instead, they were one with it, her grandmother would say. The fields were vast, the trees swayed in the wind, and the smell of jasmine wove its intoxicating scent through the branches:

You could go into your neighbours' field and take anything you needed. If you grew something you would leave them some of it in return; but if you were poor and had nothing, you could pick anything from any farm at any time. It was a time that people truly cared for one another.- Raed al-Sakakini

Raed and the war of the camps

Raed spent his whole life in the new home his family had fled to, Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp.

Its large Palestinian population made it a target during the Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990, and Raed, like many of his neighbours, lived in a state of constant fear.

Explosions were frequent; car bombs went off sporadically and without warning; and leaving the camp put Burj el-Barajneh's residents in even greater danger. At the height of sectarian tensions in Lebanon, speaking in Palestinian-accented Arabic could easily become a death sentence:

Gangs would stop us in the street and ask us to say the word tomato: if you said banadora, then you were Lebanese, and if you said bandora, you were Palestinian, in which case they would beat you, sometimes kill you.- Raed al-Sakakini

Being called a Palestinian became an insult, or, even worse, a hostile accusation.

Sectarian and political tensions in Lebanon meant that Palestinian refugees, the lowest rung on the social ladder, suffered a backlash. Their lives hinged on the political climate of the time, and they lived in a constant state of uncertainty that most could do nothing about.

Raed sees 'education as a weapon'

But as the war raged on, Raed and his siblings continued to take a short, but increasingly perilous journey, to school every day. Education was a central part of who they were as Palestinians, his parents said, and the importance of learning and acquiring knowledge is a lesson that stays with him to this very day.

That belief in education as a valuable tool is unequivocal and unwavering, and Raed's family was not the only one to hold education in high esteem: Palestinian refugees are the among the most educated refugees in the world.

Q:How many Palestinians are in the diaspora?

Read the answer

A: There are 6.2 million Palestinians in the diaspora, according to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics.

To this day, Raed firmly believes that the Palestinian cause itself is greatly affected by education, as the more educated the younger generations are, the better equipped they will be to secure Palestinian rights and bring justice to their communities.

Yet despite such a deep love for education, Raed only studied until the fourth grade. He wanted to continue, but daily life in the camp wore down his aspirations, and he could not see a future for himself:

I don't know what I wanted to be as a child. My dreams were oppressed before they could be born. I wonder who or what I would have been if I had the freedom to dream.- Raed al-Sakakini

Like the many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Raed's entire life was shrouded in uncertainty.

According to local laws, for example, Palestinians are barred from 73 professions in Lebanon. Seventy-three. That reality pushed Raed to appreciate and cultivate his Palestinian identity even more, almost as an act of defiance.


in Motion

Read Samaa's story

After her father's death in Lebanon, Samaa Abu Sharar began a long journey from anger to reconciliation.

Taking pride in the only thing they knew, their Palestinian identity, was even more important as Palestinian refugees struggled to piece together their fractured past, and envision a viable future in Lebanon.

It makes you feel the injustice inside you. You feel like something is being stolen from you because of your race, a basic human right. Someone is crushing your spirit, wiping away your identity, your future.- Raed al-Sakakini

The war rips through Ayda's family

As Raed struggled to reconcile his Palestinian identity with daily life in Lebanon, Ayda and her family were in a desperate search for normalcy amid the destruction and armed conflict ravaging the streets of the Lebanese capital.

Ayda and her five siblings rarely went outside as the civil war raged across Beirut, playing inside their home instead. Her parents tried as best they could to protect them from the wrath of the war, but destiny had another plan.

On the morning of October 25, 1981, the utopian universe her parents worked so hard to create was shattered by stray shrapnel, which abruptly cut short her older brother Mahmoud's life.

He was killed right before their very eyes while playing on the family's balcony, and the war had officially entered their home:

My mother was five months pregnant at the time, and Mahmoud's puppy love was a girl named Mirna at school. When my mother gave birth, she named my sister Mirna, after Mahmoud's friend. Perhaps if he had lived, they would have gotten married; maybe that was how he lived on in my mom's eyes.- Ayda Addas

Ayda's family did not have long to mourn her brother's death, however. When the Israeli invasion of Lebanon began less than a year later, her family was about to change once again, and once more in a way no child could comprehend.

On September 5, 1982, Ayda's father Adnan was walking in the streets of Beirut when he was killed by stray shrapnel during one of the countless attacks on the city, leaving Ayda and her now six siblings behind. He never met his seventh child, a boy who was named Adnan in his memory.

Ayda's memories from that day are sparse: she only recalls a sudden commotion in their home, as strangers ran in, screaming and shouting. It wasn't until they brought in her father's body that Ayda realised what happened. While she doesn't remember much after that, she insists her father knew he wouldn't be coming back:

Looking back now, it is strange how you feel things as a child. On that day, I remember my father made me a thyme and olive oil sandwich in the morning. He gave it to me and he hugged me really tight, as though he somehow knew something would happen.- Ayda Addas

Sectarianism divides Ayda's family

When her father died, Ayda's whole world changed.

Her family was forced to leave the beautiful home they knew and move in with her mother's parents, where they would soon discover that the sectarian war raging outside would also have ramifications on her and her siblings.

Her mother, who was Lebanese, could not quell her own parents' and extended families' racism towards her children, whom they considered to be Palestinian.

Although Ayda's mother tried hard to hide it, they felt like they were treated differently from the other children. And after a year, she made the difficult decision to leave her parent's home with her children, no matter the cost.

But as a Lebanese single mother with seven children to raise in a time of war, the only place she could turn to was a Palestinian refugee camp, Burj el-Barajneh. With no help from her family, Ayda's mother worked all hours, making bread in a bakery for a meagre salary.

Ayda, meanwhile, was forced to grow up after her father's untimely death. She was the third eldest child, and only 12 years old when she, too, began working with her mother at the bakery after school and on the weekends. It was the only way for the family to survive, and there was no time left for a childhood.

Fate brings Raed and Ayda together

Ayda was working in a clothing store in Burj el-Barajneh when she caught Raed's attention. Only 15 days later, Raed was at her front door to ask for her hand in marriage. The pair felt an instant bond, and there was no hesitation on Ayda's part in accepting his proposal.


in Motion

Read Hatim's story

Hatim Kanaaneh was the only Palestinian physician his ancestral home village of Arrabeh in the Galilee.

Over the course of their year-and-a-half engagement that bond only solidified as they got to know each other and learned about each other's lives.

While both Raed and Ayda's fathers were no longer alive when they met, Ayda sometimes wonders whether their families had known each other when they both lived in Haifa. While the city was large, it operated like a small village, and most of the local families knew one another.

Ayda and Raed began their new life as husband and wife in the same camp that hosted so many of their families' respective histories. They gave birth to their first child, a boy named Tarik, and another son, Mohamad.

Then, 27 years after losing her brother Mahmoud, Ayda gave birth to another son, whom she named after her brother. Four years later, she gave birth to a baby girl, who she named Mirna, after her brother's childhood crush. The new parents agreed early on that the most important thing was for their children to get an education, something they were both deprived of.

Despite the joy and excitement they felt together, the young parents faced countless hurdles, many stemming from being Palestinian and considered lesser-than in Lebanese society. Life in the camp was still a daily struggle: jobs were scarce, food was expensive, access to water and electricity was unreliable, and everything came at a price.

Ayda was eight months pregnant when the roof in her kitchen fell on her head. She was unharmed, but they couldn't afford to fix the leaky ceiling, so water continued to pour into their home whenever it rained.

Every cent of the family's money had to go to their children's education; without an education, their futures would be lost, as would their collective Palestinian history, Raed and Ayda knew:

Having an education is not only for the sake of my children's future, but also for the sake of Palestine. If our nation was illiterate and did not know its own history, we would have disappeared into oblivion.- Raed and Ayda

But despite their many sacrifices, Raed and Ayda couldn't shake an uneasy reality that they both knew to be true: without having fair and open access to the job market in Lebanon, their children would stay in the same state of limbo that had restricted their own dreams years ago.

Leaving Lebanon for good

Raed and Ayda longed for a time when sectarian tensions, war, Israeli invasions, or political unrest did not dominate their lives. They lived in hope that Lebanon's political situation would shift to being more stable and less hostile towards them. But it never did.

Instead, as they continued to try to build a life and a future for their children, it actually became more difficult; the revolution in Syria had begun to seep across the border into Lebanon, and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, joined the war in support of the Syrian government.

Q:How can the Palestinian narrative be reclaimed and promoted globally?

Read the answer

A: The Palestinian narrative can be reclaimed through individuals telling the human story of Palestine: spend more time discussing humanitarian issues and life stories, rather than focusing on political polemics and name-calling.

Lebanon became a safe haven for Syrian refugees fleeing the war, but as the number of refugees grew to over a million, so, too, did tensions with the local communities they moved into. The influx of refugees reinvigorated the simmering sectarian hatred that Lebanon had long experienced.

Tensions in Burj el-Barajneh soon became intolerable, as a Lebanese armed group moved into the street abutting the camp.

Ayda feared that her children could one day be kidnapped, or, like her younger brother and father before them, fall victim to one of the many nearby attacks. Now pregnant with her fifth child, Ayda began to fear for the future more than ever. She felt her family had no choice but to flee for the sake of their children's safety. Raed did not want to leave Lebanon, but Ayda insisted that it was the safest option for their children. Her husband finally agreed when he saw his children begin to be engulfed in the same cycle of violence he experienced growing up:

I never wanted to leave Lebanon. The bitter cup you drink, you can't watch your son drink. The treatment in Lebanon, the racism, the war, the instability, I could see it beginning to crush their spirits and distort their characters and identity.

Nakba 2.0: History repeats itself

During their journey to escape Lebanon Raed felt a deep ache in his heart.

Suddenly he realised this is what it would have been like for his own grandparents to leave their home in Palestine all those years ago during the Nakba of 1948. As he packed his family's bags 69 years later, the Palestinian people were still destitute and stateless, searching for a secure home for their children.

Q:What is the best way for the international community to support Palestinian unity?

Read the answer

A: The international community can help Palestinians in two major ways: boycotting Israel and directly supporting Palestine. That means people can visit Palestine, shop and trade with Palestinians, and publicly encourage them. At the same time, they should boycott Israel and Israeli products and public meetings, until it respects international law and ends its occupation.

For me, this is the same as what my grandfather lived. My dad was a child then, the same age as my son, Mahmoud, but my grandfather, he felt it. He felt what I feel now. It is the same scene, different dates, different countries, but same feeling, same story.

The family left Lebanon for Turkey, from where they would embark on the so-called "Journey of Death," the dark nickname bestowed to the dangerous Mediterranean crossing that has claimed so many lives due to drowning, towards Greece, the gateway to Europe.


in Motion

Read Fida's story

After 24 years in exile in Lebanon and Cyprus, Fida Jiryis was remarkably allowed to return to historic Palestine.

At 5am on December 1, 2015, sixty desperate people, Syrians and Palestinians alike, crammed into a small bus that took them to a drop-off point on the shores of Turkey.

As she looked at the precarious vessel, Ayda, now five months pregnant, forced herself to remember that they had no life to go back to in Lebanon. She said a prayer and asked God to help her and her family survive the journey.

Ayda stared at the tiny dingy that could barely sustain the waves on the shore, let alone the dark and dangerous trek across the sea they were about to begin, and said a prayer: "Please let us get there safely," she prayed, "and if death awaits us, please take us all together."

Death was not the worst fate for her children, anyway, she thought. In Lebanon, "they were dead anyway." Her troubled thoughts were finally interrupted by her two youngest children, Mahmoud and Mirna, who would not stop crying.

Refugees once more in Greece

When the family finally arrived in Greece and looked at the ocean behind them, a sense of relief washed over them. They were thrilled and grateful that they had survived the rough sea. Still soaked and freezing from the water, they lined up for their arrival papers.

After a long journey, the family arrived at the Macedonian border. There, they were met by smugglers and thieves, who left them in fear for their children's lives and the theft of their belongings.

They waited for five days in terrible conditions before being told by Macedonian border police that they would not be allowed to cross because they were Palestinian.

Raed and Ayda could barely contain their disbelief: surviving the Journey of Death, only to be sent back? With no money left and nowhere to go, the family was ultimately forced to stay in Greece.

Now living in horrendous conditions in an overcrowded refugee camp, Ayda contracted the toxoplasma gondii parasite, a virus that resulted from the camp's poor-quality and unsanitary food. Although not life-threatening in adults, it can be extremely dangerous for a fetus and result in brain damage or other disabilities. Ayda spent the remainder of her pregnancy in fear her baby may not survive. Worsening conditions coupled with the refusal of EU countries to accept them and their hope for a future for them and their children began to dwindle.

An uncertain future

When her newborn son, Omar, was born with the virus, Ayda was riddled with guilt. This would never have happened if the family hadn't come to Greece in the first place, she thought, placing the blame squarely on her own shoulders.

While Omar's medical condition remains uncertain — and the long-term effects of the virus are not yet known — doctors have said he may never be able to see or hear or walk on his own two legs.

The youngster's uncertain future painfully mirrors the uncertain lives of his older siblings, parents, grandparents, and the scores of Palestinian generations before them, all of whom were uprooted, displaced, and confronted by innumerable challenges.

But despite these hardships and the difficult lives they face in Greece, Raed and Ayda have not given up hope. Nor have their children; the couple's eldest son, Tarik, recently brought a Palestinian flag into their humble home in Greece. It was a symbolic act, as the red, black, green, and white colours of the flag declared that the 16-year-old was proud to be Palestinian.

Wherever they go, whatever they do, and whatever obstacles are placed in their way, Palestine will remain forever in their hearts, Raed says with unshakeable confidence:

Palestine is my mother. I lust for the air in Palestine. I wish they could bury me in Palestine. Affection draws me to her. She is the birth mother I never met. I want to return to her no matter what. I want to return. But who knows if we will? If our children or our children's children will? Who knows?


in Motion

From exile to resistance

What does it mean to be a Palestinian today?