The 9th of October, 1981, started like any other day. But little did I know that it was a day that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
My family was gathered in the TV room of our apartment in Corniche El Mazraa in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, eagerly anticipating my father's return from his trip to Italy. We all ran over to the front door as soon as we heard the doorbell ring, expecting to open it to find him there. But Mahmoud, my dad's beloved driver and bodyguard, was at the door alone, and something seemed off; he was pale and in a daze, more like a robot who had a mission to complete, but did not know how.
"Where is baba [dad]?" we all asked. Mahmoud said nothing. We asked again, but all we got was silence.
By the second time, we sensed that something terrible had happened. We started screaming while repeating the same question. Mahmoud seemed trapped, caught in the intensity of our screams and questions, and he couldn't take it anymore; he stepped into the house, grabbed the only framed photo of my father, hanging on the wall of the corridor, and hit it over his head.
Mission accomplished. Mahmoud had the audacity to do what many others couldn't: he broke the horrible news to us without uttering a word, while many of our friends and relatives waited at Mustafa Issa's house, two floors down, or at Ahmad Abdel Rahman's house, one floor up — both are leaders in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and at the time, they lived in the same building we did.
In a split second, our cosy apartment became larger than life, with dozens of people pouring in to comfort us or to grieve with us. The only thing I remember after that was the unbearable sound of wailing that filled the air, and the only thing I wanted to do was to run away, in the hopes that it was just a nasty nightmare.
But the nightmare became our reality. From that moment on, my father, Majed, was no longer with us.
Thirty-six years later, I can still remember many of the day's painful details.
The most haunting memory is probably seeing my younger sister, Dalia, a toddler then, trying to comfort our grieving stepmother. "Don't worry mama, baba will be ok, we will fix the frame and he will be back," she echoed repeatedly while sucking on her tiny finger. Her innocent words still resonate in my head, as she tried to make a horrible day better.
Or that of my sister Azza, who was upset that people did not console her because she was not my father's biological daughter. We were raised together, but Azza is the biological daughter of my stepmother, Inam Abdel Hadi, and PLO leader Hani el Hassaan.
Q:What is the difference between Hamas and Fatah?
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Hamas and Fatah are the two largest and most influential political factions in Palestine. Fatah was formed in the late 1950s with the aim of liberating all of Palestine. It is the dominant party with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas was formed in 1987, and its goal is the total liberation of historic Palestine.
Or seeing a photo of my brother, Salam, dressed in a military uniform as he leaned on my father's casket in the vehicle that carried him during his funeral procession in Beirut.
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A Nakba survivor and mother of a martyr, Tamam Nassar led a women's movement in Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp.
But above all the other painful memories that have stayed with me since that fateful day, the most difficult may be knowing that my problematic relationship with Palestine started on October 9, 1981.
I hated Palestine and anything that had to do with it. Unlike all the others who accused Israel of my father's assassination, I held Palestine responsible for his murder. The land that I was so proud to belong to suddenly became my enemy; it stole the only parent I had left, after losing my mother a few years earlier.
I hated Palestine and I hated my father, too, for that matter. I was so angry with him for depriving my siblings and me of the life we had started to rebuild. All the talk about him being a "martyr for the Palestinian cause" did not make things any better. From then on, I was no longer Samaa Abu Sharar; I was the daughter of the Martyr Majed Abu Sharar.
It was a title I resented. But with time, I learned to cherish it.
A first encounter with the war
My father's sudden departure utterly devastated my life. I was forced to comprehend so much in so little time. But as if this was not enough, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon began less than a year after his assassination.
The war uprooted me from my teenage existence, which I had considered to be my remaining safe haven amidst the turmoil of my father's death. It was the summer of 1982, and the invasion made me look at my own personal loss from a different perspective. My pain could not be compared to that of others, to what a whole nation was experiencing. And so it was then that I started the long process of healing - or maybe, at the very least, of accepting the brutal truth that I had lost my father.
Q:How many Palestinians hold refugee status?
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The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provides services for an estimated five million refugees. Nearly one-third of registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million people, live in 58 recognised Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
The war changed me. It made me more mature. I witnessed all of its atrocities first-hand while volunteering to help injured Palestinians and Lebanese in the basement of a theology centre that had been hastily transformed into a hospital. Working at the improvised medical centre gave me the satisfaction I was longing for. I was no longer helpless or useless; on the contrary, I felt like I was contributing in a small way to the bigger reality that was unfolding before our eyes. It was my first real encounter with the cruelty of war - but certainly not my last - and with a large-scale tragedy that devastated an entire nation, not just a few individuals.
We escaped Lebanon as the war raged on, and only a few weeks before the imminent departure of the PLO, which was forced to leave the country for Tunisia.
Q:Does the Palestinian Authority reflect the wishes of the Palestinian people?
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The PA’s remit is confined to the occupied territories only. It has no authority or mandate over the Palestinian diaspora. When the last elections were conducted in 2006, Fatah (which dominates the Palestinian Authority) lost to Hamas, but it refused to accept the results.
With the airport closed, we had no choice but to leave the country through East Beirut. The route was something we had never dreamt of, even in better days, given the hostile attitude of people in that part of the capital towards Palestinians. We were always strictly forbidden to go anywhere near East Beirut, and we grew up hearing stories of murder, abduction and rape of Palestinians by Lebanese-Christian Phalange forces in that area.
An affluent friend of my father's got us fake Jordanian passports with my stepmother's family name replacing ours; our real names would raise too many dangerous questions, so they were replaced with Abdel Hadi. Fake passports were selling like hot cakes at the time, as people desperately tried to leave the war-torn country. Anyone associated with the PLO or the Lebanese resistance movement could not leave through East Beirut without one, especially since Lebanese forces and the Israeli army controlled that part of the city.
Q:What is the best way for the international community to support Palestinian unity?
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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.
Our trip to East Beirut was surreal, to say the least. Seeing Israeli soldiers chatting alongside Lebanese forces at Khat Al Tamas — the line separating East and West Beirut — and beautiful young Lebanese girls in convertibles wearing t-shirts that read, "I Love Israel," shook me to the core. What had we lived through in the last month and a half? All I could think of then were the people we left behind in West Beirut.
A place I can call home
After successfully leaving Lebanon, we finally resettled in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and attempted yet again to build a new life, an exercise that Palestinians have mastered with time. To maintain my sanity, I buried any thoughts of my dad into the back of my mind, or into deep in the depths of my heart. For many years, I tried to move on.
But my reconciliation with Palestine - and through it, with my father - really started when I left Jordan to pursue my studies abroad.
Both in the US and France, I was willingly or unwillingly designated by my friends as the "Palestinian ambassador abroad". To everyone I knew, my name became synonymous to Palestine. I spent countless hours giving talks about Palestine and introducing the Palestinian cause to my foreign surroundings. I lost some, but won over many, and every time I succeeded, it made me feel like I owned the world.
Q:How many Palestinians are in the diaspora?
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There are 6.2 million Palestinians in the diaspora, according to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics.
At every occasion, I participated in demonstrations for Palestine, I cooked Palestinian dishes, I exhibited Palestinian souvenirs, I sang Palestinian folk songs, I danced Palestinian folk dances, and I modelled Palestinian dresses. I even canvassed for Jesse Jackson's US presidential campaign in 1988 as a college student because I thought he supported the Palestinian cause. All this was probably trivial compared to what others were doing, but it felt good because I felt useful. It brought me closer to a father who I missed like no words could describe. And, more importantly, it safeguarded my need to belong to a place; a place I can call home until this home stops being a dream.
Q:Where do the Palestinian refugees live?
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Palestinian refugees can be found on every continent
Like most Palestinians, my life touched many different events and places. My sense of belonging to these places was always tricky, and I could never really claim that I enjoyed the luxury of belonging. I felt that belonging anywhere was a form of betrayal to the land we all longed to call home.
In a way, this made my life easier. I always managed to stay disconnected from my non-Palestinian surroundings in order to preserve my Palestinian identity. My detachment did not necessarily mean I was disinterested with where I was, but rather, it reinforced how clearly I saw who I was and who I wanted to remain.
Rediscovering Palestinian identity in Lebanon anew
I still took every opportunity — whether through my work as a journalist and researcher or in my personal life — to talk about Palestine and its beautiful people, even when doing so was not easy. It proved even more difficult sometimes in Arab countries, including Lebanon.
Read Raed's story
Raed al-Sakakini and Ayda Addas made a painstaking decision: leave Lebanon in search of safety for their children.
I returned to Beirut with a group of friends in the late 1990s. It was my first visit since our abrupt departure in 1982, and I had vowed never to return.
I did not appreciate the Beirut I visited on that trip; it looked nothing like the city I knew and loved, and I felt like a stranger there for the very first time. So as not to attract too much attention, my friends asked me to twist the truth a little bit when anyone asked where I came from, especially since we were spending most of our time in the eastern part of the capital.
In my experience, the Lebanese can become especially curious to know where you are from when they hear anything that resembles a Palestinian accent. But I did not follow my friends' advice, and we ended up attracting a few stares and unsavoury comments. For the first time in my life, I was uncomfortable talking about my identity.
Q:Why is the Palestinian struggle a global campaign?
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The Palestinian struggle is not a struggle between Israelis and Palestinians; if it were, it would have been resolved a long time ago. It is an international struggle for many reasons, including the role of Britain (the Balfour Declaration) and the UN (1947 partition plan) in supporting the creation of a Jewish state on Palestinian lands.
In the summer of 2001, for purely personal reasons, I broke my vow completely and moved back to the land of Lebanese cedars permanently.
I married a man named Ibrahim, and together, we brought a beautiful daughter, our Meena, into the world. Together, me, Ibrahim, Meena, and Karim and Lynn (Ibrahim's two children from a previous marriage), we built an unconventional family, but the best one I could ask for. And everything after that seemed to fall into place.
Just over a year into my marriage, I officially became a Lebanese citizen, opening doors to me that are usually closed to Palestinians. Returning to Lebanon after all these years allowed me to rediscover my Palestinian identity and truly understand what being a refugee in this country means.
Q:Do Palestinian refugees want to go back?
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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.
Up until then, my knowledge of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon was limited to the few visits I made as a child with my brother, Salam, to cubs military training, which my father insisted on. But my work brought me closer to the camps, and I spent many years discovering their streets, and getting to know their people.
My frequent visits taught me about how miserable life can be in impoverished places, but they also showed me that resilience and strength can grow there, too.
Read Samah's story
A trained psychiatrist, Samah Jabr treats countless personal and collective traumas daily in Palestine.
I spent hours listening to the people of the refugee camps speak about their failures and their triumphs in a country that deprives them of some of their most basic human rights. Residents young and old spent hours telling me about their frustrations: the unjust laws they inherited, generation after generation, in their host country; the shortcomings of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA); their dissatisfaction with the work of many of the non-governmental organisations operating in the camps; their disappointment with the local Palestinian leadership.
Q:How many political parties are in Palestine?
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There are about 22 political parties in Palestine.
Yet despite these longstanding problems, Palestinian discourse in the camps changed over the years. Some of the topics that were considered taboos only a few years ago are no longer off-limits today, and many refugees have become more openly critical of anything or anyone they see as responsible for their deteriorating situation.
I took a real interest in the rich Palestinian narrative in the camps, and was increasingly convinced of the need to convey it to the outside world. I was persuaded, however, that the voices of refugees need to be conveyed by refugees themselves and not by outsiders, who have, for all these years, reinforced a false image of Palestinians.
I knew that fighting stereotypes about Palestinian refugees would constitute a step in the right direction for both Palestinians and Lebanese alike. Sadly, both communities retain misconceptions of the 'other,' which have been created over the years, resulting in resentment, distrust and tension between them. That image of the 'other' needs to change to begin the long process of healing and reconciliation between the two communities and start working together on granting Palestinians their civil rights in Lebanon until their return to their homeland.
What really matters
The camps also steered me towards reconciliation within myself, about issues I had buried deep inside for years. With the advice of family and friends, I began to see a genuine need to revive my father's legacy and use his teachings in the service of the Palestinian people.
Majed Abu Sharar, like all the other Palestinian martyrs, needed to stop just being a poster, glued here and there on the walls in various Palestinian refugee camps. My father and his comrades needed to come back to life through their thoughts and teachings. "At a time where Palestinians find themselves at a dead end, the legacy and teachings of Majed and all the others like him, are so greatly needed," I was often told.
Q:How can the Palestinian narrative be reclaimed and promoted globally?
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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.
Finally, in May of 2014, a longtime dream became a reality.
With the support of loyal friends, my siblings and I founded the Majed Abu Sharar Media Foundation (MASMF) in Beirut to carry on our father's legacy and continue his unfinished work, specifically in the field of media. My father was a firm believer in the power of the media and he understood, long before many others, that it can be an effective weapon. He worked hard in an effort to unify the Palestinian message, to reach people in different corners of the world in a language they understand, and to mobilise as many supporters as possible for the Palestinian cause.
Accordingly, MASMF took on the task of empowering young Palestinian refugees in the camps and other communities across Lebanon through journalism training. The goal is to give them the ability to convey their own stories and that of their communities in a professional way, while also avoiding the stereotypes most often seen in mainstream media. Through this kind of training a new generation of Palestinian youth will emerge, one that will change the way refugees speak to people around the world, in a language anyone can understand.
Q:What is the current status of Palestinian Refugees?
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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.
A friend once told me that in order to live a normal life, and find peace with my father's martyrdom, I would have to lay to rest my anger against him "in the sea of love [I] have for him". Today, so many years later, that is exactly what I have done.
I buried all the anger I once had for my father in this sea of love. I stopped being angry with him and became thankful for the rich life I lived, and still live today. I stopped being angry with him and became constructive, doing what he would have wanted me to do. And more importantly, I stopped being angry with him and accepted that we often pay a great price for the things that really matter.
In his case, that was always Palestine and its people.