Kholoud Ibrahim makes no effort to mask her pride and loyalty to her homeland. While standing behind a lunch counter at Aqsa, a private Muslim school, and selling cans of pop and extra-long Laffy Taffy to Saturday school students, she declares her country of origin with a dignified smile on her face. Speaking endlessly and effortlessly of its people, their need for liberation, and her intimate connection to the small piece of land that has seen so much bloodshed and turmoil, Ibrahim is clearly linked to Palestine.

While describing her heritage, Ibrahim drops a fact that cannot be ignored: “I never seen it. I never been there.”

Born in Kuwait in 1978, Ibrahim and her family moved to Jordan during the Gulf War when she was 12 years old. She then came to the U.S. with her husband in 1998. She knows the West Bank only through stories, pictures, and video chat sessions with family members living in “the blad,” or homeland. Although she has returned to Jordan several times, Ibrahim describes a relentless desire to go to Palestine, where a family and a home she has never been to are waiting for her.

“I always talk to my cousin over there with the Internet. She always put the camera to the window [and says] ‘Can you see this? This is our land. This is our street. This is your home.’”

But Ibrahim is not satisfied with the limited view.

“Of course I want to go there!” says Ibrahim. “I’ve never seen there.” Standing in a room which functions as a gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium, reception area, and prayer space, Ibrahim looks up from a pencil box that is doubling as a cash drawer.

“It’s not make sense, you know?” says Ibrahim. “When you dad born there and his grandpa and his grandma and they got this and this and somebody come and told them, ‘No, this is not your home.’ What are you talking about?  This is not make sense. Come on.”

Ibrahim’s experience is not unique amongst the Palestinian community in Chicago. Hamza Salim, a 24-year-old Master’s student of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology and professional artist, identifies as a Palestinian regardless of the fact that he grew up in Jordan. His family didn’t ever really leave Palestine, he says, but “the borders changed and they just became Jordanian.”

 

Away from home

This dislocation is real not only for Palestinian-Americans, but a collective experience for most Palestinians. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reports that 67% of all Palestinians worldwide are displaced, including 6.6 million refugees and 427,000 IDPs, or internally displaced persons. The conflict of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which ultimately resulted in the division of the Palestinian territory between Jordan, which annexed the West Bank, and Egypt, which took control over the Gaza Strip, caused the displacement or expulsion of between 750,000 and 900,000 Arabs from Palestine. Less than twenty years later, these borders again were disputed in the Six Day War of 1967. Israel quickly defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and effectively took control of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights. Consequently, an estimated 250,000 Palestinians fled their homes in 1967 and during the decades after.

Map of the loss of Palestinian land since 1946. Photo credit: Leeds PSC

In 1949, the United Nations established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to address the unique circumstance of Palestinian refugees. The agency works in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank on programs aimed at improving the general quality of life. Much of the Palestinian diaspora is concentrated in these areas; 1.9 million Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA in Jordan alone, making up approximately 70% of the country’s population. In the West Bank and Gaza, territories that currently maintain Palestinian leadership and some degree of autonomy from Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are registered with UNRWA as refugees; ifdeven in the homeland, Palestinians are considered away from home.

For any immigrant or refugee, traveling back to one’s homeland is difficult. Palestinians, though, must also contend with what, and where, their homeland truly is. For many, home is an amorphous and unattainable concept.

“I’m like any Palestinian, you know?” says Ibrahim. “Just visiting countries.”

 

A complicated journey

No matter how Palestine is conceived, however, travelling back is a challenge logistically.  Hazam Shehada, 23, an international student studying civil engineering at IIT, explains that making trips home while he is in school is not feasible because of the complicated process of getting to the West Bank. “It’s hard because of checkpoints,” he elaborates. “Officials said they’re trying to make it easier, but it’s still hard.”

As a Palestinian and resident of the West Bank, Shehade must first fly into Amman, Jordan, and then cross the border into the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge. Because he has a Palestinian Authority identification number, he is prohibited from flying through the international airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. This restriction can extend beyond people with an official PA ID number to include those who were born in the West Bank or Gaza but now have citizenship elsewhere, or even those who were not born in Palestinian territory but whose parents were.

Kholoud Ibrahim is hopeful that she will finally be able to visit her family in the West Bank now that she “has her American citizen[ship],” but the United States Department of State warns that all people attempting to enter Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank are subject to security and police record checks conducted by the Government of Israel, and that it is possible to be denied entry without explanation.

 

Canada Park

The troubles of Palestinians are not only logistical. Amena Shuahi, a teacher at Aqsa Saturday school, came to the U.S. as a Palestinian refugee in 1988. In laborious English, she recalls her hometown, a small village named Yalo near Ramallah in the West Bank. Her village, as well as three others close by, were bombed during the Six-Day War in 1967, destroying mosques, schools, and houses, she says. Shuahi recalls that when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) forced the inhabitants to flee, her family ended up in Amman, Jordan, where they lived “in a house the size of a small room.”

Shuahi has returned to Palestine only once. Her village is now a garden and a park, she says, named Canada Park. After the bombings the rubble was cleared, and a recreational area was created using funds from Canadian benefactors of the Jewish National Fund. Now olive trees and gravel pathways stand in a place once familiar to Shuahi.

As she describes going back to her hometown, Shuahi tries to explain her feelings: “I feel sad.  I’m crying. I’m crying because when I see my village without houses, without schools, without mosques…”

“Heartbroken,” her daughter offers.

“Yes,” Shuahi nods.

 

Keeping home with them

Traveling back to the homeland for Palestinians living in America is difficult, emotional, and sometimes altogether impossible. For the small subset of the Palestinian diaspora living in Chicago, returning to the homeland is not only, or principally, about being physically present in Palestine. Instead, it is about sharing stories, maintaining heritage and tradition, and planning for a more robust future in order to build and renew a strong sense of Palestinian national identity and solidarity.

Maysoon Hamdan teaches Saturday school because she wants the children she teaches to stay in touch with their Palestinian heritage.

“I want them really knowing how to read Qu’ran, knowing the Arabic language. It’s really important to know your culture.”

Her own children, she explains, have no interest in returning to Palestine permanently. “For them, [America] is their country…it’s all they know.”

Despite their reluctance to move to Palestine, Hamdan confidently states that her children still identify more strongly as Palestinians than as Americans.

Hamza Salim's artwork at the Taste of Palestine at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Salim, the architecture student and artist, tries to explain his connection to the homeland through his art. As he stands by his work at a small showing on the IIT campus, he tries to explain his own identity: “I’m Palestinian, I’m an artist, but maybe I’m just a human being.” The goal of his art, he says, is to convey the identity and the mind of the Palestinian diaspora in general, not only in Gaza or the West Bank.

For Duhah Hamayel, an 18-year-old student who immigrated with her family from Abu Fallah at age two, staying in the U.S. means remaining in tighter solidarity with the Palestinian struggle than moving to the homeland. “When I think about saving Palestine, liberating it, I think it’s easier to do that here, through political means, says Hamayel. “The work done here could be better for Palestine.”

A sense of unity is not realized without guidance, however. Ibrahim says that it is somewhat of a struggle to help her elementary school-aged children understand Palestine as a place, a community, and their homeland.

“They ask me, ‘Mom, what is Palestine?’ They say ‘Why we not there? Aren’t we Jordanian?’”  Ibrahim smiles as she impersonates them. “You know, year by year they are going to understanduit more.”

Never having been to Palestine herself, Ibrahim relies on stories and photos and online video chatting with family in Palestine to try to convey Palestinian heritage to her children. She’s aware of the risks for future generations, as Palestinians in America grow farther from their Palestinian roots.

“Exactly what mom she did for me, exactly I did it for them. I show them the story.”