I am a Palestinian born in Chile. My grandfather’s father arrived here in 1906 to start a textile company; his family joined him a few years later. I live with my father and if you would enter our house, you would feel in Palestine. Our house is full of memories.
Even in my professional life, Palestine is very present. I am a lawyer but also the director of the Palestinian Federation in Chile.
“What struck me most was to see how the farmlands of our ancestors in Beit Jala have disappeared. Gilo is built on these fields. you can see the settlement from far away. It is hard to explain how this hurts.”
The Federation is at the center of the Palestinian community in Chile. There are different Palestinian organizations like the Social Club or the soccer team Club Deportivo Palestino but the Federation aims to be the official voice of the community.
There have been different waves of Palestinian immigration into Chile over the past century, we are now more than 400.000. It is important to organize ourselves. The people who came during the Ottoman occupation were mainly farmers. Most were Christian Orthodox and came from the same village: Beit Jala near Bethlehem. Their success in business, textile and agriculture attracted many family members during the English colonial mandate before WWII. The wars with Israel in 1948 and 1976 convinced even more Palestinians to migrate to Chile. As the conflict goes on, so does the immigration. At this moment, + 80.000 of the Palestinians in Chile have their family roots in Beit Jala. If you know that today, Beit Jala counts + 10.000 inhabitants you get a better understanding of the magnitude of the migration.
Does the Chilean government favor immigration from Palestine?
No, they do not. All refugees are treated equal by Chilean law. In short: you have to live here for five years before you can obtain citizenship. But the strong family network helps people from Palestine to bridge this period. Since 2008, we start to see more Palestinians from other cities and religions migrating to Chile. And given the turmoil in the Middle East, there is a growing influx of people who are not Palestinian. Syria is the most obvious example.
Do many second or third generation Palestinian Chileans travel back to Palestine to visit their homeland?
Many people do this, but by far not all. In fact, there are several initiatives to encourage this: we organize some as well. You have to understand that traveling to Palestine is a very emotional experience: nobody comes back indifferent after visiting our homeland.
“organizing return trips to Palestine is our most important weapon to keep the memory of the injustice intact. Nobody comes back and feels indifferent.”
I was 20 when I went back for the first time. I participated in a meeting for young Palestinians from the Diaspora and met people from Europe, the US, Australia, Jerusalem, Gaza… We are still in touch and most have returned several times since then. All of us were shocked by the physical confrontation with the occupation. Witnessing how your cultural heritage is being destroyed is far from easy. Experiencing how your distant family suffers from the occupation is painful, even if you come prepared.
In fact, organizing these return trips is our most important weapon to keep the memory of the injustice intact. Every year the Federation funds similar experiences for young Chileans and fortunately, several other organizations do the same.
It is not easy though. Everybody who participates in these programs is confronted with the fact that in Palestine, your civil rights as a Chilean are not respected. Every year there are four or five people who are sent back at the border. Can you imagine what this would do to you, after flying in from the other side of the World?
What struck me most of all was to see that the agricultural fields of our ancestors in Beit Jala have disappeared. The settlement of Gilo is built there, you can see the houses from Beit Jala. It is hard to explain how this hurts.
I like music and dance Dabke in Chile. But doing this in Palestine felt like the “real thing”, that is another experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I have gone back a few times since then. Once I was able to study for 8 months in Amman, Jordan. That is when I started studying Arabic: I realized that understanding the language better was key to learn more about the culture and the traditions.
How do these emotions translate in your daily life in Chile?
In Santiago, soccer is an important part of the Palestinian life. Club Deportivo Palestino plays in the premier league of Chile and qualified in 2013 for the Copa Libertadores. That is the South American equivalent of the European Champions League. When Deportivo plays at home, the stadion becomes an extension of Palestine: it is where our community meets during the weekend. Participating in the Copa Libertadores was more than a soccer victory; it was also a statement. Palestina lives on, even in South America.
How are the relations with the Jewish organizations in Santiago?
On an informal level, there are many relations. We do business together, some of us study together, some are even friends… But there are no formal relations.
The Jewish community in Chile has its roots in Europe; the Palestinian community in Chile is from Palestine. Here there is no occupation, no wall, nobody is killed. In Chile, all people have equal rights. It is important to realize that without occupation, there would be no conflict.