Nov 5th, 2015 – Hilmi Dabbagh – Sydney

“Maybe I would feel less involved if there would be justice in Palestine. All I can say is that the injustice is there and that it reminds me every day about my roots.”

 

Hilmi Dabbagh

In 1948, my parents were expelled from Jaffa. My father had to abandon his shop; he was a tailor with a retail shop for men’s clothing. My mother was a teacher. They started a new life from scratch in Damascus after losing everything. I was born there, in 1955. The first years must have been very difficult, I heard so many stories about that. In the end, both of them found work as teachers but in different cities. My mother, my sisters and myself stayed in Damascus while father took my older brothers with him to Hama, 200 km further north.

Both of my parents were politically active, especially my mother. She founded the Union for Palestinian Women in Syria and had later on a seat at the Palestinian National Council (Parliament in exile) till her passing away. At home, we discussed politics every day. I feel I have to do my share to achieve justice in Palestine and it is pretty clear where that comes from. It is in my genes. In fact, I feel I have to speak up every time that I am confronted with injustice whether it is related to Palestine or any other. It defines who I am.

My education started at the UNWRA school and continued at the University of Damascus. After my graduation, the whole family moved to Amman in Jordan and I worked there as a civil engineer till I joined the German Agency for Technical Cooperation. As a part-time student, I did my MBA and that is how I built up skills in economic statistics. In that capacity, I helped the Palestinian Authority with setting up the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics in Ramallah. It implied working as a resident consultant in Ramallah and for a while, I traveled intensively through Palestine on a German VIP official passport. This enabled me to travel to Gaza as well, very few of us are allowed to do so. The culmination of my work in this statistical office was the publication of the first ever national accounts figures (GDP and national income) in the Palestinian history. I am more than proud that my name is recorded as the main advisor
behind this landmark achievement!

My wife had a good job as well; she is an IVF scientist. But in 1998, we decided to move with our three daughters to Australia. For Palestinians who want to emigrate in the context of a skilled workers program, there were basically two options at that time: Canada and Australia. We chose for the sun and ended up in Sydney, Australia.

Our main motivation to move was related to the lack of a proper social security system in most countries of the Middle East. One of our relatives in Amman became very ill. His treatment did cost him all his savings and when he died, he left his family with no means. That triggered us to think about our future and we started looking for a country with a strong social security system. Obviously, that was one of the things that Australia had to offer.

“There is a saying that goes: “Everybody is born in a homeland, except for the Palestinians. Their homeland is born in them.” After 17 years, I can say that Australia has been very good to us. We now have two nationalities and two home countries.”

 

We ended up in a situation that was similar to the situation of my parents in Damascus after their exile. From a social and cultural perspective, we had to build a new life. It is hard to explain how hard that is. Our daughters were seven, ten and thirteen when we moved. Fortunately, we were far better off from an economical perspective as we both found good jobs.

There is a saying that goes: “Everybody is born in a homeland, except for the Palestinians. Their homeland is born in them.” After 17 years, I can say that Australia has been very good to us. We now have two nationalities and two home countries. This may sound a bit strange but for us, it is a natural situation. We feel Palestinian and Australian and are proud of both.

Maybe I would feel less involved if there would be justice in Palestine. All I can say is that the injustice is there and that it reminds me every day about my roots. In Australia, I became an activist for the Palestinian cause. Even if I am very far away, I feel that I can do my share from where I live.

We created an association to inform Australian politicians about what happens in Israel and Palestine (APPA – Australian Palestinian Professionals Association). In fact we were encouraged to do so by some Australian Members of Parliament. They told us they were being lobbied by Zionist organizations all the time and missed a balancing voice. We organize all kind of events with leading speakers to achieve this. As the peace negotiations of the past decades have failed, we also lobby actively for BDS (a campaign for divestment and sanctions against Israel). An example of our BDS work is our support for the international campaign that forced Veolia to sell their dodgy businesses in Israel.

We try to work at a grassroots level by building a constructive dialogue with the Jewish community in New South Wales. That does not mean that we agree on everything, far from that. But we work on this dialogue and by doing so on a local level in Australia, we hope to show the leaders in the Middle East that this is the path forward. A solution for the conflict in the Middle East is essential for all countries in the World. The current situation only fuels more radicalism and more violence. It gets so much easier for the extremists leaders to brainwash young Arabs and Muslims by having their chests full of anger due to double standards practiced by the “international community”, especially by the influential Western countries. There is a lot of talk on equality and justice and prevailing of law, but when it comes to Palestine everything stays the same.

“Jewish people in the Diaspora seem to be convinced that they are under threat. For MANY OF them, the next Holocaust is only a matter of time. They consider the existence of the State of Israel as their insurance policy. By creating a dialogue with them in the Diaspora, we need to take the MYTH OF THAT  uncertainty away. That is key and we can work on that in Australia.”

 

During moments of crisis like the Gaza war, we do charity as well but I feel we can make more of a difference with our grassroots work. Our dialogue with the Jewish community here is important. In my conversations with them, I think I identified the main hurdle for a peaceful coexistence in our homeland. Jewish people in the Diaspora seem to be convinced that they are under threat. For them, the next Holocaust is only a matter of time. They consider the existence of the State of Israel as their insurance policy. In case of another wave of antisemitism, they want to have the option to move there. For them, our homeland is their safe haven.

Why is my family dispersed all over the World? Why was our homeland ethnically cleansed and why is this still ongoing? We had to leave it as an insurance policy against a myth, and often for people who have never visited the Middle East and have no relation to it at all. Does this sound fair?

Why can’t we work towards a solution of peaceful coexistence like in Ireland? Why can’t we live together like Black and White in the USA? Of course that is not easy, but history proves that it is possible. We need to have a more open mind with respect to this. There is no wave of antisemitism coming. Jewish people in the Diaspora have nothing to fear. By creating a dialogue with them in Australia, we need to take that uncertainty away. That is the key and we can work on that in Australia. We can make a difference here.

What memories do you have of Palestine?

I was born in Damascus but of course my parents told us so many stories about Jaffa. What come to mind are virtual images of picnics where my parents and my brothers played with a ball. I have images of the surrounding citrus fields. Our doctor was Jewish. The exile in 1948 was dark and scary; it was the beginning of a wave of ethnic cleansing that has not stopped.

Even if my family is now spread around the world, we try to meet at least once a year. The sense of family is very important in our culture.

My job allowed me to travel to Jerusalem on a regular basis. It has always had a special charm. Six years ago, I visited it for the last time and met a very good friend from Damascus University who came from Jerusalem and still lives there now. His house is close to the wall. In my recent memories, the wall is omnipresent. To visit his mother who is on the other side of the wall, 300 meters away, he needs to drive half an hour and cross several security checkpoints. Ramallah is growing rapidly, there is so much construction going on. The checkpoints were awful when I worked there but now they look like dark fortresses. Many objective observers have described the wall and the checkpoints as symbols of an apartheids regime.

At home, we still speak Arabic even if that is difficult for our daughters. We always wanted to pass on our roots and we have at least partly succeeded in that. Of course, our children are seeking their own path. We hope that they will find their way in life and pass on the message that there is huge injustice in Palestine.

“One of my daughters told me recently that she considered studying law. She has a very good job at Nasdaq right now. But she felt compelled to study something that she could use for the cause. That makes me really emotional.”

 

 

3 thoughts on “Nov 5th, 2015 – Hilmi Dabbagh – Sydney

  1. So proud of you, Helmi!! Your true story of one Palestinian family, draws a full and authentic picture of the ordeal that Palestinians have been going through and the struggle for their fair cause they still keep and pass on for their children.

  2. You are an incredible man Hilmi and your activism makes your family and friends very proud of you. Australia is very lucky to have you and your family as its citizens.

  3. A great insight into the hidden struggles of Palestinians generations. Regardless of being a direct victim of turmoil and away from my personal mentioning in my dad testimony, it’s comforting that you highlight the importance of rational dialogue – a concept often overlooked by all. Your experience should resonate with any sensible objective individual.

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