“I have learned to know and love Palestine through the pain of my mother. She was expelled from Palestine when she was twelve years old. Without exaggeration, my mother speaks about Palestine every day. she is an educated woman But keeps repeating the same memories. Palestine is at the foundation of her identity, she will not allow herself to forget it.”
My home country is Syria, I graduated there with a bachelor degree in life science and did a post graduate in anatomy. I was a teacher in Lataka, a small and beautiful city on the Mediterranean coast. My husband is Palestinian as well, so are our kids. As Palestinians, our travel was restricted: we could not visit our family in the other countries of the Middle East. It is hard to explain how it feels to live in a place where you cannot travel to visit your family. That is how the idea grew to emigrate: I wanted my kids to have a passport that would allow them to travel without restrictions. In 2000, Canada offered the possibility to apply for a visa in the context of a skilled worker program. I applied and five years later, we were granted access to Canada. Now, my kids have a nationality and they can travel. Even if they don’t have the money to do so today, the important thing is that now they are allowed to. Syria did offer us a good life but it felt like a big jail. Not because of Syria but because of the other countries who would not accept displaced Palestinians to travel to their countries. For us, this has now changed.
How did you end up choosing Canada as your preferred destination?
Actually, Canada was not the first option. My kids have an uncle in Norway who suggested we would come over and ask for asylum. But this procedure was risky, it did imply for us to travel to Norway with the possibility that our request would be denied. I did not want to put my kids into such a risky situation. I felt like we were not doing anything wrong, I wanted a safe option for my family. With this perspective in mind, Canada was my only option because of the skilled worker program. I had the required degrees and I spoke the language so I applied. Shortly after, 9/11 happened and we had to wait five years for the approval; I had almost given up on the idea. In fact, one year before we did get the approval, I already suggested my son to go to Canada on a student visa. That was a very expensive program for us. I was a teacher, my husband had his own company. We were doing fine but we were not wealthy. My son had to combine his studies in Canada with part time jobs. His sister would have to wait a few years before we could send her. But at that time, it felt like to the only path, we had been waiting for so long. When my son was finally in Canada, we did get the approval for the skilled workers visa. Because this was a permanent visa for the family, he had to leave Canada again so that we could all pass the mandatory health check and enter under the new program as a family. Looking back at it now, it sounds simple but these five long years were not easy for us. That is how our new life in Canada started.
For my son, it has been an smooth transition but for my daughter, who was thirteen at the time, it was more complicated. She felt torn away from her friends in Syria. Ultimately, she adapted to the new situation and when she graduated from high school, her school honored her for her community services work. In the end, things turned out very well for both of them.
After ten years in Canada, do you find yourself thinking more or less about Palestine?
For me, the link with Palestine is more emotional. I was born in Palestine but have lived in Syria all my life. I know Palestine from the stories of my parents; I have never lived there myself. But that does not make the link less important. In fact, I have learned to know and love Palestine through the pain of my mother. She was expelled from Palestine when she was twelve years old. Without exaggeration, my mother speaks about Palestine every day. She is 78 years old now, and she keeps on repeating the same memories and stories. My mother is an educated woman, she has a degree in Arabic literature and she thought herself science after that. But she keeps on repeating the same memories. Palestine is at the foundation of her identity, she will not allow herself to forget that. Everything pales compared to her memories. It is obvious that we have inherited our love for Palestine from her.
I was born in Palestine during a family visit. My mother delivered early, I came two months before she was due. The fact that I was born in Palestine was a matter of luck. Nevertheless, it is a very special place for me. Home is Syria, but if somebody asks me for my nationality, I will always answer that I am Palestinian. Till today, I meet friends who are very surprised if they hear that I am from Syria. Years ago, I was not allowed to join a Palestinian union group because they found out that I was from Syria. But I feel Palestinian. My Canadian passport says: Palestinian, born in Ramallah. And I am very proud of that. There are two generations of Palestinians who were born in the Diaspora. But I was born in Ramallah; there is a space for me there. It does not matter how long they keep occupying it. One day, we will go back.
Are the images you have from Palestine mainly based on the stories of your family?
Yes, from my mother and grandmother, aunts and uncles. Every time we meet, we talk about Palestine. And I pass that on to my children.
They know what we owned, how our land looks like. And when we see our house in a more factual way, via pictures of friends who are able to travel there, we like it more and more. We can see how the walls of the house are thick, like 50 cm, and we can feel how these walls will be protecting us one day. It will be a safe place to live. Even if the house is empty now, you can see on the pictures that it used to be full of life and love.
Did your mother sing to you?
Of course, not all memories are visual. There is a very strong musical tradition that we carry with us. It is difficult to talk about music though, without talking about the new Islam. Music is an important part of the Palestinian culture. In weddings and other festivities, group dancing (men and women together) was essential. Men and women did live together in a very open minded society. It is such a pity that this tradition is under pressure in ‘modern’ Palestine. Looking at it from the outside, this is hard to understand. It feels like religion is a fallback option for some of the Palestinians who are suffering from the Israeli injustice. Islam has changed as well. It feels like there is a new Islam that has nothing to do with the religion of our parents.
How do you keep in touch with your family in Syria?
Thanks to Skype and Facebook, at least there are no boundaries anymore that can stop us from talking to each other. I am in touch with friends and family in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine on a daily basis.
Do you feel Canadian or Palestinian?
Maybe this has to do with the fact that I arrived here when I more than 40 years old. To be honest: I consider myself as Palestinian or Syrian, more than I feel Canadian. Of course I respect the country that gave us this new opportunity and I am doing my part to be a good citizen. But deep inside, I do not feel Canadian. I don’t think I ever will. My kids may feel different about this but for me, after 40 years in Syria… North America is very different than Syria, it is hard to fully get used to this new life. For me, home is Syria and Palestine. In some ways, I feel more Syrian. In other ways, I feel more Palestinian. I lived in Syria for 40 years; it will always be a part of me. But deep inside, I feel a strong emotional connection with Palestine. In the end, that is what matters most.
Would you move to Palestine if you could?
Yes, I would. But that is not the main issue. What is important is to be in a position that I can go back on my own terms. If I could find a good job in Palestine, support my family as I want to, live safe and without humiliation, then I might do that. I probably would. But what is more important to me now is that I want to have the right to do this, at my discretion. To have this right… that is a must.
If I travel to Palestine next year, are there special places that you would like me to photograph?
Yes, there are many villages that were destroyed by Israel after the 1948 war and later. 50 or 60 years ago they were full of life. What happened was ethnic cleansing. These are not on the map anymore. I think it is important to remember these villages.