“while my parents lived in Yemen, my grandmother left Nablus to visit us. After her trip, the Israelis did not allow her to go back home. My father did all he could to solve this problem but soon he had to give up on the idea that his mother would ever be able to return to Nablus. She lived with us ever since and never stopped telling stories about her home and about her hope to go back.”
I am a Palestinian from Nablus. My parents happened to be working in Yemen when Israel occupied Nablus in 1967 and they were never allowed to go back including my grandmother who happened to be visiting her son.
Consequently we have lived in different countries since then, mainly in the Arabian Gulf. Personally, I lived in Amman briefly then from Oman to Lebanon, from Lebanon to England and finally to Canada. Despite having lived in all these countries and not being born in Palestine: I am a Palestinian. This is what I share with many Palestinians in the Diaspora. We may not be born in Palestine; we may not have lived there except for the summer holidays that I used to spend there with my mother. But we are Palestinians nevertheless.
Education takes a central place in my life: I went to school in an American university in Beirut. In this period, I witnessed the Israeli invasion and the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps. As a student, I did volunteer work in these camps. This period connected me more with my roots. In Lebanon and in the camps, I lived in a place where a lot of Palestinians live too for the 1st time. I heard people talking about Palestine and their memories there. My six years in Lebanon has a lot to do with who I am today. .
After Lebanon, I went to obtain my PhD in neurosciences in England. At that time, being a female, a Muslim, a Palestinian/Arab and a PhD student in Cambridge was a challenging experience. The question that I learned to hate was: “How did you get here?” Being different in Cambridge was not easy. I had to defend my identity all the time. Sometimes I managed to solve things with humor but quite often it made me very angry…. It was as if I didn’t belong there!
We did not want to settle in the UK. I was still married at the time: my husband was Lebanese. Our options were to move to Canada or Australia. I qualified for both countries but Canada was geographically closer to the Middle East. Moving to Australia would have cut us of totally from our families; that was not an option. When we left the immigration office after arriving to Canada, the man behind the desk stood up and shook our hands. He said: “Welcome to Canada, thank you for choosing our country”. It was music to my ears: Finally we moved to a country where Palestinians were welcomed! However, not knowing anybody here made things very difficult at first. Figuring everything out ourselves was a lot harder than we anticipated. The good news was that I found a job within the first week, it was not well paid but it was my first job in this new country and it was a start.
Soon I realized that I wanted to continue my studies so I went medical school and specialized in pediatric neurology at University of Toronto. In 2007, I started working at the Hospital for Sick Children. Finally I was doing what I have a passion for.
I have two sons: they are 16 and 12. They were born in Canada but have never been in Palestine. They feel partly Canadian, partly Lebanese and partly Palestinian. Both speak Arabic, even if this took a lot of energy and discipline from all of us.
For me, being involved in the Palestinian community is extremely important. All my closest friends are Palestinians or Arabs. Of course I have Canadian friends as well, but –this may sound a bit strange- it is not the same. Being surrounded by Palestinians is crucial to my social and emotional well being and I take my commitment to the community very serious. As a doctor, I am well placed to contribute and I have learned that it gives me a sense of fulfillment and purpose. During the latest attack on Gaza in 2014, we funded dialysis machines for children in Gaza. But I prefer to work with a more long-term perspective. I believe in investing in people by educating and training them. This allows Palestine to become less dependent on outside help. As there is a need for trained doctors in pediatrics subspecialties in Palestine, I set up a program where Palestinian doctors who live in Palestine come to Toronto for a two-year training program. It’s a program fully funded by philanthropists. The program fund their training but they have to go back to work on Palestine for at least double the duration of their training.. So far, five have graduated and gone back. There are four other Palestinian doctors in Toronto as we speak. Every year, I go to Palestine to recruit new candidates. While they are here, I mentor them. The start is difficult but they are extremely motivated, all have succeeded in the program. This work gives me great satisfaction: it feels like doing the right thing because it is making a difference in the lives of so many people.
I go to Palestine at least once a year for the past 15 years I have a lot of memories of Palestine. My “memories” of Palestine as a child was from hearing my grandmother and parents talking about it. My mother told me about the beautiful almond trees in their garden when they blossom. She will only read and do her homework under these trees.
My father refused to go back
The story of my grandmother is quite amazing: while my parents lived in Yemen, my grandmother left Nablus to pay us a visit. After her trip, the Israelis did not allow her to go back to her home or city where she lived all her life. My father did all he could to solve this problem but soon he had to give up on the idea that his mother would ever be able to return to her home in Nablus. She lived with us ever since and never stopped telling stories about her home and about her hope to go back. She passed in 1985 at age of 87 but till that day, she followed all the news about Palestine. She knew the details of every peace negotiation; every potential opening gave her hope. She told me so many stories about Nablus, how my father grew up there, how he met my mother, about my mother’s family…etc.
As for all Palestinians in the Diaspora, Palestinian food is still the essence of our diet. On top of that, I am from Nablus that is famous for its sweets. As they are made with very specific local ingredients, you can only eat them well in Nablus or in memories when father describes his trips to the foul or tamreyeh places in the old alleys of Nablus.
Nablus is a very old city, with many dark and narrow alleys. These alleys have a specific scent that is engraved in my memory. I associate it with the stories my grandmother told me about my father as a child. My mother’s home was on one of Nablus two mountains. You have to climb a long staircase before you can get to it.
Memories are some times difficult to deal with: emotions play a big role. Sometimes, the injustice in my homeland can hit me hard and I become very angry. If this happens, I dissociate myself from what happens around me. Of course I have to keep functioning but I will be emotionally detached in my own world. These are dark moments.
“Do you feel Canadian?”
I am Canadian since 1997 but to be honest, I am a mix. Part of me is westernized. After all this time, living and studying in the West that has obviously its impact on who I am.. I took something from every place I lived in and I cherish all these experiences. But I am more Palestinian than anything else. It is who I am and what I identify myself with. Where this strong tie comes from, I am not sure? I guess the injustice in Palestine touches people around the World. It is human to care for Palestine and relate to the Palestinians, let alone if you are a Palestinian.
Of course I think about going back. My children are my main attachment to Canada. For now, I travel to Palestine on a yearly basis but these trips are short. In the future, I will extend them to longer periods. I can make more of a difference when I am there.
So glad we met this lady, this mighty Palestinian girl
dear dr. rand , iam very proud of you and your thoughts specially about investing in people to be less dependent on the outside help. i beleive that you are doing the right thing . thank you for that . one more thing plwase what is the name of your father and mother , are they abdel kader and itedal
Thank you for your kind words. Yes, my parents are Abdulkadir Askalan and Itidal Arafat.
My son and I we met you a few years ago in the hospital.
Very good the work you do.