A personal story on refugees
A Personal Refugee Story
by Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD, FABMG
July 6, 2000 (unpublished)
This month 25 years ago I had an experience that changed me and still haunts me to this day. While I told this story to some in my family and very few close friends, I never thought of writing it down. Now it seems that I need to for my own sanity.
This experience in 1976 was actually my second meaningful experience with refugees. My first encounter with refugees was when I was 10 years old (in 1967) when many panicked people passed through our village heading towards the Jordan River and my kind mother gave themfood and gave fleeing Jordanian soldiers my father's used cloths. Before the Israeli occupation, only my father was concerned with the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Afterwards, and in the presence of the Israeli military occupation, it became an issue for all of us. However, I personally was not aware of the human consequence to the refugees of 1967 let alone those of 1948 beyond those fleeting few days during the war in 1967. My parents were teachers who gave us a good life and attempted to insulate their six children from such "unpleasant" experience as seeing the refugees of Dheishe near my hometown of Beit Sahur.
This sheltered life came to a halt that fateful day in 1976 when I was 19 years old. I was at the time an undergraduate biology student at Jordan University. As a class project, I was studying the bats of Jordan. On one of my field trips, I was walking from the provincial Jordanian town of Jerash (with its ancient Roman ruins) to the Dibbine forest where a friend said that bats are common. After a two-hour walk in the sun on a hot day in July, I came upon a group of children playing in a small Wadi (dry valley). My first thought was that it is too hot to play outside.My second thought was to ask them if they know of any bat caves in the area. Village children usually do. To my pleasant surprise, two older children said yes and agreed to take me to this cave and four younger kids decided to join. Aster a 20-minute walk, and at the top of a hill, they pointed to a very small entrance. Crawling inside on hands and knees with a flashlight was difficult. I was pleased to find a large room deep inside with a bat species that I later identified as new to the fauna of Jordan. This was very satisfying to me. Dirty, hungry, and thirsty I asked if they know where I can buy a drink. One of the two older child said in typical Arab hospitality that there is no way they would allow me to do that and insisted that I come to his home. He pointed to the "town" located below. I had not even noticed earlier but now with the sun and our location at the right angle the town glittered. It was the hundreds of tin-sheet roofs that reflected the sun's rays. It was then that I asked and was told that this is the Jerash Palestinian refugee camp.
The older child (perhaps 13 years old) asked a younger one (apparently his brother) to run down and alert his family that a guest is coming. I never saw a child run down a hill this fast before. I obviously was exhausted and walked slowly with the other children. On the way down we talked not about bats but about them and their lives. When asked where they were from, the answers were of towns I never heard of (& to this day I feel guilty that I did not know or remember the towns they mentioned). These were Palestinian villages that their parents and grandparents left in 1948. They talked of the bayyarat (citrus farms) the 'haquras (vegetable gardens), the large stone houses and so many other things that seemed so distant to their present reality. None of them saw these places but their descriptions were so vivid and real that you knew they were told these things in great detail repeatedly so that they committed them to their thoughts.
The "home" I visited that day was a two-room shack no bigger than 300 sq feet. The walls were constructed from bricks covered with pealing white covering and the ceiling was a simple tin sheet. The room I entered was clean but crowded (serving as living room and bedroom). A small sorry looking coffee table sat in the middle with fruits and snacks, a juice container, a teapot, and cups. My young energetic hosts were apologetic that they did not do more while I was very worried to have caused them such trouble. We talked some more about things such as their school (UNRWA administered), their lives, their dreams, and their aspirations.
For a while I was in their universe and in their world and felt I was so sheltered and my life was so shallow. The joy of having succeeded in my mission of getting the bat specimens I needed was replaced with emptiness and confusion. I asked why they thought they were in this place and not in Palestine. They simply answered "the Jews wanted our land." The last question that I asked about their lives was due to my own bewilderment and simplicity of thought: do you think you will go back to those places in Palestine? An energetic and simplistic affirmative nod of the head accompanied by "inshallah" (God willing) was the answer. On the way back and walking at sunset, many thoughts crossed my mind, some were perhaps a bit too much for a 19 year old college student. As the years went by and the struggle between being involved and watching for my own career and life continued, I think this experience slowly made its way into my conscience to make me think more about politics, injustice, and human rights.
My color Kodachrome slides of the cave, the refugee camp, and these children seem like a black and white photos much older than they really are. I published the paper on new records of bats from Jordan in 1981 (my first scientific paper) to include the data those children helped me get. Many troubling regrets and questions remained unanswered. Did I impose on them and disrupt their lives (they seemed anxious to tell me their stories though)? Should I have offered them money (I had little to spare as a struggling undergraduate student) and would such an offer have been considered an insult? Why didn't I at least write their names or the names of the villages they came from? What do they think of their experience with me? What happened to them? What will their future be like after these various "peace" moves? After 25 years, my regrets are mixed with pride and hope but most of all with gratitude. My life's challenges for the past 25 years all seem so mundane compared to thatof refugees. The small effort I make for the refugees right of return in this rich and powerful USA helps ease a pain for not being able to personally thank these comrades that in my heart always remained young and optimistic. As Helen Keller once wrote "the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, nor touched... but are felt in the heart." And yes, I think they will see Palestine.