A Lost Paradise: Identity Quest from the Palestinian Diaspora

Written by Anna Bartalini, Flavia Ceccarelli, and Emma Santanach.

Where do you picture in your mind when you hear the word “homeland”? What makes the place that you are imagining so familiar, and what kind of feelings does it evoke? Apparently, simple questions like these might be tricky to answer for people with a refugee background, especially for the Palestinian community and its youngest generations. 

Today, this community is composed of more than 5 million, just counting those registered with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. A number that includes Nakba survivors and their descendants – most of whom have never been to Palestine. Nowadays, Palestinian refugees are located mostly in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, as well as neighboring Arab countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.

Continuing our series of Insights by OCC, in this second article we explore the relationship that Palestinian displaced youth, born and raised in refugee camps or in the diaspora, have with Palestine and their sense of identity. We will retrace how their sense of belonging to Palestine can be constructed through three different voices while providing an overview of the situation of Palestinian refugees in different Arab countries.  

75 years since the “Catastrophe”

Mahdi is a Palestinian filmmaker who was born in Dubai. He keeps bittersweet memories of Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where he used to travel every summer to visit his grandparents and friends. “It’s the place where my parents were born, and it’s the closest to a sense of a homeland that I’ve ever had”, Mahdi says about the camp. Within the walls of the camp, he grew up listening to his relatives’ nostalgic memories and stories about their life in Palestine and the Palestinian resistance. “Then later I found out that actually, it wasn’t our home, but a temporary crisis home”, he adds. 

It wasn’t our home, but a temporary crisis home that was built because of a tragedy that had happened.

Mahdi, on the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh (Lebanon)

Mahdi refers to the Palestinian Nakba – the “Catastrophe” – which occurred on May 15, 1948. Nakba is the anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel in historical Palestine; an episode that marked the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland, in particular the first 700,000 of many more that followed. 

Osama’s grandparents were also among these people. They sought refuge in Syria and settled in Al Yarmouk, home of the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria before the war in 2011. Osama, a Palestinian journalist based in Norway, was born in this refugee camp. “It’s a grey place, but do you know what is special about it? That it’s a vivid memory of Palestine and a daily reminder that you are a refugee”, he explains. Since he was a kid, he learned the name of most Palestinian villages without having been there because they were written on the camp’s walls in the streets.

Yarmouk is a daily reminder that you are a refugee and you have a fight that is actyally to return to your home country.

Osama, on the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Yarmouk (Syria).

For Osama, in the fight, education was one of the most important tools he had to preserve its Palestinian identity and dignity in the face of statelessness. “I, along with many other children at the age of five, was very aware of how crucial education is. It is essential for maintaining one’s culture, sovereignty, and dignity”, he explains. “You are born as stateless. You are based in Syria and you know that all your life will be actually in Syria because you can’t leave this country. So you have to do everything you can to achieve success in this community.” 

For many Palestinians like Mahdi and Osama, their connection to Palestine is tied to the right to return and the attachment to justice. Palestinian refugee camps, like Yarmouk and Ain al-Hilweh, serve as vivid reminders of their history and culture, with schools named after Palestinian villages and graffiti on the walls featuring images of Palestinian leaders and symbols of resistance.

Unlike the first generation of Palestinian refugees, who have a physical memory of their homeland, the second and third generations have never visited the country. Most of them built their image of Palestine during their childhood through the memories of their families, ending up creating in their minds what Mahdi describes as a “mythological place, like a lost paradise”. However, when foreign-born Palestinians manage to visit Palestine, the reality is different than the one constructed in their imagination. “There’s something so familiar and so strange at the same time. It’s a clash of memories and reality”. For Mahdi, it felt like being in the place where he was supposed to feel at home, but while feeling like a complete stranger. 

Understanding his identity was also what motivated Mahdi to film a documentary about his life in Ain al-Hilweh.

‘A World Not Ours’ is an intimate, humorous portrait of three generations in exile in the refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon.

Watch the official trailer of the documentary! →

Awareness transmission and the right to return

“Younger generations reconnect to their cause even though the situation is so difficult”, starts explaining Alwaleed, who is based in Lebanon and specialised in the situation of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. According to him, “Palestinians pass their awareness to the new generations and the discussion is about the right to return, so youth are ready to defend it”. 

Alwaleed refers to the right to return as what unites all the exiled generations, even those who don’t know Palestine physically. The right to return is a principle in international law that ensures every individual’s right to voluntarily return to their country of origin or citizenship. It’s formulated in several modern treaties and conventions, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More specifically, Article 13 reads: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”. 

However, Palestinian youth also face several challenges in maintaining their connection to the traditions and culture of their homeland when growing up. According to Osama, the challenge of Palestinians who moved to Europe is even harder when considering that they are far physically, in a different continent. “In Europe, you have a very different reality. While every detail in Palestine has a huge impact on our lives – whether at work or school in Al Yarmouk – this impact is relatively small in Norway”, shares Osama, who is currently living in this country after fleeing the Syrian war. He also explains that the revolution in 2011 produced “a shift” in his Syrian identity, making him become more aware and proud of it.

Identity is inextricably linked to contextual and geographical factors, making it difficult for Palestinian youth to experience it. Understanding his identity was also what motivated Mahdi to film a documentary about his family and his life in Ain al-Hilweh. “It was more driven by an urgency to understand things and put the place into form”. Mahdi titled the movie A World Not Ours. “I really feel like my connection to the place is to the people. So when my grandfather no longer exists, I will have no reason to go back there”, he concludes.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the mass displacement of Palestinians known as the Nakba. For this reason, during the month of May, we will be sharing content and materials to learn more about initiatives in support of the Palestinian community.

Scan this QR code to discover all our recommendations! →