The article originally appeared in the The Daily Bruin. It was co-authored by Safwan Ibrahim.
It happens like clockwork. Though they may live anywhere from the United States to Chile, Lebanon to France, or Canada to Syria, when Palestinians in exile first meet, it is common for one to ask where the other is from in Palestine. It is an act of reclaiming family history, an assertion of “I am from there.” Though there is no single “Palestinian” identity, there is a fundamental Palestinian experience rooted in the shared trauma of the Nakba – or “catastrophe” in English – when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland during the creation of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948.
Although it occurred decades ago, understanding this event and critically engaging with its consequences is crucial to understanding the Palestinian issue today, as the Nakba continues to shape the Palestinian experience.
To this day, Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homelands, only because they have the wrong ethnic and religious identity. However, to think that these experiences of expulsion and oppression begin and end with the Nakba would be to ignore the systematic denial of rights Palestinians continue to endure under occupation. In the occupied West Bank, Palestinians are denied basic rights such as equal access to water, electricity and freedom of movement. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians suffer the most extreme forms of imprisonment – the coastal enclave is now blocked on all sides and is slowly being strangled of electricity, raw materials and the basic necessities we in the West often take for granted. Many who fled Palestine, either during the Nakba or during occupation, instead live in similarly dire conditions in refugee camps in Lebanon or war-torn Syria. With no alternatives, the ostensibly temporary status of refugee becomes a permanent reality for Palestinians in exile.
Palestinians who fled to the West may have escaped occupation and life in refugee camps, but have lost their ability to return to their homeland. While a Western life and education offers some Palestinians many privileges denied to most other Palestinians, those here often must attempt to put together the pieces of their family histories and grapple with the complicated, politically fraught identity of being Palestinian.
Like all Palestinians, Palestinian students at UCLA have had their lives and identities shaped by the events of the Nakba. Many of them are here only because their families were driven out from their homes and villages by proto-Israeli militiamen, and forced into lifelong refugeehood. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine has left lasting scars on generations of Palestinians. The constant denial that this event ever happened – and the total relegating of any aspect of Palestinian history to the off-limits, the taboo, the unsayable – means Palestinians are denied their selfhood and humanity.
In order to fully understand the Nakba and its consequences, we must recognize it not simply as a moment in history, but rather as a continued lived experience of the Palestinian community, perpetuated by occupation and denial of narratives. To help provide the UCLA community with background and personal narratives, Palestinian students have come together to create a space to explore the Nakba and its ongoing effects, and to share this with other UCLA students.
We invite the campus community to attend two events next week, hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine, for the first annual Nakba Week at UCLA. The first event, titled “Refugees and the Right of Return: A Teach-In”, will be held Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m., in Franz Hall 2258A, and will focus on the ongoing and dire refugee crisis faced by Palestinians. The second event, titled “Hear Us Speak: Stories on the Nakba and Exile”, will be held Thursday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m. in Boelter 2444, and will feature Palestinian students discussing their personal experiences related to the Nakba. In presenting these narratives of Palestinian exile, and the effects the Nakba continues to have on Palestinian identities, it is our hope that fellow students will begin to understand Palestine and Palestinians in a new light, and with this critical lens, challenge themselves to understand the lasting impact of forced expulsion and exile.
Ibrahim is a fourth-year comparative literature student and the incoming president of Students for Justice in Palestine. Kureh is a graduate student in applied mathematics and the incoming outreach co-director of Students for Justice in Palestine.