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Preserving Palestinian identity

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Saturday, 12 September, 2009

"Building infrastructure or providing better opportunities for work does not serve as an alternative to our right of return." Mustafa Orabi talks to The Elders guest blogger Sari Freitekh about growing up in a refugee camp and his work to ensure that Palestinian identity and ideologies are preserved.

Mustafa Orabi is not your typical proletariat. I could have missed him for an average daily worker as I stood waiting for him in central Ramallah. He is about five foot ten, sun-burned skin, has a few scars here and there yet has the eyes of an intellectual adorned with eyeglasses. He is a self-educated activist whose ideologies lean towards the left and who believes in a bi-national one-state solution. Mustafa is well-spoken and has very clear and firm beliefs regarding the Palestinian issue.

His face covered with dust, it was apparent he was meeting me right after work. It's the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan so I suggest to him that if he is fasting we sit in a park; he walks confidently towards the "Uncle Sam Hotel" Road and through the staircase of an old building we enter a tiny restaurant that had its doors closed from the outside. The place was jam-packed with mostly blue-collar clients. "Would it bother you if I smoked?" he asked in a humble tone while ordering a glass of coffee. "This place still serves 2-NIS coffee (about 50 US-cents), nowhere in Ramallah can you find coffee cheaper than ten NIS", I nod in agreement. "This is a restaurant for us, the poor" he adds.

Mustafa is not your typical 25-year old either. He looks older than his age; he has the rough look that is all too common amongst Palestinians still living in refugee camps. Mustafa descends from a village near the town of Lydda inside of Israel called Beit Nabala. His ultimate goal is to have the right to move back there, or at least to be granted the right to choose to live there. His family has lived in the Jalazone refugee camp since 1948. He provided me with a 101-lesson on Jalazone as he hopes even a little of the basic info might reach far, somewhere.

He explained that the land where the refugee camp is located belongs to the Christian Palestinian village of Jifna, whose kind people offered a single kilometre for those refugees to live on (my research shows 0.3 kilometres as the size of the refugee camp). Eleven thousand Palestinian refugees are crammed on top of each other in that tiny area and are fenced-in by the Israeli occupation. Those refugees descend from around 36 destroyed Palestinian towns and villages inside of Israel. The smallest village once stood at quadruple the size of the current refugee camp.

Mustafa has worked for eleven years. He dropped out of school after his ninth grade and now he defines himself as a handyman. He is also a board member and a volunteer at a small community centre for the youth he helped establish inside the refugee camp called the Khaled Wakeel Foundation for Young Leaders.

The Foundation is mostly concerned with providing children with a space for self-expression. Mustafa believes in his role as a preserver of the Palestinian identity and ideologies (most importantly the right of return) which [he believes] are being targeted by the occupation for erasure. Mustafa believes it is crucial to help the youth know more about Palestine, to know the story behind their miserable lives inside of the refugee camps, and to help them avoid falling victim to their realities.

"If the meeting tomorrow is to discuss in any form the idea of housing the refugees in their current locations as a final solution to their plight, then I have very tough words to tell to the guests." Mustafa declared. He sent a message to the Elders: "Are you here to try and tell of our plight? Or Are you the tools to resettle us where we are?"

"What ultimately matters to me is any form of support for the refugees, whether financial or moral: building much-needed infrastructure or providing better opportunities for work does not serve as an alternative to our right for return to our ancestral homes." Mustafa was distraught as he spoke about the internal divisions in Palestinian politics. He fears this division forms the most apparent weakness for the Palestinians. He fears the "West" instigates and feeds this form of division in order to end any possibility of a single solution for the Palestinian refugees: the decisive factor for peace in his opinion.

"Any personal aspirations?" I asked. "It is hard for the Palestinians to distinguish between what is social and what is political. This is how we live it everyday."

Sari Freitekh is an Arabic-language writer and translator with a degree in Economics from the University of Houston in Texas where he assisted with the Arabic-Language division at the Classical and Modern Languages Department. He divides his time between Nazareth and Ramallah where he lives and works at a non-profit organisation.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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