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A life as refugees: Palestinians share experiences of Lebanon camps

  • Sherrill Hogen of Charlemont, standing, and Khawla Hammad, 84, who has spent the last 69 years as a stateless refugee in Lebanon after being forced to flee Palestine in 1948. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amena Elashkar, right, a Palestinian refugee, speaks during "The Exiled Palestinians: Stateless Palestinian Women from Refugee Camps in Lebanon on a North American Nakba Tour", Tuesday at First Churches of Northampton. Beside her is Khawla Hammad, another Palestinian refugee. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amena Elashkar, right, a Palestinian refugee, speaks during "The Exiled Palestinians: Stateless Palestinian Women from Refugee Camps in Lebanon on a North American Nakba Tour", Tuesday at First Churches of Northampton. Beside her is Khawla Hammad, another Palestinian refugee. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amena Elashkar, right, a Palestinian refugee, speaks during “The Exiled Palestinians: Stateless Palestinian Women from Refugee Camps in Lebanon on a North American Nakba Tour,” Tuesday at First Churches of Northampton. Beside her is Khawla Hammad, another Palestinian refugee. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette
Wednesday, September 20, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — It wasn’t the buffet-style Middle Eastern dishes that drew over 70 people to Lyman Hall in First Churches on Tuesday.

It was the stories of Khawla Hammad and Amena Elashkar — two stateless Palestinian refugees who recalled their experiences in refugee camps in Lebanon.

Hammad, 84, was forced from her home in the Palestinian village of Kabri in 1948 by Zionist troops. During this period, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were exiled from their country, an occurrence they call “al-Nakba,” or “the Catastrophe.” Refugees had relocated to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.

From Kabri, Hammad, then 16, remembers hearing bombs exploding in the middle of the night. Afraid, her family fled to Lebanon, where they stayed for seven months without much food or water along the Lebanese-Palestinian border. She called these months “complete misery.”

Since then, Hammad has spent 69 years in refugee camps in Lebanon. She struggled to recount the deaths of her two daughters and son, who were killed in Israeli military attacks. Currently, she lives in Ein El Hilweh in Beirut, the largest camp in Lebanon by population. There are more than 54,116 registered refugees in the camp, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

This is the second consecutive year Palestinian refugees have spoken in Northampton, as part of a North American tour organized by the Free Palestine Movement, a California-based nonprofit. Elashkar attended last year’s event, which took place in April 2016. This year’s talk was titled, “The Exiled Palestinians: Stateless Palestinian Women from Refugee Camps in Lebanon on a North American Nakba Tour.”

Hammad was joined Tuesday by Elashkar, 23, her translater and the great-granddaughter of Nakba survivors. Elashkar comes from the Burj Barajneh camp in Beirut. There are over 17,945 registered refugees in this camp, according to the UNRWA.

Life in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps is not comfortable, Elashkar explained. The Lebanese government does not give Palestinian refugees the right to pursue certain careers, own property outside of the refugee camps, or build new homes in the camps. The refugees also have limited access to health care and education.

Refugees in the camps are not Lebanese citizens, but Elashkar doesn’t want to be.

“We do not want to be citizens of a new state,” Elashkar said. “We just want to go back to our homeland.”

Ellen Graves, an organizer of the event, hopes the attendees took away a better understanding of the Palestinian refugee situation.

“Most people don’t even know about refugee camps,” she said.

Last year, the turnout was close to 150 people, according to Graves.

Sherrill Hogen, another organizer, also strives to educate the community about the distress of Palestinian refugees. One of the influencers that pushed Hogen to get involved with this event was her 2002 visit to Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank. She traveled with the International Solidarity Movement to assist Palestinian refugees.

In Nablus, Hogen witnessed 24-hour curfews that were put on Palestinians and enforced by Israeli armies. During these curfews, Hogen would visit Palestinian families to ask if they needed anything. She would also accompany children to school on days when the curfew was lifted.

Seeing the devastation of Palestinian refugees motivated Hogen to educate others about the crisis.

“Once you go there, your heart stays there,” she said.

Graves hopes to have more Palestinian refugees return to speak next year.