Our Struggle is One and the Same

Ziad Awaisy – Nazareth, 1948 Palestine

Ziad Awaisy was born the second of five children in 1974, in the Saffafra neighborhood of Nazareth. For his parents, both refugees of Saffuriyya, this was a great achievement – a son was born in their own home. Their first daughter was born the year before when – more than a quarter of a century after the Nakba - they were still living in a two roomed house with the father’s parents and brothers’ families.

Founded by some of the 4,500 refugees of Saffuriyya, the Saffafra neighbourhood today continues to shelter an internally displaced majority awaiting their return. The hillside looks over the lands of the village. Ziad’s grandparents were some of the first to come to the land of Saffafra in the late 1950s – after spending some months in Bint Jbeil in Lebanon they managed successfully (unlike many others killed or turned back) to return over the border. In the early 1960s refugees began to gather from the surrounding villages to which they had fled. Many people spent over twenty years in shacks and caves before being able to afford to build. Today, as in all Palestinian towns in Israel, the neighbourhood is overcrowded and land a scarce resource.

As a young child I always knew I was from Saffuriyya, I heard it all the time – “You are not from Nazareth” – Everybody said this. I remember my older cousins talking about it. I knew it before I knew what it meant.

Ziad describes sitting with his grandmother and grandfather, whom he lived with, and listening to their stories. He says that while his nieces and nephews today know exactly where they are from, for him the difference was that he actually heard it direct from his grandparents – “I would absorb it from them, watch their movements as they were talking, follow their expressions”. Most painful to recall is his late grandmother whom he asked to accompany him to the land of Saffuriyya many times – “And she would refuse saying – ‘If you take me back there you will have to leave me there.’”

Growing up in the neighbourhood of Saffafra helps maintain a refugee village identity still today. Unlike some refugees dispersed across Palestine and the rest of the world, in Saffafra a large part of one village remains together. The neighbourhood has its physical markers of memory – two schools named Al-Kastel (after Saffuriyya’s well) and Al-Qalaa (after the Saffuriyya castle). ‘Sabra and Shatila Street’ was built in summer 1982 by one of the Communist summer work camps – after the massacre the people named it after the camps where many fellow Saffuriyyans died.

When Ziad finished elementary school his father wanted to send him to a high school in Nazareth to get the educational opportunities that, as a refugee, he himself had not got. At first he found it extremely hard to integrate socially feeling like a village outsider even though Saffafra is part of Nazareth and “despite the fact that we all faced the same difficult situation as Palestinians in Israel.”

At school he became politically active. Although his parents were not activists they taught him to identify with the Palestinian people, and to struggle for what one believes to be right. He became active on the school council, motivating students to organize on whatever was the issue of the day – one event that stands out in his mind is the students horror at the 1991 US bombing of the al-Amiriyyeh shelter in Iraq.

Going to university is the time when many Palestinians inside Israel first have to deal with the Jewish community on a daily basis. In 1993 Ziad went to study physiotherapy at Tel Aviv University – and continued to immerse himself in the activist community, now more specifically with the Jebha (Arab Communists). As well as engaging with local university issues – discrimination against Palestinian Arabs in allocation of housing; an issue which persists today – students were campaigning on the bloody events of the day, from the Baruch Goldstein Hebron massacre to the first Qana massacre.

Palestinians in Israel have little choice but to work within Israeli society, and working as a physiotherapist in the main hospital in Haifa poses a daily challenge. “I stick to my opinions and I am not afraid to let them know what I think even if that threatens my job. They know exactly who I am and what I think about all issues – including the right of return.”

Despite his assertiveness, and of course the fact that many of the hospital patients are Palestinian Arabs of the Galilee, the work causes pain and difficulty. On the day of this interview, Ziad had had to go to work following the killing of 100 Palestinians in Gaza – “I just didn’t want to talk to anybody.”

Sometimes he thinks of giving it all up – going to volunteer in a hospital in Gaza or Jenin. One of the hardest times was when his cousin was lying in the Haifa hospital close to death after being shot by police in October 2000. “But leaving is in the end the last thing I would do – that is exactly what they want from us, the Palestinians inside – to leave.”

When he returned to Saffafra after university he became more involved with the Saffuriyya committee – a recent triumph of which has been to legally change the name of the committee to include the word ‘return’ officially in the title. The committee organizes festivals and activities to raise awareness in the community, and campaigns to protect the cemeteries remaining on Saffuriyya land.

When I grew up it wasn’t enough just for me to feel what they [our grandparents] passed. I asked deeper questions about right and wrong, about power and weakness… and to try and see other aspects of life from this perspective. I feel more committed to pass on what my grandfather had been through – they didn’t pass it on as they should have because of the weight of the Nakba… because they were just struggling to see that their sons and daughters lived. I feel my responsibility and role and this now is heavier than that of the second generation. The third generation feels it heavier; and the Israelis should know this.

Palestinian refugees remaining in the Galilee know that in many ways life has been harder for refugees across borders, people who can not even see their land. It is most important for Ziad to get across to Palestinians throughout the Diaspora that the Palestinian internally displaced campaign is for all refugees to return. “I want them to know about what we are doing, and that they are not forgotten. Our struggle is one and the same.”