Gaza refugees still dream of return

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  May 12, 2023

The younger generation of Palestinian refugees in Gaza carry memories of their original villages, even though they’ve never been to them. 75 years after the Nakba, they still dream of return.

Farah Ejlah, 22, sits in her small crafts shop in Gaza City, where she sells handmade accessories and trinkets. Most of Ejlah’s crafts are related to a place called Beer al-Sabe’ (Beersheba), in the Naqab desert, 41 kilometers north of Gaza. 

Farah was born and raised in Gaza and has never left the small coastal enclave. But when she dreams, she dreams of Beer al-Sabe’. For Farah, Gaza is where she lives, but it is not home. When she daydreams of home, she imagines her family’s home in Beer al-Sabe’, her neighbors’ houses, the trees that line the sides of the roads, and her family’s farms full of different kinds of fruits — all real places, but for Farah, they are just figments of her imagination.

Farah and young people her age are part of an extended generation of the 800,000 Palestinians forced to leave their homes during the Nakba in 1948. She is among the many generations of Gaza’s immense refugee population, who account for 70% of Gazans. 

The refugees like Farah, born in Gaza, still dream about their villages and can describe them clearly, without ever having been there. She could give all the details about her Beersheba home but has never been there.

After 75 years of the Nakba, many generations were born in Gaza, so their stories, memories, and feelings about the Nakba differ from those who lived it.  Those generations imagine the view from their grandparents’ stories and sometimes from history and documentary shows. They can imagine their grandparents’ exit and can also imagine themselves living in their own homes and lands. “Life would be much easier and better, I imagine myself in Beersheba, I can freely go to Hebron to study at the finest universities, I can go to Jaffa’s or Gaza’s beach on vacations, and this kind of freedom is reflected on our mind,” Farah said. 

Farah’s thoughts about the Nakba come from her mother and grandmother. Since her grandmother fled in 1948, she has become the source of all the family’s Nakba stories. “The story of their expulsion is painful,” Farah said. “They came to Gaza after leaving their beautiful homes and lands. Here, they were given a tent, they had nothing, and their future was uncertain. No homes, no belongings, no money or gold — they left everything to survive.” 

The family was eventually given a place to stay after living in Jabaliya refugee camp, but the house was small and did not fit the family. They ended up struggling for several years until they could move again. 

When Farah’s grandmother tells stories about the Nakba to her family of 34 people, she recounts how she forgot her son when she fled under the force of fire and the killing by the Zionist forces. 

“Sometimes I find myself wondering about the kind of fear that would push a mother to run away and forget about her son, but when I witness the Israeli wars in Gaza, I can understand,” Farah told Mondoweiss. “It’s not only about devastating people and pushing them to a new place with nothing. It’s about taking away people’s inner peace. I can now feel how hard it is to run barefoot and leave everything behind.”

Different life and future

It’s a quite different world since 1948, and nowadays, Farah and young people around her age live. The Nakba impacts for them is a daily ring in their heads whenever they see any photos of Palestine. 

For Farah and other young refugees in Gaza, the Nakba is the worst date in the year, a reminder of the day that they were stripped of their homes and lands and kicked out into the unknown. About 79,947 people arrived in Gaza in 1948, most of them from coastal villages or areas that were close to Gaza, like Beersheba, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Majdal By the year 2000, the population of refugees in Gaza had grown to about half a million, and by 2022 that population grew to become 1.4 million, spread across eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. 

Compared to Gaza’s original towns, the refugee camps are densely populated, with tiny and tightly packed homes. Every home in those camps has a different story and countless memories of their inhabitants’ original villages. They have maps, old keys for their former homes, traditional dresses, and even old farming tools that they took with them. Walking into any refugee home, it becomes apparent that while they physically left their old villages, they also left their hearts there. 

In the camps’ alleyways, graffiti about return adorns the walls, reminding the younger generation never to forget, and hardly any have — even children, when asked where they are from, will recite the name of a village they’ve never seen except in their imagination. When students say their names in schools and universities, teachers always ask about their original villages, and often people are given nicknames related to their original village — for instance, “Majdalawi” for people from al-Majdal, who live in northern Gaza in Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya refugee camps. 

“We’re exhausted from the difficulty of life in Gaza,” Farah says. “And every time I see Beersheba or Jerusalem or Bethlehem, I imagine how life would be easier if we lived there.”   

Farah often imagines what life would be like in her grandfather’s old home in Beer al-Sabe’ — a vast area surrounded by trees and neighbors, a simple livelihood based on the harvest from the land, and she would have enjoyed her freedom.

In contrast, Farah’s reality is filled with drudgery and hardship. Moving from one place to another seems like a feat, and all the while she feels like she is in a foreign place, although she was born in it.

“Gaza does not look like me,” she says without blinking. “We in Gaza didn’t choose our fate. This is the ongoing impact of the Nakba. Living under a blockade removes our freedom of choice.”

Farah’s works represent pieces related to Palestine. A light necklace is shaped into the map of Palestine, hanging by a metal string; an earring made from the same steel is adorned with the word “revolution” in Arabic; and rings carry the names of Palestinian towns and villages, including her own.  

The fact that all of Farah’s production revolves around the parts of Palestine that have been lost betrays her conviction that this situation will not last forever. Perhaps it won’t be her generation that will return to their original lands, but the next generations will.  

“We are connected to Palestine, to our lands, homes, and streets that we never walked in. But we will. These memories of a place I’ve never seen motivate me to engrave the word ‘revolution’ on this earring,” she said. “Because for us, Palestine is our lost paradise.”

Memories of places never seen

As most families who arrived in Gaza after 1948 were farmers who worked their lands, the young generation still imagines that their now-occupied homelands remain as they were — small homes surrounded by ample lands. 

Rana Harb, 25, lives 61.3 km away from her original town of al-Ramleh. “My visions [of al-Ramleh] are of trees and old buildings surrounded by green lands. I imagined Palestinian farmers and traders passing by and saluting each other,” she told Mondoweiss

After a tortuous series of circumstances, Rana was able to obtain a permit from Israel to enter occupied Palestinian territory — not the “Occupied Territories” that serve as a shorthand for the West Bank, but the territories occupied in 1948, the same territories that Israel regards as within its borders, but which Palestinians call 1948-occupied Palestine. 

When Rana received her permit in 2021, she headed straight for al-Ramleh, carrying her grandparents’ stories with her. 

 “I realized while I was walking there that something was missing. Every time I passed a settler or a soldier, I would remember my grandparents’ stories, but everything was different,” she said. 

“I can tell that it’s our land, but everything has changed,” she continued. “The style of the homes, the people, the green lands, the simple life, none of that was reflected in Palestinians anymore. It’s like the place was stolen, and the thief changed it completely.” 

Yet despite her feelings of alienation in her own ancestral home, Rana the dreamer could feel that at least the land recognized her. Even when the Israeli occupier changed the landmarks and erased the trees, she said, the stones remained to bear witness. And the stones remember, knowing who the land’s true owners are.  

Most Palestinian refugees in Gaza are not as lucky as Rana. Khawla Z’ayter, a mother of six, is originally from Iraq Suwaydan, a Palestinian village in al-Majdal, 35 km east of Gaza. Iraq Suwaydan was destroyed by Israel in 1948. Khawla’s grandparents fled the destruction and settled in Gaza. Khawla has never left Gaza. She struggles to tell her children about their original village that she has never visited. Nothing of the village now remains, and the Israeli settlement of Yad Natan was built on top of its ruins. 

“I would tell my kids about our roots, but I struggle to do so because our village no longer exists, and I’ve never been there,” Khawla said. “How can I tell stories about something I’ve never seen or visited? I don’t even have a picture of it.”

She still tells her children about al-Majdal and Iraq Suwaydan, one of the over 531 villages Israel wiped out during the Nakba. She explores footage that is available online and shows her kids, and they ask more about it. The most challenging question Khawla gets is why they aren’t on their land. 

“The reality that we’re not allowed to return is what motivates us to teach our children how to take it back,” Khawla said. “I tell them how Israel killed Palestinians in 1948 and took their homes and lands, and how our grandparents survived by leaving everything behind.”

“They came to Gaza for us and to keep the dream of return alive,” she said. 

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union