Once Hopeful Palestinians Flee for Better Life Abroad


Samira Jubran was fulfilling a lifelong ambition. After many years abroad in the United States, she returned to her Palestinian homeland, was raising her small children and, with her husband, was about to launch a business.

Nine months ago, they bought a prime piece of real estate on a Ramallah hillside where they would open their offices.

Eight and a half months ago, Israeli-Palestinian clashes erupted and quickly escalated into the deadliest fighting in this region in years.

Jubran's plans came crashing down around her. She and her family will leave this land at the end of summer, joining a steady exodus of Palestinians who are giving up on a future here. "A lot of good people are going," said the 38-year-old mother of four.

Throughout much of the last decade, tens of thousands of Palestinians returned to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lured by landmark peace accords that generated hope for a normal society and eventual sovereign state. Now, after months of violence, hundreds of lives lost and the destruction of uncounted volumes of property, the future "Palestine" is suffering another crippling blow: the desertion of much of its elite, its entrepreneurs, its best educated--the people key to building a state. The void leaves religious fundamentalists and political extremists with more prominence than ever.

The departures reflect not only how bad things are but also the loss of faith that things will ever get better.

From prominent doctors and businesspeople, to workers and students, many Palestinians who have the chance to leave--and who can penetrate a suffocating Israeli blockade--are seizing the opportunity. The move is a controversial one; those leaving are often accused of betraying their future state and abandoning the cause.

Officials in the government of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat deny that the departures are more than the usual ebb and flow influenced by seasons and hard times. Many who go will come back, they say, and many never completely settled here anyway.

Numbers are hard to come by, but the exodus is certainly becoming more acute as school winds up for the year. At the Al Najah School in Ramallah, which houses kindergarten through high school, at least 20% of the student body is gone. At the Quaker-run Friends School, which is popular among English-speaking Palestinians, 15% of the students have left or indicated that they will not return in the fall, Principal Mahmoud Amra said.

Parents say they are leaving for the sake of their children, and they struggle with competing draws: the values of tight-knit families and a cohesive community that they can offer here versus the surety of opportunity and distance from political bloodshed there. "There" is often the United States; it may also be Latin America, Australia or Canada.

"Everybody came back here with the idea of doing something," said Hisham Hamid, an economist who teaches at Bir Zeit University. "And now that isn't possible."

'I Can See No Light at the End of the Tunnel'

Hamid has watched nearly half his neighborhood clear out. He sent his three children to the U.S. in December, after their school filled with smoke and tear gas one too many times. And he will leave at the end of the month, after finals.

"I kept trying to convince myself that eventually things would get better," he said. "But it's only getting worse and worse. I can see no light at the end of the tunnel. I've never seen or felt the hatred between Jews and Palestinians like now."

To arrive at the university these days, Hamid and the entire faculty and student body have to navigate around Israeli roadblocks that have sliced much of the West Bank into dozens of isolated pockets. Palestinians say they feel like hamsters in a cage, running and running and getting nowhere.

The exodus, he said, will further deplete business, banking and other components of an economy that is already devastated by the fighting and stiffened sanctions imposed by Israel.

"In the last four or five years, we had started to see the economy moving in front of our eyes. We were building something new: a country. That's why so many people came back," Hamid said. "But after this shock, people will think about it, not twice but 100 times, before deciding to come back again."

Jubran, the woman whose plans for a children's recreation business are in ruins, was born and raised in Ramallah. She left for schooling, graduated from San Francisco State University, married a Palestinian there and returned just a few years ago. She wanted to go back to her cultural foundations and was pleased to see that her children were learning Arabic, had come to know their extended families and were understanding something about national pride.

"We are really going to miss that," she said, seated under a broad pinyon tree in the breezy front yard of her mother's home. "But we can't be sure what's going to happen here tomorrow. Economically, politically, you can't predict."

Jubran and her husband, Bassem, still hope that they can come back, one day.

So dire are conditions in the West Bank and Gaza that some of those leaving are not recent returnees but families who stayed here for decades, only to give up now.

Nasser Jabra stuffed his over-sized suitcase with plastic bags full of the olive-wood souvenir trinkets that he hopes to sell in his new home of Brazil. Inexpensive crucifixes, rosaries and Christmas tree ornaments, stamped with "Bethlehem" and "Holy Land," they are an unlikely currency to purchase a new life in exile.

He left for Sao Paolo late last month, planning to establish himself and eventually send for his elderly parents.

"I had good work, but since the intifada there are no tourists and no business. Nothing. Nothing," Jabra, 28, said on the day he was boarding a taxi to the West Bank border with Jordan; from there he would travel to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and catch a flight to South America.

Jabra is from Beit Jala, a largely Christian town near Bethlehem that has seen heavy damage during the current intifada. He lived in Brazil once before, for about a year in 1998, under the auspices of a Christian missionary group. The same organization is helping him resettle now. Exchanging the sleepy, tormented West Bank for the vivacious culture and customs of Brazil is a transition that worried Jabra. But in Brazil, you can live, he said. Here, he and dreams of Palestine are slowly dying.

"There, in one year, you have 10 years of experience--you can do and see so much," he said. "Here, even 10 years of life is like just one year of experiences. Life is static. In the last nine months I can't even see Jerusalem"--barely two miles away but off limits to most Palestinians without special permits.

Jabra's departure was bittersweet for his mother, 67-year-old Georgette.

"I feel like my soul is leaving my body," she said as she watched her son pack, wiping her tears with a pink tissue. "I'm just telling him, settle down and we will follow. With all of my heart, I want to get out of here."

Life has become so dangerous and unpredictable for Samir abu Mohor that he is preparing to move his family to Australia, sight unseen.

Abu Mohor, a 42-year-old native of Beit Jala, has lived through hard times. He saw the Israeli capture of the West Bank in 1967, the military occupation, the first intifada in the late 1980s and early '90s, and the advent of Palestinian Authority rule. But never did it get this bad.

"We have handled a lot and suffered a lot," said Abu Mohor, a father of four. "After the first intifada, we thought there would be peace and prosperity. And look at us today. We are trapped.

"Even if [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and Arafat came to me personally to say that it's going to get better, I would not believe it. It would be a miracle."

'What Choice Do I Have? Give Me an Alternative'

A welder who specializes in wrought-iron work for homes and buildings, Abu Mohor had never been without work until now. Not many people are ordering ornamental iron grilles for their homes, and, besides, Abu Mohor couldn't reach his customers if he had any.

He dips into his savings to cover daily expenses. Telephone and electricity bills are stacking up. The other day, he had to borrow money from his elderly father, a move that is a source of great shame, he said. And night after night he has had to watch helplessly as his children quake in terror from the bullets flying into their bedrooms.

The last of the visas for Australia just came through, and the family will leave for Sydney in August. Abu Mohor has never been to Australia, but a brother is there, and he is sure to help him find a job.

"I know they are civilized, calm people in Australia. It is a beautiful country where there is no shooting and everyone minds his own business," Abu Mohor said.

Abu Mohor was speaking in his living room. He wore shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. Time was, he would have dressed for a visitor. But the energy for that is gone. His older sons sat on a front patio smoking a narghile.

Friends and neighbors, some of them, urge him to stay. But his neighborhood, sitting along the confrontation line, has become a ghost town. Many of the residents have fled to safer streets.

Does he feel that he is abandoning the project of a future Palestinian state?

"It bothers me a lot, but what choice do I have? Give me an alternative. Give me security. If we had security, I would stop others from leaving."

Fatima Abdel Jabbar knew that it was time to go when her 5-year-old pronounced his burning desire to die a shahid--a martyr.

"You see this, and you realize your child's childhood has been stolen," said Abdel Jabbar, 35.

It now seems paradoxical, but the Puerto Rican-born Abdel Jabbar moved to Beitin, a village outside Ramallah, six years ago, to build a safer life for her children. Beitin was her father's home, and his father's home. A community of many well-to-do Palestinian Americans, it was her home, too, during many of her formative years, and it was her dream to come back. She was happy to see her own children exploring the nearby caves, neat olive groves and Roman water wells, and playing with familiar neighbors.

Then the West Bank became a veritable war zone. The three-mile drive to pick her kids up from school turned into a tortuous 20-mile trek over back roads and through two Israeli army checkpoints. More than once she was trapped in a gun battle along the way. And then her youngest started talking about "the gift" of dying "for Palestine" like the scores of children killed in Israeli-Palestinian clashes.

"You want to save your kids from those school shootings in the United States and from the drug wars. You think of the serenity and peace and quiet here, and then, boom!" she said.

Like many Palestinian women who have returned from the diaspora, Abdel Jabbar lives alone with her children, while her husband lives and works in the U.S., coming to visit every couple of months. The plan was to continue that way until they had saved enough money to put all the children through college. Then he would join the good, simple life in Beitin.

Now, instead, he's worried sick about his wife and children, she said. She has already sent her two oldest daughters to St. Louis, and she and the three younger children expect to join them in August. It breaks her heart to have to go.

"There is no safety here for the children," she said, weeping lightly. "But when we go somewhere else, we will not be welcome. We will never belong anywhere. We won't fit. It's crazy, but that is our destiny."

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