Message from Beirut – We Will Return

We shall return
the nightingale told me
when we met on a hill
that nightingales still
live there on our dreams
and that among the yearning hills
and people there is a place for us
0 heart then
how long has the wind scattered us.
Come, we shall return
let us return. – Fairouz – Sanarjou Yawman

Now in its 5th year, the Big Ride for Palestine (Australia) has raised over $77K for important projects in Gaza, the West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The crucial demand for the latter is the right of return to their homelands which are being settled by the apartheid state of Israel.

The 2021 ride will follow the COVID-Safe approach adopted last year, where participants ride or walk a self-nominated distance over a fortnight, seeking sponsorship from friends, comrades, and supporters of Palestine. This allows people to join, even in lockdown as exercise is allowed. In places where restrictions permit, local group rides and walks can take place.

Again, The Big Ride for Palestine-Australia will be a national event, held between September 25th and October 10th, 2021.

Following discussions with Union-Aid Abroad-APHEDA, we have decided that in 2021 funds will again be sent to its partner organisation, the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation (PWHO). Palestinian refugees in the camps in Lebanon are presently facing an extreme crisis generated by the convergence of three factors, the COVID-19 Pandemic, the collapse of the Lebanese economy and a political crisis with no functioning government in the country.

Apart from fundraising for critical APHEDA projects, The Big Ride participants assist with raising the profile of Palestinian issues in the general community. We do this through distributing leaflets, posting on social media, and proudly wearing our Palestinian Big Ride jerseys and tee-shirts.

“…while I could not fulfill my grandfather’s dream of burying him in Tarshiha, I did the best I could, I planted an olive tree for my grandfather in his village, I chose to plant the tree as a symbol of hope and peace for my family and for the remaining inhabitants of Tarshiha, that they may be spared further conflict and war. And that one day, my family in exile might to be able to return to their village.” – Chaker Mahmoud, Palestinian refugee, now a Canadian citizen.

Still not too late to sign up …

Ian: Could you please introduce yourself?

Olfat: Thank you for the introduction. My name is Olfat Mahmoud. I am Palestinian from Lebanon. And I’m the director of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization.

Ian: I’ve been reading your book Tears for Tarshiha.

Olfat: That’s my village in Palestine.

Ian: And I’m looking at the front cover of the book. And there are people carrying bales on their heads away from a village .. that’s down a road in what looks like in in the 1940s. Can you can you describe what that is?

Olfat: Actually I tell you the story of my grand mother, because I was not born yet.

It’s in 1948 when Palestinians were really scared and afraid, and it was heavy fighting was the scary … the Deir Yassin massacre and people hear the news, they were terrified. So they decided to send the woman and the children to Lebanon, because they were very close to the south of the south of Lebanon woman and the children mostly all people as well. They left the villages for just they said for two weeks, they were promised that only two weeks and you will return back they left and they never went back and this is the trip when they were leaving their villages to go to run away from war and from fighting to Lebanon. So that is the cover of the book.

Ian: So that’s your grandmother Her name is Alya, isn’t it?

Olfat: Yes. Alia. Yeah,

Ian: Alia, so she has already has children, which would be …  is that your mother?

Olfat: Hind, yes, she has children. Yes, she has children. And actually, on this trip, she lost some of her children from measles and so it was very hard for her. She had four daughters and a boy son with her and three, other than these three were died from, you know, measles and infectious diseases.

Ian: Yes, I’m looking at a photo of the Burj el Barajneh Palestinian camp where she arrived in the outskirts of Beirut in the early 1950s. And it looks like a shanty town With a very dusty, and there’s lots of clothes hanging out on lines. So she moved into that situation on the outskirts of Beirut, is that right?

Olfat: It’s the southern suburb of Beirut there near the airport. Actually it was first they went to the south of Lebanon, because it’s very close to their villages, and they stay there for sometimes. Then the United Nations, they established UNRWA. And they told people that they can’t go back now to their villages. So they went first to the Bekaa Valley, and they went to Beirut. So it was a long trip, like from place to place until they settled in Burj el Barajneh camp.

Ian: Yes, I read a comment about this in a in another book, the point that the author makes is that the Palestinian refugees became an ‘inconvenience to the international community’. How did that affect you?

Olfat: We have been refugees since 1948, before I was born, and the internet and actually, this problem is created by the international community, and they should be responsible for what they created. Instead, they get bored really and further from hearing about the Palestinian situation. So they are not doing their duties.

Ian: Alia must have thought that she was going to go back. But then UNRWA was set up. And then UNRWA created a situation where she couldn’t go back. And they started providing aid in those camps.

Olfat: … not UNRWA, not UNRWA … UNRWA is a UNITED NATIONS  body, it’s the international community who created this problem in 1947, one day decided to divide Palestine into two states. And then the problem happened and it was war. So the international community should do more, to help the Palestinian to help solve the problem of the Palestinian OF being refugees and help them to return back the international community, they should do more. It’s like we have been refugees for around 74 years. And they haven’t done anything. They should help us to return back to our country. They know that we were there before 1948. And they should work hard to help the Palestinian to return back. We don’t want to get refugees forever.

Ian: I’m looking at your book now. And I see that during your lifetime. You being a really a third generation refugee because it was ALIA. And then there was your mum, Hind and your dad, Khalil. And then then then there’s you. And then of course you have your children there. Your son (obscured)…

Olfat: He has a baby girl. Yes, Leah.

Ian: So that’s Leah, she’ll be the fifth generation refugee. And I’m saying in your book, not only has there been the normal difficulties of living in a camp, with insecure water and electricity, and in very cold and wet conditions. But you’ve also been the subject of bombing in 1985, at Burj el Barajneh, there was there was a bomb hit on the edge of the camp, you would have been really quite young, then. Yes. And then I’m noticing that your connection with Australia through Dr. Helen McCue is that … you and she managed to convince Cliff Dolan, the president of the ACTU,

Olfat: Yes yeah

Ian: …to help set up a feeder union aid abroad with the specific idea of providing care and assistance to the Palestinian refugees.

Olfat: Yeah, that’s true. And they still provide us with support and help.

Ian: Yes, you are not only a nurse, you’re also … I’m noticing here that you have from quite a young age, been exposed to the media and you’ve fielded questions from the media about the situation. Now, over the time that you’ve been doing that work, have you … is that … has the media been more or less sensitive to your situation?

Burj el Barajneh Palestinian camp, early 1950s


Olfat: No, I must say it’s more sensitive now because of, you know, technology, social media. So it’s more sensitive now. Yes, it’s more supportive somehow. Now.

Ian: There’s a picture also here of you as a student nurse. You’re at a nursing school in the Bekaa Valley in 1987. Now, does that mean that you were integrated into Lebanese society? Your training?

Olfat: No, no, this is Palestinian School of Nursing. I was teaching there.

Ian: Okay. Okay, so and

Olfat: … actually we have Palestinian, you know, at UNRWA while they have clinics and clinics only they have, they don’t have hospitals, but PRCS, Palestinian Red Crescent Society, they have clinics and hospitals, I worked there until 1986. And then, because of war, and because of lots of things, I enjoyed nursing, but I left, I left nursing and because I did this community nursing training in Australia in 1984-85. So I started to work within the community, with NGOs, raising awareness sessions, and things like that. Because all my experience with nursing was during war, so I had (had) enough. … And I loved working within the community. So I went back to university, I had three children, and I was working at the same time and I did sociology, psychology, and philosophy. As an undergraduate, then I now have a PhD in psychology.

Ian: Okay, and then you’ve also managed to write this book that I’ve been I’ve been reading … I’m just, … I’m amazed that someone from a refugee camp could do all of this.

Olfat: Yes, this is that was a motivation Actually, I want to prove to the world that we can, we are human beings, like all human beings. We can study we can work we can write, we can. So I’m not a writer, but this is my experience. This is my biography. I wanted to have it on and I should now say thank you, thank you. Thank you, Dr. Helen McCue. Because she encouraged me at the beginning, I refused. I said, expose my private life to you know, it’s and then I decided no, she’s right. I’m, I should write my experience and my biography. People can see from it’s not a political book. It’s not a an academic book. It’s a daily life, you know, experience book.

Ian: Also, I’m seeing you with your son, Chaker, he, he’s a, he’s a Canadian citizen. So he’s moved away from from the homeland. And is, I assume is started his own career.

Olfat: Yeah. homeland. What is homeland for us? It’s, it’s Palestine, which we are not allowed to go. So he was a refugee in Lebanon. And then he had the scholarship to go and study in Canada. So he started there, and he got the nationality. But he is he was able to visit Palestine many times that he became Canadian.

Ian: Aha, I say because of his citizenship that you can’t go there because you’re not a Canadian, but he can because …. so how do you … For example, you’re a stateless person. How do you come to Australia? Because I’ve seen you I’ve met you in Australia.

Olfat: No, like I I get the invitation from APHEDA. Always I get invitation from APHEDA. They sponsor me. And this is how I travel. So you don’t have a passport but there’s a letter I traveling document traveling documents. Need to travel?

Ian: Yes. It’s a year since we spoke and we spoke last time at the end of the last the 2020 edition of The Big Ride for Palestine, Australia. Now, for our supporters and riders and walkers. Can you give us an idea of the current situation for women in Burj el Barajneh, knee and Shatilla refugee camps?

Olfat: Actually, we work in Burj el Barajneh, Shatilla and the south of Lebanon, Palestinian refugee camps mainly in Bar Elias (?) (obscured).The work actually became very hard now. It’s very hard to support families who are already experiencing hardship greater than was seen during the days of the Civil War. And there are many reasons for for that we know that the whole world is affected by covid 19 pandemic and the economic situation everywhere.started to be harsh well, but in Lebanon, we have other crisis. The economic crisis began in Lebanon in late 2019, when we had the start of the 17th of October Revolution. And it was exacerbated by the covid 19 pandemic, after the fourth of August 2020 Beirut blast. All of this made the whole country actually half of the country’s population living in poverty. Even people who had enjoyed a good comfortable standard of living now struggle with soaring prices. So imagine for the Palestinians who live in the camps, already, they have a problem with work, they have no right to work in Lebanon. And already they live in poverty. Even the basic essentials nowadays, including food is unaffordable. The currency devaluation has rendered salaries almost worthless, almost because they was nothing … the Lebanese lire and due to restrictions, Palestinians have no right to work, and many people in the camps dependent on casual labor to support their families, which is (obscured), that means they are dependent on daily payment work, but now dried up due to COVID-19 … lock downs, and all the other crisis we have in Lebanon. Now, what shall I say, if you walk through on the streets, you will find queues of cars in front of petrol station trying to get some fuel to their cars. And people who need to travel to their work, they can’t work now because most of the time they have no fuel. Children now are going so so those who work on daily bement actually, they lost this opportunity. There is no more work. Even many companies who used to work in Lebanon, they move now out of Lebanon, so many people lost their jobs. And they can’t afford doing you know, painting and things like that. So Palestinians who used to do this daily payment work mostly stopped more costly, plus people without work at all. And now it’s the school now our schools are open now you know, after summer vacation. So these children, they will go to schools where there are no electricity, there is shortage of electricity, how they will study. We have been teaching our kids for two years because of COVID-19, online, but we don’t have the resources in the camps. People maybe the whole family, they all have one phone, how they can share it with their kids, they have four or five kids at school. So not all of them will attend classes. And computers, some they have some they don’t have so makes it very difficult to study online. And now if they want to go to school, there is no electricity most of the day. It’s a very difficult situation.

And also hospital hosting hospitals are struggling due to shortage of medicine and the fuel as well. Many cases over chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, heart problems. Nowadays, they don’t get they don’t get their medication. You you you will search for your medicine and you won’t get it and if you get it, it’s over expectation … the price. So it makes it very difficult for people with chronic illnesses. You know, the population and Lebanon it’s around 6,800,000 something … in let’s say 7 million from COVID from COVID-19 virus … from the beginning of COVID-19 till now it’s more than 8200 people died from COVID-19. And now the hospitals they don’t have enough oxygen they don’t have. … So it’s it’s a very, very difficult generation. If people get COVID-19 they … many people’s they suffer they struggle and they die at home. So it’s really really a very miserable situation. And we don’t know how people will survive. It’s it’s very difficult.

And UNICEF and UNICEF has warned that the current that the country’s water supply system is on the brink of collapse. So what we have nothing, nothing. It’s like if I myself, I prefer not to leave the house, because if you leave the house, you will want to buy something you can’t afford. It’s very no electricity, not enough water. Most of the time, no WiFi, no medication, no medicine, how people will survive. It’s really, really a very, very bad situation. Very bad situation. And you know what I call it it’s a dire situation with no end. in sight, it’s a dire situation. With no end in sight, we don’t see how it will be solved. Really no one knows.

Ian: … sorry to interrupt but in my introduction, I mentioned that there are two aims for the big ride for Palestine. The first one is to raise people’s awareness and but the other one was to provide, raise and provide money for programs to be run by your organization. Can you give some practical examples of how that money can helpthe people?

Olfat: Look, I’ll tell you now people are in desperate, desperate need. I know we believe in development, and it’s very important. But to be honest, we need also as well some relief for how they can how people were survive. And the problem is it’s not now it’s in the future and very worried about the future because now they’re in Lebanon there there is no milk for children even so what people are eating is very little and mostly carbohydrates. So after a few years, we will see what will happen to the health of the kids and people already we started to see anaemia, we started to see malnutrition. And we all know, these problems affect … affect, not just our health, but our brains as well. So these children will have problems with their school achievement. But with the help, we really appreciate, really, international NGOs one day contribute money or things to the camps because it helps a lot. .. It helps a lot. For example, it’s very important now and the due to lack of everything, it’s to do short courses for woma]en, mainly women and help them like cook good food, and affordable. Like, like ideas, how she can meat and chicken is you know, in our tradition, they think they are like they should eat them daily.

So we should teach them we should teach them with the help of a nutritionist Of course, how to cook affordable meals for their children. This is very important. It’s very important as well to raise awareness on now. psychological state of the families, like people are very angry people are very afraid they don’t feel safe. Because of the economic situation we started to hear about lots of crimes taking place and you know, I’m not because I’m a woman or …  women are more at risk of these crimes because they think you know women are weak we can attack them easily. So on the streets, some young men, they pull the bags behind bags of woman and do what they do bag and run away. So women are afraid now to leave the house. So it’s very important to run some courses on self defense or on exchange ideas how she can protect herself what she can do while she are outside her house, we need to help them to to do like short courses, especially families who have who are not well educated because if the woman if the family is well educated, even if they are poor, they still can do some type of teaching and then get some money. So we were rich women who are not well educated do short courses and You know, making clothes on skills, so she can work from home, she can at least she can at least earn some money to feed her children.

There are lots of other ideas as well also for now school schools are open. So you know, at least help children with extra curriculum help children with some stationary help could help children to if they are at risk to drop out to join especially classes in our center. So to avoid the drop out, there are lots of ideas

Ian: Ken Davis from AHEDA mentioned in his interview, how the alleyways in Burj el Barajneh  he can reflect the towns and villages where people lived prior to al Nakba in 1948. And several generations, like you have told us today, have now passed on. And you’re you’re struggling for the right of return to your own town of Tarshiha. What do you say to the people who maintain that the Jewish people must have the right to go to Palestine? And to settle there. What do you say to those people that make that argument?

Olfat: First of all, we believe we believe you know, we have Muslims, the Christians, Jews, we have also Hindus, whatever, like hundreds of other. So anyone, anyone can go and visit, like they can go and visit Palestine, they can go on.

But actually, you can’t put all Jewish people in one state. This is very dangerous, even. This is very dangerous. We should spread Muslims should spread the Christians should spread Jewish should spread. It’s like so all Muslims should go to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and say this is where we should live. Also Christians, for example, Jesus was born in Palestine. So they should all go there as well. This is not really I don’t, … this is a very weak argument. I don’t like either to go into this argument. But I think if I am a Russian Jewish, why I should go and live in Palestine. If I’m Russian, Jew, (if) I’m Jewish. This is my religious, not my country.

Ian: Yes, the the international community seems to see both the 1948 and the 1967 refugees as an inconvenience. And recently, the Australian government took $11 million away from projects run by APHEDA designed to assist the Palestinians. What do you say to Australian politicians and government officials? Who are making these cuts at a time of severe economic crisis in Lebanon?

Olfat: Don’t, I would say don’t make people really feel the injustice. If when people feel the injustice, they are exposed to many, many, many, many, I don’t know many problems. So we should we should live in peace and justice. You should not treat people as if they are nothing like they are only they are Palestinian refugees they don’t deserve anything. This is wrong, you are forcing people I’m not giving execuse to what is called between quotations Terrorism what but you are giving calls for people to revalue you are giving cause to people to do really to be angry so it’s the opposite you shall you should help people who feel that they are treated badly you should help people to feel justice you had you you should help people to to meet their needs. But by doing this, you are provoking them.

Ian: Is there anything … Thank you very much. Olfat. I know it’s been very difficult even getting in contact with you but, in these difficult times, but is there anything that you wish to add?

Olfat: Oh, I wish to say like, please always remember us. We are human beings like you. We have been refugees for 74 years without rights. Or with very limited rights. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. Always when we talk, we say, peace and justice, peace alone, it’s not going to work. While peace was justice, it’s going to work. And I believe in that, and believe me, sometimes like when we when I’m really angry of the situation of what’s happening, and I remember nice people I remember very good supportive people. It I don’t know what it what happens, like I say, are no, no, no. The world is not really unsafe by having these nice, very supportive people know, the world is still safe to live. And so I would like to thank all people who are helping and supporting us. And because now of the big right, and walk, this makes us feel really very, very happy. Because we feel that they we have both we are not alone. So keep us in our in your mind, and help us not only financially, also politically, help us talk to your peers, to your government to to keep their support that the Palestinians until there is a just solution.

Ian: I noticed that your son, he wrote a really quite beautiful article, and I just like to read out. The last part of it, he says: “…while I could not fulfill my grandfather’s dream of burying him in Tarshiha, I did the best I could, I planted an olive tree for my grandfather in his village, I chose to plant the tree as a symbol of hope and peace for my family and for the remaining inhabitants of Tarshiha, that they may be spared further conflict and war. And that one day, my family in exile might to be able to return to their village.”

That’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, in a way, it’s a very simple thing. It’s not it’s just how to achieve it

Olfat: …simple but very effective. Yeah, it’s like, you know, give us the hope.

Ian: Well, thank you very much for this. And I’m, I’m want to urge people here in Australia who are participating or thinking of supporting the Palestinian women’s humanitarian organization, by by participating in whatever way they can.

We encourage people also one other thing is we only do this event once every year, that’s all we can manage it our end. But I encourage people who are having thoughts about, about how they can help in other ways. I encourage them to join their local solidarity groups. There are quite a few in Australia now. Locally, here in Brisbane in Queensland, we have the justice for Palestine group, it has a website and a Facebook page. And they conduct a number of campaigns, demonstrations, public rallies. And I think that, you know, if you want to go to another level, that’s really, that sort of solidarity is important. so that people can still have hope.

Olfat: Thank you. Yes, thank you. And I would like to thank all people who think about others. Think about us as Palestinian refugees, and support us, thank you.

We highly appreciate that. And I would like to thank every there for what they are doing, and their support all the time. And

I should thank everybody. And because Helen McHugh is special. I call her my Australian sister. I would like to thank her for all her support as well. Thank you.

Ian: All right. I hope you can now go to bed.

Olfat: Yes, I will tomorrow. I have work in the morning.

Ian: I’ll talk to you again sometime. Bye Bye now.

Olfat: Thank you. Bye bye. Thank you. Bye bye.

Transcribed by Ian Curr
 

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