A Tale of Two Maryam’s

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Marie was a beautiful Palestinian woman from Haifa who, like any young woman of the 1930’s, aspired to marry a good man and raise her own family. She met Youssef, a young Lebanese man From Bkassine who had immigrated to Palestine with his family in search of a better life. Under the British Mandate, immigrants to Palestine were given the choice of having the Palestinian citizenship or keeping their Lebanese nationality, but they could not have both. Youssef’s family chose the Palestinian citizenship: It made life easier since they lived permanently in Palestine and ran a successful restaurant business in the Horse-and-Carriage Square (Sahet El-Hanatir) in the heart of Haifa.

Marie and Youssef got married and had four children. Fate would have it that Marie falls ill and dies at a very young age. About a year later, the United Nations passes a resolution to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The notion of dividing Palestine is rejected by Arab nations and Palestinians try to resist the globally spearheaded plan. Massacres ensued, a bloodbath in some areas, a more peaceful takeover in others. Before Israel is officially declared a state, Palestinian families were encouraged to leave (temporarily they were told) to neighboring countries until things calm down and they can return to their homes.

was natural for young Youssef to flee with his four children to Lebanon and wait there. Losing Marie and being uprooted from his home with no immediate hope of return, proved too much for Youssef to bear. He succumbed to depression and illness and later passed away, leaving his youngsters at the mercy of relatives, cousins and family elders who would turn out to be anything but fair or charitable. The youngest of the boys was 8, the oldest 14 or so. The girl, 12, becomes the guardian of her siblings overnight. The 14-year-old and the 10-year-old go to work. To make sure the children are on their own, the family elders recommend that the eldest boy acquire his Lebanese citizenship back to allow him to work and support his brothers and sister. They even foot the bill of “fifty pounds and a fish dinner” to the mayor who processed the deal. The 10-year-old works illegally and saves up for his own citizenship. Alas, when he had his 50 pounds saved up, the cost was raised to 500. Years later, when he had his 500, the entire process was ended under the pretext of “preserving the Palestinian right of return to their homeland.” Marrying a Lebanese woman wouldn’t help him either. To this day, Lebanese women are forbidden from giving their nationality to their spouses or even their children! The agony this young boy -- now an old man, a grandfather -- and his family went through is too grave to describe in a column but it represents thousands of similar cases or even worse.

Marie’s children (except for one) grew mostly as undocumented, illiterate, orphaned, poor, child laborers. The only record they had as to who they were was an oral consensus conducted with the young girl who had to guess everything from the years they were born to what their parents did and what they died of. Who would have thought that Marie’s children would make up the first generation of Palestinian refugees living outside of the infamous Palestinian refugees camps in Lebanon? They came into the country as privileged since they were originally Lebanese. They also had enough money and property to support them and help them thrive like many other Palestinian migrants who poured into Lebanon money and business opportunities.

There is no telling how these young people managed to survive! How they turned out to be good-hearted, honest, generous people and not crooks or criminals is another puzzle. I can say with confidence that they turned out to be among the best people you’ll ever meet. They are much better than all that. They are heroes, they are brave, they are free despite the chains that society continues to shackle them with.

I wish I could tell you that the story ended well, but it did not end yet. Until Marie’s children get justice, the struggle continues. Marie’s descendants are now into their fourth generation as refugees with stigma and a list of limitations in education, job opportunities and other basic human rights.

Marie did not live to see how her family fared in this world. Theirs is a painful story of constantly living a refugee in one’s own land. The difference is striking with the children of another Maryam see first installment.

Two Maryam’s, one Haifa, Palestine and Lebanon. Lessons in the meaning of homeland, patriotism and choices we make on the spot that end up marking our lives forever.

This article was first published in Al- Nahar newspaper and on Octavia Nasr’s blog on Jan. 27, 2013.

Multi-award-winning journalist Octavia Nasr served as CNN’s senior editor of Middle Eastern affairs, and is regarded as one of the pioneers of the use of social media in traditional media. She moved to CNN in 1990, but was dismissed in 2010 after tweeting her sorrow at the death of Hezbollah’s Mohammed Fadlallah. Nasr now runs her own firm, Bridges Media Consulting, whose main aim is to help companies better leverage the use of social networks.

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