|Nurshams (aka "Mandela") in his home
His name, he tells us, comes from his resemblance to the South African leader. “All the people here; they call me Mandela,” he says proudly, and one can see the resemblance in the twinkle of his eyes. His home is a tribute to the “other” Mandela, as well as to his South African heritage (his grandfather emigrated from South Africa to Palestine), and photos of Mandela and other world leaders, including Barak Obama, decorating his walls.
His given name is Nurshams, and he has lived in the Ner Shams refugee camp since the 1948 “Nakba.” This is the name Palestinians give to the massive excavation of more than 500 Palestinian villages during the fighting that broke out after the United Nations gave Israel statehood. In Arabic, “Nakba” means “disaster” – an appropriate word for the upheaval of 750,000 people who were forcibly removed from their homes and told they could return “in a few days” when the fighting had stopped.
Sixty-five years later, they are still waiting. At the time, many fled to neighboring countries – Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Others went farther afield – to Europe, South America and the United States. But many remain, still living in the camps that were hastily established by the United Nations at the time of their upheaval.
|Sunset over Nur Shams
The original tents have long since been replaced with permanent structures, including schools (funded by the UN), shops and the other “amenities” of a small city. Ner Sharms has about 8,000 residents, and is but one of many refugee camps scattered throughout the West Bank. Residents of the camps are now third and fourth generations of those who were removed from their homes in 1948 – many still holding the keys to their homes and the original deeds that date back to Ottoman times.
It is believed that, should the Palestinian people ever be allowed the “right of return,” those living in the camps would have first priority to go back to their native villages. Some of those villages are still standing – the houses long ago given to new Israeli settlers who came in the aftermath of World War II. Other villages were destroyed – houses demolished to prevent the residents from coming back.
Mandela’s village was Kadash, a seaside town now in Israel. The youngest of seven siblings, Mandela was too young to remember his departure from Kadash, but he says it is still in his heart and he wants to go home. His father was a farmer, and, like most refugees of the time, left his home with nothing.
Before the start of the second Intifada in 2000, Mandela received permission to visit Kadash. Someone living there pointed out to him trees that his father had planted. “It made me happy to see the trees,” he said, but I wanted to cry because I can’t live there.