|Serani Hussain Ali
She’s 85 now, and her life has narrowed to a small apartment in the Ner Shams refugee camp on the outskirts of Tulkarm (Palestine), where family members keep an eye on her. But 65 years ago, at the start of the Nakba, Serani Hussain Ali, was a young mother with three small children, living in the small agricultural town of Qannir, close to Haifa.
Nakba is the Arabic word for “disaster,” and is the Palestinian name for the 1948 uprooting of three-quarters of a million Palestinians from more than 500 villages throughout what is now known as Israel and the West Bank. Some of the villagers were ordered from their homes by soldiers, who promised they could return “in a few days” when the fighting stopped. Others fled in the face of an invading army.
Very few have been allowed to return to their villages. And, while many subsequently emigrated to other Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Lebanon, or to Europe or the United States, many others remain to this day in the refugee camps that were hastily established in the late 1940s.
“We had 500 dunums of land (one dunum is 1000 square meters or about ¼ acre); we planted wheat, grass for animals, sesame, corn and tobacco,” Serani says, referring to her life in Qannir. “The town had 2,000 people; there was a school.”
|Needlework map of Qannir (pre-1948)
“We were wealthy; we had land and a good income (from the land),” she adds. “But after the war we lost everything.”
Before 1948, she says, there were Jewish people living nearby. “(At first,) we all lived and worked together.” But, in the 1930s, the Zionists came and the situation started to change. “They started to make trouble,” she says. Serani believes that, as early as the 1930s, those early Zionists were “starting to plan the Occupation.”
She has vivid memories of being expelled from Qannir. “The soldiers came to all the houses and told the people they have to leave town. They used bullets and sticks on people; they shot some people,” she said.
As did the rest of the villagers, Serani and her family left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet. “We had no animals; we were not allowed to take anything,” she says, adding, “They demolished the house.”
She and her family went from Qannir to Arrah, a village about 20 kilometers away. “First, we lived on the land. There were no tents or anything.” she said. Before moving to the camp in Tulkarm they also lived briefly in another village, Anastalia. They came to Tulkarm (refugee camp) in 1963.
Her husband did construction work to support the family, while Serani cared for the children. “We managed a new life, but it was very, very difficult. You can’t imagine what the Jewish people did to us,” she says now. “They killed our children, demolished our houses and threw us far from our land.”
|Picknicking under a tree in Qannir
The land in Qannir, she says, still belongs to them, but they are not allowed to return there. The house was demolished and the land stands empty to this day. With the permission of the Israeli government, the family has visited several times, picnicking under a large tree that features predominately on an old needlework map of the village.
Like many Palestinians we have met, the attachment to the land is deeply ingrained. “Land is like your son, your children,” says Serani, adding that she “never accepted life in the camp. I’d prefer to live in my home town with nothing than to live here and eat meat.”