Over the past three-plus weeks, much of the world has watched in horror as parts of the Gaza strip on the Mediterranean Sea in Palestine have been reduced to rubble. In Palestinian communities across the globe, including in the Palestinian diaspora in Portland, those images have been especially painful—resurfacing memories of the mass displacement Palestinians faced during previous conflicts with Israel in 1948 and 1967.
“It’s an emotional trigger,” Ramzy Farouki, director of the Center for Study and Preservation of Palestine in Northeast Portland, said. “It’s a repetition, emotionally and historically. This is exactly the way it has gone consistently since the early ‘40s. A lot of the residents of Gaza themselves are actually refugees from other places, who, once the blockade was put in place, became prisoners in Gaza.”
Farouki was born in the United States, but his family’s story is a familiar one to Palestinians. His father’s side of the family was displaced from their ancestral home in Ramla during the Nakba in 1948, while his mother’s side of the family lost their homes and businesses in Jerusalem in 1967.
Farouki’s parents ultimately met in Kuwait in the 1980s before moving to St. Louis, where he was born. Now, the patterns of displacement his family faced appear to be repeating themselves.
On October 7, members of the Islamist military group Hamas launched a brutal attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians living near the Gaza strip—killing more than a thousand people and taking more than a hundred hostage.
In response, Israel has cut off access to food, water, electricity, and fuel in Gaza while launching a bombing campaign that has killed north of 5,000 people. On Friday, October 27, that campaign appeared to intensify: a communications blackout cut off communications between Gaza and the rest of the world while the bombing continued.
Israel has urged residents in the north of Gaza and Gaza City to leave their homes, but it’s unclear where they are supposed to go. The enclave’s infrastructure has been devastated by the bombing campaign, and the border between Gaza and Egypt remains functionally closed for civilian passage.
Some in Gaza have decided not to leave their homes anyway.
“Everyone shares the fear that they will never see their homes again if they move,” Farouki said. “Because that’s what has happened to other Palestinians.”
Stories like his family’s are not uncommon in Portland’s Palestinian diaspora. Zandi Salim’s grandparents were from Beersheba in what is now southern Israel, but were displaced from their home in 1948.
They ended up in Gaza, where Salim’s father was born—only to be displaced again when he was just five years old in the buildup to the 1967 war. His family settled in Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States.
Salim said her father doesn’t have many firsthand memories of his life in Gaza. War, occupation, and suffering is all much of the world knows of Gaza, a narrow strip of land roughly the size of Philadelphia that is home to some two million people.
But Gaza, as people who have been there can attest, is much more than its suffering and much more than Hamas. With its location on the Mediterranean, Farouki described Gaza as the crossroads of the Arab world and Africa—a lively, vibrant corner of Palestine that once boasted robust fishing and rice farming industries.
Gaza’s climate and connection with the water set it apart from much of the rest of the country, which has different geographies, cultural and culinary traditions.
“It’s a little more hot, it’s a little bit more tropical in a sense, because of its location in the country—if not for the blockade, it’s very much so a place where people would love to be,” Farouki said of Gaza. “And people who are there are very proud of being there.”
Even before the events of the last several weeks, Gaza’s residents have had to be exceptionally creative to navigate daily obstacles of life under the blockade.
Farouki said he has family members who were originally from Jerusalem but decided to move to Gaza several decades ago for the quality of life there—only to be trapped when Israel blockaded the strip following Hamas’ rise to power there in 2007.
“There’s this toughness and resilience, and on the other side there's this immense capacity for joy and living, a vivaciousness,” Farouki said. “I find Gazans to be a very warm people, jubilant and joyous people who are able to celebrate and find joy in the face of immense obstacles. It’s a very warm place, in all senses of the word.”
It is also, historically, an agricultural place—much like the rest of Palestine. Salim, who has never visited, has held onto that sense of a connection with the land to sustain her in the diaspora and struggled as she has watched that land being destroyed.
“Part of our resistance is just to be able to remember this: remember our people tending the orange groves, the olive groves,” Salim said. “A lot of our people are shepards. And that is one of the things that was taken from us, in huge amounts—our ability to steward and be in relationship with the land.”
Salim said she has watched in dismay over the last three-plus weeks as local politicians and organizations have failed to make the fate of innocent Palestinians like her ancestors a priority.
Only one member of Oregon’s congressional delegation, Sen. Jeff Merkley, has called for “humanitarian pauses” to the fighting. No one has called for an outright cease-fire.
“I have two children in Portland Public Schools—I also grew up in Portland Public Schools—and I received a text message to my phone from PPS with a letter that was clearly written with an extremely dangerous bias,” Salim said. “In the letter, it barely mentioned anything about Gaza and nowhere in it said the word Palestine.”
So Salim has tried to take matters into her own hands, selling flowers at the Flower Factory on SE Stark St. on Friday night to raise money for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.
Farouki said the response from elected officials to the bloodshed in Gaza has been “morally bankrupt,” but that he’s been more heartened by what he’s seen from regular Portlanders.
“Portland has a lot of people who at least have the decency to understand what the Palestinian people are going through,” he said. “I think those people are doing good work all over the city to influence their networks, their smaller communities… That’s the kind of work that’s important here.”