Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
Exodus was Leon Uris’ influential novel about the birth of Israel, commemorating the extraordinary events which created a homeland for Jews after the Second World War. It was a story of hope following the horrors of Hitler’s holocaust.
But another exodus took place at that time that has not been commemorated. The lands given to Israel were not vacant; they had been occupied for millennia by a people of Arab culture and many religions, including Christians, Muslims and Jews. A people known as Palestinians. In 1948, under siege from the Israeli army, a diaspora occurred in which more than 700,000 fled or were expelled from their land. Overnight, settled landowners became refugees
Olfat Mahmouds’s story begins in 1948, twelve years before her birth, with her grandparents fleeing their village of Tarshiha to a makeshift camp in Lebanon.
The memoir that follows is centred on Olfat’s family, friends and colleagues. The reader is immediately immersed in the unstable and sometimes frightening confines of the Burj el Barajneh camp in Beirut. This is an era of intense political, ethnic and religious conflict that leads to constant tension and frequent armed violence. The camp is periodically bombed and subjected to siege and invasion. Rape, beatings and execution are common. The protracted civil war in Beirut is just one event in a series of conflicts, many of which are cruel and sadistic. The combatants – Israelis, Christian militia and Muslim militia – are many and varied and even if the primary struggle is not with the refugees, the camp is often targeted.
Olfat decides early in life that she should do something to help. Tending to the sick and wounded is a practical and immediate action. Although her dream of becoming a doctor is dashed for cultural reasons, she becomes a nurse and eventually an organiser and trainer of nurses. A woman of peace, she devotes her life to supporting victims of war under extreme circumstances. She tends to her patients in makeshift hospitals which are sometimes refuges and sometimes targets.
Olfat’s dedication and bravery in the face of repeated setbacks and mortal danger are partly embedded in a sense of fatalism under her God:
“We had just bought ice cream at one of the shops and were in the street when the bombing started, so we rushed for shelter. When the bombing was over we saw that the ice-cream shop had been hit, and everyone inside was killed……My time was not yet up”
Meanwhile, her skills as a trainer, organiser and spokesperson develop to the point where she has contacts across the world and is a sought after speaker, promoting the plight of Palestinian refugees and even addressing the United Nations in 2015. She is also the Director of the international NGO, the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation.
In her ‘spare time’, she raises four boys, cares for her aging parents and completes a University doctorate.
An arresting fact is that the camp, and others like it, has been in continuous use for 70 years and for most of that period, has been under some form of siege or attack. The Palestinians in the camp remain stateless. They have limited rights in Lebanon, particularly with employment, and are excluded from entry to Israel even to briefly visit their homeland. Thousands of additional refugees have arrived during the recent Syrian conflict. The camps are deteriorating:
“The camps are now old – they were never built to be permanent [and have been bombed many times]; hundreds of homes are barely fit for habitation and are on the brink of collapse”
The book is both harrowing and inspirational. Olfat’s achievements would be noteworthy had she been born into a well-off family in a stable country; but in the face of persistent adversity, they are nothing short of remarkable.
The story is historic because it intersects with so many monumental events of the last 70 years. Events which take on a completely different meaning when viewed from a largely defenceless refugee camp. Armed conflict between Israel and Lebanon, the Oslo Accords, the Gulf wars and the Lebanese civil war have all had adverse consequences for the refugees, even when the camps were not specifically targeted. Yet many of these events were viewed in the western media as important for peace and stability.
Olfat writes largely without embellishment – the descriptions speak for themselves. On the few occasions where she registers her own fear, it is all the more convincing. For those of us who have never had to face such situations, we can only imagine the grim reality confronting her.
There is a strong antipodean connection. Olfat travels to Australia many times for training and to publicise her cause. The material and moral support of the ACTU and Dr Helen McCue in particular is praiseworthy. Foreign minister Gareth Evans’ visit to the camp in 1992 – an event that Australians might consider unremarkable – was the first by a government minister from any country for 50 years:
“When Mr Evans walked along our laneways people just couldn’t believe he was there – it was an amazing morale boost for us and gave Australia an abiding place in our hearts. “
Despite that trip, despite the tireless work of Olfat and Helen and despite many UN resolutions, Olfat’s dream of Tarshiha descendants returning home remains unfulfilled. But her hope is undiminished. She reverses Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s assertion in 1948 that Palestinians would soon forget about their homeland:
“I.. raise my voice around the globe in defiance of that. Yes, the old have died, but the new generations still remember, and one day we will go home.”
By Olfat Mahmoud
Wild Dingo Press