Palestinians in Chicago nurture connection to a homeland far away
An estimated 85,000 Palestinians live in greater Chicago — 60% of the area’s Arab population. The connection some of them feel to their homeland was on full display during street protests in the Loop in late May.
Whenever Fidaa Elaydi buys fresh falafel for $3.99 a dozen from a bakery in Palos Hills, she gives her three children a lesson on Palestinian cuisine.
Elaydi recalls how her father gets nostalgic every time he eats Jerusalem sesame bread because it reminds him of his own childhood, when he would sell loaves of that bread while living in the Gaza Strip.
“I try and make those parts that weren’t accessible to my parents in the refugee camp accessible to my kids here, while at the same time helping them understand the nuance,” said Elaydi, 33, a third-generation Palestinian refugee and an immigration attorney who lives in southwest suburban Justice.
When talking to them about their Palestinian identity, she focuses on the beauty of the area her parents would tell her stories about when she was growing up — Jaffa’s oranges, the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea and eating figs and pomegranates right off the trees.
“I just try to link everything back ... to strengthen their connection to their homeland in that way,” she added.
That continued connection to their homeland was on full display recently, when hundreds took to the streets in the Loop to show support for Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.
The Arab America website estimates 85,000 Palestinians live in greater Chicago, making up 60% of Chicago’s Arab population.
The community is scattered across the metropolitan area, but Arabic street signs are so commonplace in some southwest suburbs — around Bridgeview, Oak Lawn and Worth — that the area has been called “Little Palestine.”
“Palestinians sort of settled in this area, and they chose to stay near each other and build this close-knit community. If you’re driving down South Harlem, you’ll see bakeries, dessert shops, jewelry stores and small grocery stores — everything citing the names of the cities of Palestine,” Elaydi said.
The Arab American Action Network, a nonprofit community center established in 1995 on the Southwest Side, is one of many hubs for the community. Social services, advocacy work, education, women and youth engagement, and cultural events are among the services and outreach programs the network offers.
That community is bound by a history of conflict and displacement. The region Palestinians call home includes much of present-day Israel. Palestinian Americans living in Chicago are just one piece of a larger network of Palestinians living in the U.S. and around the world who connect to their struggle through storytelling, activism, social justice and sometimes just by existing.
All four of Elaydi’s grandparents were forced to leave their homes in 1948, a date known to some as Israel’s war of independence but to others as the “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe.
They ended up in a refugee camp in Gaza, where Elaydi’s parents grew up until her father, accompanied by her mother, moved to the United States as a student.
“Because the Palestinian story is inherently a story of dispossession and displacement and exile, I have never believed that my connection, or my Palestinian identity, was any less than a Palestinian living between the [Jordan] River and the [Mediterranean] Sea,” she said.
Ahlam Jbara immigrated to Chicago in 1974 when she was two months old. She moved back to the West Bank with her family in 1986. But the next year, six months after the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, her family moved back to Chicago.
“I always say the two years that I lived there shaped who I am today,” said Jbara, 47.
That 73-year-long conflict continues today and flared anew earlier this year in Jerusalem, where Palestinians were faced with heavy-handed Israeli police tactics at Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in April.
This, combined with the threatened evictions of dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers, was followed by the group Hamas sending long-range rockets toward Jerusalem and Israel launching heavy airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
At least 230 Palestinians were killed, including 65 children and 39 women, with 1,710 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl, were killed.
The 11-day outburst of violence ended May 20, with a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas.
During the conflict, Palestinian Americans and their supporters took to the streets in Chicago and around the world.
The community’s sense of connection here reflects decades of organizing and institution-building, said Hatem Abudayyeh, the Arab American Action Network’s executive director.
Abudayyeh, the son of Palestinian immigrants, is also national chairperson of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network — a grassroots group that also is part of the Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine, an umbrella organization for pro-Palestine groups in the area, including American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine.
“We were positioned to be able to respond the way we did with masses of people because we have institutions. Because we’ve established a tradition and a history of community organizing in the city and in the United States as a whole for a long, long time,” Abudayyeh said.
The coalition-organized rallies shut down parts of the Loop while marchers demonstrated outside the Israeli consulate, waving Palestinian flags.
Aviv Ezra, consul general of Israel to the Midwest, said the latest situation was not about the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, but rather about the actions of Hamas, which he said has “used every pretext ... to wage violence against and eliminate the state of Israel.”
In mid-June the ceasefire was tested when hundreds of Israeli ultranationalists, some chanting “Death to Arabs,” marched through east Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s capture of the area in 1967. Palestinians then sent fire-carrying balloons into southern Israel, causing several blazes in parched farmland. Israel carried out airstrikes, and more balloons followed.
About a week after that, there were confrontations between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in a Jerusalem neighborhood where settler groups are trying to evict several Palestinian families, officials said last week.
Growing awareness of systemic racism in the United States casts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a different light for some Americans, says Wendy Pearlman, a political science professor at Northwestern University.
“That language of rights and equality also draws the connections to Black Lives Matter and social justice protests in ways that, at least in the American context, people are beginning to see in a new light that puts human rights in the forefront and that is difficult for Israel and its allies to delegitimize,” she added.
Tarek Khalil, a member of American Muslims for Palestine’s Chicago chapter, said the rallies are “outcries for justice, liberation and equality.”
“Me being an activist here is absolutely worthwhile, because the government that represents me is the same government that is providing the same entity that is the source of my people’s oppression — $3.8 billion a year in financial, weapons and diplomatic aid,” said Khalil, 36, who grew up in Chicago and lives in Bridgeview but spent four years of his childhood living in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood.
“It’s personal but also political,” Khalil said. “It’s essential that we pressure our government to formulate policies that are not antithetical to the values that we preach about every single day.”
Contributing: Associated Press