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Date posted: June 27, 2003
By Leila Saad, for MIFTAH

ďWe come from here,Ē said my cousinís wife, emphatically gesturing toward the ground, when an Israeli woman picnicking in the park with her family asked us where we were from. I looked down at the ground, seeing it as something more than just a piece of land, and those words echoed within me. We were standing in a park in the northern part of Israel. It is a park that was once a village Ė not 200 years ago, or 100 years ago, but just over 50 years ago Ė and this is where my father is from. The Israeli woman responded politely, ďHave a nice day,Ē and turned away.

My father comes from the village of Kufr Biríam, located in the Galilee in what is now Israel. I came here from the United States to discover my roots. Like all children of Palestinian refugees, I also uncovered a lot of pain in this place. Arriving at the edge of the village my curiosity was overwhelmed by emotions. I had steeled myself for what I would see, but there was nothing to prepare myself for what I would feel.

We stepped into the park, and my cousin directed my eyes to a leafy tree sitting on a well-manicured lawn and told me it was the location of his motherís house. Today nothing of it remains. The symbolism of a house vanished long enough that a fully grown tree has replaced it did not escape me. I looked at the tree and my cousin and his wife and his two brothers, all once residents of this village, and tears flooded my eyes. All the stories that I had heard became real. The story that my father, as a little three-year-old boy, was swept up in his motherís arms when the Israeli forces evacuated them from their home. They were promised that they could return in two weeks, but fifty years have now passed and their return is still barred. The events of his life rushed through my mind: His familyís flight to Lebanon, their plight as unwanted refugees in a foreign country. How they arrived penniless in the new country, but by good fortune were helped by a nun to reach a mountain town. So many Palestinian refugees did not have this luck. They lived out their days in pain and poverty in the refugee camps of Beirut and southern Lebanon.

The journey to my fatherís village was heart wrenching because it signified something much bigger: the 1948 displacement of some 700,000 Palestinian families, whose crime was nothing more than living on the land that their fathers and grandfathers had passed down to them. And all the sorrow that I felt the day that I visited my fatherís village was accompanied by a sharp, bitter taste in my mouth Ė the taste of injustice. Because to this day, the injustice suffered by the people of my fatherís village remains in place, official.

Injustice and the response it has engendered is evident in the village. The first thing you see when you enter Kufr Biríam is a sign explaining its significance. It mentions the seventh century Jewish community that lived here. It discusses the remains of a synagogue found here and its excavation. It even mentions the Baram Kibbutz, which was established on village lands after the ousting of the Palestinian villagers in 1948.

But the sign makes no mention of the village of Kufr Biríam and Palestinians who lived here for hundreds of years. There is no mention of the fact that on November 20, 1948, Israeli forces evacuated the entire village, promising return to its residents in two weeks. There is no mention of the fact that those villagers were never, not even to this day, allowed to return. And there is no mention of the bitter fact that in September 1953, Israeli Air Forces deliberately bombed the village, demolishing all of its houses, leaving only the church standing in one piece, to ensure that the villagers would never return. There is no mention of the fact that the crumbling stone remains of the houses which dot the park are the destroyed homes of Palestinian families Ė my fatherís family, his aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors.

Time stands still in Kufr Biríam Ė not because, like the entrance sign implies, it was an ancient Jewish village, and what remains are old, historic ruins discovered through archeological excavation. Time has frozen here because for centuries this was a vibrant Arab village until its life was halted, as if the blade of a guillotine tore through it and, when the blade fell, the villageís life ended. The Israeli forces sliced through the life of Kufr Biríam and left it still and empty.

What used to be my grandfatherís house was once inhabited with children and the delicious smells of Palestinian cooking and sounds of relatives being welcomed into the home. The village was full of people working and praying and sleeping and eating. It was a living, breathing village until it was evacuated and destroyed. When tourists come to this village, perhaps they are struck by the lack of life here. The stone ruins of houses look ancient. They may feel they are stepping into something old and poetic. But when I looked at those crumbled houses, I saw families and laughter and warmth. I saw my father as a child surrounded by the people of the village.

The uprooted familiesí struggle to return to Kufr Biríam has been a long, drawn-out one, and as recently as 1995, an Israeli Ministerial Committee agreed on the right of return of its uprooted residents. However, it simultaneously stated that the Israeli government would keep the confiscation order of the village. In 1996, when the Labor party was defeated, the negotiations between the Kufr Biríam families and the Israeli parliament came to an end. So the struggle continues, and even Pope John Paul II, in a meeting with Ehud Barak on March 24, 2000, requested justice for the families of Biríam. Yet still they are not allowed to return.

Today, the uprooted families of Kufr Biríam hold tenaciously to their village in other ways. They return to the village en masse every Easter, to celebrate family, community, and their village together. They continue to hold weddings and baptisms at the village church. And they visit often, sharing stories with their children and passing on the legacy of their home. Nearby they keep a cemetery, another means for the uprooted families of Kufr Biríam to hold on to their heritage. Today, all loved ones from the village are buried here. And those who die in exile are memorialized in a beautiful monument at the edge of the cemetery. The monument reads: ďI have spent my life a stranger to my home and people. And today the heavens of the lord have become my home.Ē The name of my grandmother, who raised seven children and worked every day of her life until her death, is here. The name of my uncle, killed as a young man by the Israeli-backed Phalange during the civil war in Lebanon, is here. And the name of my grandfatherís sister, a woman I never met, is here. My grandfather died two years ago, but the monument was already built, so his name is missing from the Saad family portion of the monument, but it lives on in the hearts of all the Saad family members, just as the village of Kufr Biríam is a part of our collective memory.

Later, when we returned from the village, my cousins asked me about the visit. Before I could say a word, the tears flowed again. They replied, ďNow we know there is no doubt that you are from Kufr Biríam, because you feel it.Ē

I will always feel Kufr Biríam inside of me.

Leila Saad is a graduate student at Harvard University at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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