"I heard them wondering why their grandparents left, asking how they could leave this beautiful city," Bshara Dabah, head of the Ramallah Convention Investment Committee, conveyed to The Media Line in reference to the frustration felt by many Palestinians whose families decades ago emigrated abroad. "I heard them repeating 'it's hard to come back and see all of this; they should never have left Ramallah and Palestine."
But come back they did, some 1,200 of them, all descendants of the four original Christian families that founded Ramallah. The mainly US-based Palestinians gathered earlier this month to take part in the 60th annual Ramallah Federation Convention, the second time the event has been held in West Bank. It will return to Ramallah every four years as part of an initiative to strengthen ties with Palestinian expatriates.
"Palestinians in the Diaspora have always been connected with their home town in one way or another," Dabah explained, adding that holding the convention in Ramallah is aimed at forging a closer relationship with members of these families. "We noticed great excitement from them to invest in the West Bank, especially among the youth," he highlighted, while pointing out that some individuals bought properties in Ramallah during the convention and many others expressed an eagerness to foster commercial ties with Palestinian businesses.
"A good percentage of the youth are actually convincing their families to come back to Ramallah and settle down," Dabah concluded.
While many Palestinians abroad feel a strong bond to what they consider their homeland, not all expatriates, particularly those in the US, are willing to make the life-altering decision to move to Ramallah.
"My dad left Ramallah in 1966 when he was young, eventually married my mom and brought her to the United States in 1987. This led her to drop her Palestinian passport," Nickol Zarou, a twenty-five-year-old Palestinian who resides in Washington, D.C., told The Media Line. She believes that it was "definitely" for the better that her family left the city, relating that while "I truly love going back to Ramallah for a few weeks, I don’t think I could ever live there."
Zarou, who attended the convention, was surprised at how much things had changed in the six years since her previous visit. Nevertheless, she felt at home given her parents made a concerted effort to instill in her an understanding of her heritage. "I do love how cultured they made me; they used to bring me back to Ramallah yearly and always talked to me in Arabic. They’re always willing to help or pay, as long as we have a good time," she explained, while praising Palestinian hospitality and how close the people seem.
Daar Baktar, 32, a resident of Houston, Texas, told The Media Line that while she feels more at home in the America, “I am a second generation Palestinian-American and it's really nice to re-immerse in our heritage that I don’t really get much of back in the US"
The four-day convention—organized by the American Federation of Ramallah (AFR), which is comprised of about 46,000 members, all of whom trace their lineage back to Ramallah's creators—encourages the intermingling of these expats with their local brethren and aims to familiarize youth with the Palestinian political and social landscapes. Ultimately, the hope is that these individuals will work to help develop Ramallah through investment.
“As you know, the political situation in Palestine is like the weather; today it is raining and tomorrow the sky is blue," the American Federation of Ramallah's official website reads. "So please keep in mind that you are of Palestinian blood and that a demonstration or a check point will not stop you from participating in the most distinguished and exceptional conventions in your home town— RAMALLAH."
Before Israel's creation in 1948, members of Ramallah's "original families" started immigrating to other parts of the world with a view to building more secure futures. In addition, several prominent families left the city during 1967 war that resulted in Israel capturing the West Bank from Jordan. Many other Palestinians have since left for reasons ranging from economic hardship to continued unrest.
"Through this convention we managed to establish the Ramallah Investment Fund (RIF) and we will collect money from abroad so as not to effect the cash-flow in Palestine," Dabah told The Media Line. He defined the goal of the initiative as providing business opportunities with potential high rates of return to Palestinians living abroad.
"We have between 200 and 250 potential investors; we are targeting all segments [of the Diaspora]. We will focus on projects to improve the infrastructure in Palestine. We are planning to build big parking lots near Ramallah for Palestinians from other cities to leave their cars and be transferred by buses to the city center."
Dabah added that the American Federation of Ramallah is working with municipal officials and financial institutions across the West Bank to identify potential projects that are economically viable and will create new jobs.
As per the RIF, specifically, it will be managed by a private company in cooperation with Palestine Capital Market Authority and the Ministry of Economy. Abeer Odeh, the Palestinian Economy Minister told The Media Line that most of the investment funds will be directed to projects targeting youth, as they remain a top priority.
Hanna Hanania, President of the American Federation of Ramallah, called for a "mass movement of investing in Palestine," noting to The Media Line that "families with financial interests in the West Bank maintain a stronger network and end up having a long-term connection to their home country."
While expressing optimism that his organization was successfully "renewing our members' connections to Ramallah through volunteering, studying, working and teaching,” he nevertheless suggested that the Palestinian private sector was not providing enough opportunities to expats.
Adnan Faramand, Chairperson of the Ramallah Federation Convention, told The Media Line that Palestinian expats from Europe, Canada, Chile and Australia also attended the event. "They were surprised and impressed by Ramallah’s rapid growth since the first convention we held here four years ago,” he stated.
Faramand emphasized that Diaspora Palestinians are all in agreement on the need to push for an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. "During the celebration we demonstrated that Palestinians are like any other nation; Palestinians have the right to their own land; we must end the occupation. We are not willing to make any compromises and we made that clear by calling it the Jerusalem convention."
Given this deep-seated bond, the relationship between Ramallah's "original families" and their home town has never stopped. In the years since their departure, they have created dozens of scholarships for Palestinian students to study in the US every year.Schools, fire stations, hospitals and gardens are among the local institutions and projects financed by descendants of Ramallah's founders.
It is part and parcel of an ongoing effort to bridge the past with the present in order to build a better future.