The Double Nakba Story of Two Refugees – a Jew and an Arab

By Joe Samuels. Brought to print by Nurit Greenger | May 11, 2018

 Joe Samuels

The word ‘nakba’ in Arabic means catastrophe. The Arabs commemorate their Nakba Day’ on May 15, the day after the Gregorian calendar date of Israeli Independence Day Declaration, May 14. For the Arabs it is an annual day of commemoration, by violent protests, of their loss in their war against the Jews and their intention to destroy the nascent Jewish state.

This is a story about two teenagers, turn refugees, who faced similar tragedy and how it affected and shaped their life, their families’ life, and their future generations’ life.

Picture Samir and Yusif, two are teenagers, in their minds they are both facing ‘nakba’, caused by Israel War of Independence that began on May 15, 1948, when seven Arab nations attacked the nascent Jewish state in order to destroy her from the get-go.

Samir was born in the village Bayt Daras, 32 kilometers northeast of Gaza. Yusuf was born in That Al Takia neighborhood, in the old city of Baghdad, Iraq. Both teenagers spoke their mother’s tongue, Arabic, and their general education touched deeply on Islamic culture and history. Samir, his parents were landowners, was brought up in an Islamic faith home. Yusif, his family imported textiles for a living, was brought up in a Jewish faith home.

After the Arabs, who lived in the British mandate land of Israel rejected the proposed UN Resolution 181 of 1947, which suggested the partition of the land west of the Jordan River into two - one Arab state and one Jewish state- violent hostilities began to occur daily.

Certain of their immediate victory, on May 15, 1948, a combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan Syria and Lebanon, together with expeditionary forces from Iraq, supported by other Arabs states, went to war against the newly declared sovereign state of Israel. Though the well-equipped Arab armies grossly outnumbered it, the rag-tag Israeli army prevailed. The losing Arabs named the day Israel declared independence ‘nakba day’.

Fearing for their safety during the fighting, many Arabs fled their homes to neighboring Arab countries and territories. Samir and his family moved to Gaza, approximately 20 miles to the east of their home. Samir’s family became homeless and penniless refugees in the Gazan Jabalia refugee camp.

 Jabalia refugee camp

The Arabs’ failure in the war in which Iraq participated turned the Iraqi government against its Jewish citizens. Acts of anti-Semitism took place daily. By 1949, fearing for his life, Yusif’s parents managed to smuggle him out of Iraq, with destination Israel. Yusif too became homeless, penniless refugee living in temporary dwelling in Beit Leed, Israel.

 Jews arriving to Israel late 1940s'

Both, Samir’s and Yusif’s new reality was of living in makeshift tent, anchored in the sand, sleeping on steel bed with rough straw mattress, and they had to stand in line for food allowance.

In Gaza, under Egyptian rule, Samir became stateless.

In Israel, Yusif was granted Israeli citizenship the day he arrived to the land.

Samir continued to speak his mother’s tongue, Arabic, while Yusif learned to speak Hebrew, the official language of the State of Israel. Even his name was changed from Yusif to Yosef, named after the Biblical character.

Samir and Yosef often reminisced the stable and good life they had to leave behind; the tasty kebabs, the ethnic-Arabic music and both much longed for their friends.

Yosef also remembered the Farhud, the 1941 rampage of Muslim mob that raped Jewish women and girls, murdered 180 Jews and looted and burned Jewish homes and businesses. Then named Yusif was 10 year-old, and there was no country for him to run to and take refuge.

Living in his squalid refugee camp, Samir’s only hope was to build on the Arab leaders’ repeated promises that his life in the refugee camp would be temporary. Under these leaders’ guidance, he obsessively waited for “Yom Al Awda” (the Day of Return) to his home in Bayt Daras.

As for Yosef, he was most certain that his life in the camp was temporary. At times, the anti-Semitism he had faced in Iraq still stung his soul. “I will never go back to Baghdad,” was Yosef’s resolve. In Israel, for the first time in his life he tasted real freedom. “Israel is my home and my future,” he concluded, happily safe.

Samir continued to hear the false promises of Arab leaders for a speedy return to his village Bayt Daras. Each time his dreams were washed away and dashed. Weeks in the camp turned to months, and months into years. His patience wore thin as his life turned into ongoing humiliation, disincentivizing, much boredom and harboring anger.

Yosef left Beit Leed refugee camp in a week. Beside fresh air and much hope, in those days everything was scarce in Israel. Rice, flour, sugar, and everything else was rationed. In the following months, Yosef tried several vocations, from working in a kibbutz, hauling furniture, to cutting stone and building fences. Finally he joined the Israel Defense Forces and was assigned to the Navy Corps, stationed in Haifa. He was filled with pride; life for him became meaningful, filled with much ambition for his future.

Yosef spent six years in Israel before moving to Canada in pursuit of college education. But with harsh weather conditions and financial struggle, he put his dreams of becoming a scientist on the back-burner. He immersed himself in earning a living and building a family. Yosef Shmuel became Joseph Samuels.

In May 1967, Abdul Nasser, then Egypt’s president, boasted that, “Jewish blood will flow like water and Palestinians will return to their homes victorious”. This gave Samir new hope, a stimulant to his dull life. The Six Day War broke on June 5th, 1967.

That June 1967, Joseph’s extended family members were all residing in Montreal, Canada. They all worked hard to support their families, ambitious to give their children the best life possible.

After Israel won the 1967 war, Samir and his family ended up living under Israel’s post military rule. His longing to return to Bayt Daras became a foggy dream.

At the start of the1948 hostilities in the land of Israel, an estimated 700,000 Arabs living the nascent Jewish state fled the country; some 120,000 Arabs remained in Israel, all became Israeli citizens with equal rights. Today, their number exceeds 1,650,000, making it 20% of Israel’s population.

In 1948, then named Yusif and his family were part of 850,000 Jews who lived in the Arab countries, who fled persecution or were forcibly exiled. Some 650,000 found refuge in Israel and became refugees there, presently making half of the Jewish population of Israel. The other 200,000 settled across Europe, Canada, the United States and other countries. Presently, a total of about 4,000 Jews are living in all the Arab countries, mostly in Morocco and Tunisia.

Fast-forward to the year 2018, Samir, his children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren all are living in Gaza and still hold ‘refugee’ status. Instead of receiving proper education and/or having a good job and building a home for their family, they receive education filled with incitement to hate a Jew while residing in the rockets’ launching pad enclave, Gaza, and ongoing wars and terrorism against Israel.

Fast-forward to the year 2018, Joseph, AKA Yosef-Yusif, and his children and grandchildren are living in Los Angeles, California, are proud citizens of the United States and most supportive of the Jewish state, Israel. Joseph, his brother Eli and his sister Marcel have brought to the world eight children; four of them are Medical Doctors, two are PhD, one is a schoolteacher and one who won the world’s championship in puzzles’ competition for Canada. Neither Joseph nor his siblings received college education or obtained college degree. All three began adult life in adverse conditions with no money, no special education, no profession, and no special talent but with much hope.

Samir and his descendants are living in poverty, anger, and are consumed by their hatred for Israel, sentiment they are taught daily. Unfortunately, the Arab leaders in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority next door continue to advocate war against Israel. Their battle cry is, “From the River [Jordan] to the Sea [Mediterranean], Palestine will be free!" and their aim remains the same, to destroy Israel.

Joseph and his descendants never yearned to return to Iraq to claim their home they were forced to leave behind. They have integrated in new countries they now call home. They are saddened by the hardship of the Arabs. They dream that one day Arabs and Jews will live in peace, harmony and tranquility.

One can only imagine that IF the Arab leaders had accepted the UN 1947 partition proposal, Jews and Arabs would be celebrating this year 70 years of ‘two states living side by side in peace and prosperity’.

Hopefully one day the Arab leaders will come to their senses and will agree to an equitable solution to the ongoing hostilities. Possibly, there should be some financial compensation for the Arab as well as the Jewish refugees. This could help usher a new era for future generation living in peace and prosperity.

At time life can be unfair. We do not choose our parents or the environment in which we grow up that affects our life in all aspects. The only power we possess is how to face and react to life events. We can allow a tragedy to overwhelm our thinking, lead a life of victimhood and entitlement’s expectancy, or learn from the tragedy, give life a new start and take responsibility to build a worthy future. The choice is in our hands.

Joseph Samuels was born in Baghdad, lived in Israel, Montreal, Canada and has been living in Santa Monica, California for the past 40 years. He is a member of the board of JIMENA, Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.