Heavy-Hearted Palestinians Taking Their Chances Abroad

Heavy-hearted Palestinians taking their chances abroad
Thousands leave the territories to escape politics and poverty — many bound for Canada,

MARK MacKINNON reports from Ramallah
The Globe and Mail

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Fatem Toubasi can't identify the specific moment she gave up on Palestine. It was a slow, heartbreaking process.

It started maybe a decade ago, when she first noticed the West Bank's relaxed and cosmopolitan atmosphere becoming more and more conservative. As the hardships of Israel's occupation increased, Islam became the dominant ideology in the territories and women faced increasing pressure to wear the hijab.

As a Christian married to a moderate Sunni Muslim, Ms. Toubasi began to feel increasingly alien in her own city. She worried her children would grow up to be fanatics.

Then came the violence of the recent intifada. For three years, she and her family could see tanks from the window of their home as the Israelis laid siege to Yasser Arafat in his presidential compound. Even when the fighting eased, the Israeli occupation didn't. A series of military checkpoints were set up around the city, cutting Ramallah off from other West Bank towns.

But she didn't know for certain that it was time to leave until the Islamist Hamas movement won legislative elections in January and the international community responded by imposing crippling economic sanctions. Her husband, a restaurateur, can't find work. Life, they decided, had to be better somewhere else.

“It's the political situation, the economic situation, everything. We just don't see any future here for our kids any more,” said the 45-year-old art instructor at Ramallah Women's Technical College. “It's not just Hamas — the whole world is changing, the whole world is becoming more aggressive.”

Ms. Toubasi, along with her husband and two preteen children, is in the final stages of completing the process of emigrating to Canada. They plan to move to Toronto early in the new year, where she hopes to resume her career teaching art. They chose Canada, she said, because her sister already lives there, and because of universal health care and other social programs.

When they leave, they will join the more than 10,000 Palestinians who have left in the past four months alone. It's an enormous outflow in a short period of time from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which have a combined population of only 3.5 million. Even worse for the cause of future Palestinian statehood, a recent study by Bir Zeit University found that 32 per cent of Palestinians, and 44 per cent of young Palestinians, would emigrate if they could. Because of restrictions on movement, however, few can reach the foreign embassies in Tel Aviv.

Based on anecdotal evidence, it would seem that one of the top destinations is Canada. Citizenship and Immigration Canada figures show that 331 Palestinians applied for landed immigrant status in the third quarter of 2006, up from 194 last year.

The Palestinian territories have never been an easy place to live, but even when violence was at its peak, most Palestinians refused to contemplate leaving, believing that would be giving Israelis what they wanted. Similar polls taken a year ago found only about 5 per cent were interested in emigrating.

But now, more than ever before, Palestinians are giving up on their homeland.

“I want to get out — to Canada, to Norway, to Switzerland, to Nigeria even,” said Fadi el-Fahr, 24, an unemployed telecommunications engineer. “All I want is a job.”

Mr. el-Fahr was one of six recent engineering graduates from Palestine Technical College in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem who travelled to Ramallah this week to the office of Homeland International, a private firm offering help emigrating to Canada, to see whether they qualified.

The young men complained of being harassed by Israeli soldiers in their homes and school and on that day's journey to Ramallah. But they grew up with that, and to a certain extent have grown used to it. What is new, and driving them to leave, is the economic crisis across the Palestinian territories. It's a crisis they see as springing from the election of Hamas, and the West's decision to boycott the new government until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

All six said things were better under the leadership of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah movement, which dominated politics for decades until voters ousted it this year, fed up with growing corruption.

“Before, when we had a [Fatah] government, there were many opportunities, because [Mr. Abbas] had good relations with many countries. The problems came when the new Islamic government came and America did not support it,” said Ahmed Abu Radi, a 23-year-old electrical engineering graduate. “Now the political situation is very difficult. The majority of people in Tulkarem are unemployed.”

That young, educated people such as Mr. el-Fahr and Mr. Abu Radi are so anxious to leave merely compounds the tragedy of the Palestinian exodus, said Ahmed Hanoun, co-ordinator of the Palestinian Refugee and Diaspora Centre.

“This is a first, so many people all leaving in such a concentrated period,” he said, adding that the international boycott is doing what the Israeli army wasn't able to do — convincing Palestinians to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “It's dangerous for the whole national project . . . and it's a very comfortable situation for the Israelis.”

Ms. Toubasi, the art teacher, acknowledged that people like her are needed if a thriving Palestine is ever going to be built. She said she will leave Ramallah with a heavy heart.

“This is my country, I always wanted to live here, to have my family here. But what's going on now is not encouraging me to stay,” she said, waving at her students as they headed home at the end of the day. “There are priorities in life, and my family is my priority now.”