Palestinians return to maintain culture Village beckons to those in U.S.

August 26, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

TURMUS AIYA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- This summer, 40 couples were married in just two months in this small Palestinian village. Most ceremonies were in a rush, so the new couples could return to America.

More than half of the 5,000 people of Turmus Aiya live in North America or South America, mostly in the United States. "It does get real quiet around here in the winter after everyone leaves," acknowledges one of the villagers who stays year-round.

Each summer they flock back to Turmus Aiya for visits, to find a hometown spouse, or to deposit their children with relatives, so the youngsters can stay to go to school.

"I want my children to have their language, their culture, their religion. I want them to know they are Palestinians even if they are living in America," said Raid Jabber, whose six children are staying in the village this year while he returns to their home in Passaic, N.J.

Mr. Jabber's family is typical here and in other West Bank towns where there has been a steady exodus abroad. Places such as Ramallah, Beit Jala and Bethlehem all boast more natives living in the United States, Canada or South America than at home.

Palestinians trade on their extended family ties, and their tradition of helping each other, to build a chain of immigration. They leave the West Bank to make money, to get a good university education, or to escape the difficulties of living under Israeli occupation.

But what makes this different from other immigrant stories is that it is not a one-way trip. The Palestinians are determined to return to the West Bank even after decades abroad.

Turmus Aiya, a village whose main industries are olive trees, a few patches of wheat and scattered flocks of goats, is experiencing a building boom. The town bustles with the construction of multi-story, luxurious homes, costing between $50,000 and $200,000 each.

"This one is being built by someone in New York. The owners of that house are in Chicago," said Mr. Jabber's brother, Bassim, 33, on a stroll through town.

He ticks off the location of the owners of each new house in what seems like a geography lesson of the United States. Bassim Jabber himself has lived Paterson, N.J., for 13 years, but he is back for a two-month visit.

The father of the Jabber family, Jamal Jabber, 63, is the "mukhtar," or village elder, of Turmus Aiya. He is a vigorous promoter of the village, but even he has gone to the United States often enough to secure a "green card," enabling permanent residence, and he says the rest of his 15 sons and daughters will probably follow the seven already there.

"I encourage them to go, and work, and then come back and build their house here," he said. "They don't go for good. In the end they come back."

Part of this is due to the peculiarly strong sentiment Palestinians have for their homeland, despite their increasing dispersion since the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

Part of it is politics: "If everybody leaves, it will be easier for the Israelis to take over the land," said a precocious 10-year-old Walid Rabie, who is staying in the village this year as his father returns to Brooklyn, N.Y.

And part of it is rejection of the values of their temporary domiciles.

"I don't want them to grow up like American kids," said Raid Jabber. "I want my children to stay here and live a couple years. I want them to know our customs, our religion."

It is not just the American proclivity for sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll that bothers Palestinian parents. They want their children to keep traditions such as obedience to elders and the Muslim religion. Many send the children back to the village for school in their young, impressionable years.

For much the same reasons, many of the young men and women living abroad reject assimilation by marriage. They return to the West Bank each summer to find a Palestinian spouse and then return to the United States alone to begin the paperwork needed for their spouse to join them.

"Here is a lot better, a lot quieter," said Iad Abdulla, a 19-year-old married in Turmus Aiya this summer. But he will return to his job selling bedspreads and sheets in the Bronx.

"There we can work," he said of New York. "I will work so many years, and then come back and send my sons over. This is what my father did. This is what I will do."

The patterns of this long-term commuting is affected by the ups and downs of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Walid Rabie, a history teacher in Turmus Aiya and author of a book on Palestinian immigration, said parents living abroad quickly retrieved their children from the West Bank after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 1987.

But that soon reversed. The intifada created an optimism among Palestinians that a solution with the Israelis would come soon, and families made plans to return.

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