‘Developing international leaders is going to help us to achieve things, but it won’t happen overnight.’
In Santiago’s Patronato neighbourhood, the green, red, white and black of the Palestinian flag can be found on almost every corner. The words “Free Palestine” are etched on restaurants selling falafel and shawarma. The heady aroma of cardamom coffee drifts from corner bakeries serving baklava and the best pitta and rugag bread in town.
Chile is home to the largest – and one of the oldest – Palestinian immigrant communities outside of the Arab world. An estimated 350,000 immigrants and their descendants live here.
This Palestinian community is not the only one in Latin America. Last weekend, 14 diaspora delegations from around the region met in Chile’s capital Santiago in an attempt to strengthen relations, set up networks and work together to push for peace in Palestine, establishing a lobby group of influential community leaders charged with getting Palestine “back on the map”.
Maurice Khamis, president of the Chilean-Palestinian community, told Al Jazeera that Palestinians have lived in Chile for some five generations, arriving in the late 19th century in search of better economic opportunities when the territories in the Middle East were still under Ottoman rule.
Nearly a century and a half has passed since. “Obviously we have a problem, we are stateless, we don’t have a country, it is currently occupied by Israel, our territory is occupied, dominated and oppressed,” he says.
Khamis is convinced that the Palestinian-Latin American diaspora has a role to play in the future of a Palestinian state and government.
“We want to create an international independent diaspora with a stake in the future of Palestine. As Palestinian descendants, we can play a big role in putting Palestine back on the map and making it a sovereign state,” Khamis says.
“The only thing Israel does is to effectively make Palestine invisible by taking us off the map; even Google removed us from the map. Our main goal is to put Palestine back on the map in a year of special significance for us,” he says, pointing out that 2017 marks 100 years since the Balfour declaration, 70 years since the Partition Plan for Palestine, 50 years of Israeli occupation and 10 years of the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
All of this comes shortly after the United Nations urged Israel to end settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, in a resolution the United States did not veto, for the first time in history.
The Chilean Palestinian community is not only large in size. It represents an educated, wealthy elite, with influence in much of Chilean society including politics, law, education, business and sport. It even has its own football team, Club Deportivo Palestino, which recently visited Palestine and was declared a “second national team” by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Immigrants, not refugees
“The Palestinian community in Chile has a very long history, and the local community in Santiago is especially well established, so these elements alone mean that Palestinian Chileans stand out, not only in Chile, but also internationally,” explains Siri Schwabe, an anthropologist from Stockholm University studying the Palestinian diaspora in Santiago.
“For example, having a football team called “Palestino” that pledges to represent Palestine is quite special,” says Schwabe, who recently completed a doctoral thesis entitled: “Promised Lands: Memory, Politics and Palestinianness in Santiago de Chile”.