In May 1948, Israel declared its independence. Palestinians like Hafida Khatib refer to this moment as the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe.” Hafida fled to Lebanon with her family — a country that has never felt like home.
Following the outbreak of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, then-19-year-old Hafida Khatib and her family fled from the Palestinian village of Dayr al-Qassi to neighboring Lebanon. “I have lived in Lebanon for 70 years, but I’ve never forgotten Palestine,” says Hafida, who is now almost 90 years of age. Today she lives in Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, which lies in the south of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. Camp residents like to quip that not even a coffin will fit through its narrow streets. Many houses are run down and at risk of collapsing. Three years ago, Hafida moved into a small ground floor apartment after her leg was amputated due to diabetes.
Her apartment would be hard to find without someone leading the way through the cramped maze of homes. The camp was originally intended to temporarily shelter Palestinians who had fled from Israel. But it still exists today, having become a home for several generations of refugees. It has grown unabated. Official figures put the number of Palestinians living in Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp at over 18,000. The influx of Syrian refugees, however, most likely means that 40,000 people now live here. About half of all residents are younger than 25 years old. And for many, camp life is all they know.
But Hafida vividly remembers a different life. She recalls her old life in Dayr al-Qassi, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the city of Acre in what is now northern Israel. “If I could return I would know exactly where our house stood,” she says, adding she knows just how everything was: “Our life, our land, the villages.” And Hafida recalls how her father had told her they would not stay in Lebanon for long. “He said it would just be three or four weeks,” she says with a melancholic mien, despite her warm smile. “We all really believed that.”
Israel declared itself an independent state on May 14, 1948. The following day, May 15, is remembered by Palestinians as the beginning of the Palestinian exodus. They refer this day as “Nakba,” which is Arabic for “catastrophe.” On October 30, 1948, Israeli militias conquered Hafida’s village, Dayr al-Qassi.
By this time, Israeli forces had already been battling Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian armies for several months. In prior weeks, hundreds of other Palestinian villages had already been taken over by the Israelis. Hafida’s family was prepared. They had packed their bags. “We only took the bare necessities. We locked our door and set off,” she says. Hafida, her father and five siblings fled north, into nearby Lebanon. Her mother had passed away when Hafida was a still a little girl. “There was a Christian village next to ours. We used to tend the land together,” recalls Hafida. “And our Jewish neighbors often came to visit. Sometimes they brought homemade yogurt.” She says Muslims, Christians and Jews got on well. “None of our friends wanted us to flee, but we were very scared.”