As a child, Anas Amireh, 43, was forced to leave the only home he ever knew. He grew up in the United States, but for almost 10 years, he lived in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank.
“It took me awhile to actually fall in love with it,” Amireh said.
His family made the decision to send Amireh back to his ancestral homeland, despite the state of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, after news broke of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and Americans became suspicious of immigrants of Arab descent.
The local church organized a boycott of his father’s store, and he was chased in his neighborhood by older kids calling him Iranian, Amireh said.
Today, he owns several businesses based out of Coral Springs. He is also the chairman of the Florida chapter of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition.
Amireh and other Palestinian-Americans in South Florida commemorated May 15, known as Nakba Day.
The day in 1948 marked what happened immediately before and immediately after the establishment of the state of Israel, when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled their homelands.
“May 15 for Palestinians is the biggest catastrophe that ever happened to them,” Amireh said. “Palestinians are all over the world right now and not in their homeland, building their homeland like your typical Americans living and building their own country.”
The result of the mass exodus and the continuing conflict means today millions of people make up the Palestinian Diaspora around the world.
More than 83,000 people in the United States between 2006 and 2010 self-identified as Palestinians, according to U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data released in 2013.
In South Florida, the Palestinian-American population numbers in the tens of thousands, Amireh said. To a large extent, these represent the lucky Palestinians.
There are young people of Palestinian descent who have never known life outside refugee camps.
According to its website, Al-Awda is a charitable organization of grassroots activists trying to spread public awareness of international law and how it relates to Palestinian refugees.
Noor Fawzy, 24, of Coral Springs, is a law school student at Florida International University. As an undergraduate at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, she formed the school’s chapter of a national movement called Students for Justice in Palestine.
“Although I consider the United States my homeland in the sense that I was born and raised here,” Fawzy said, “Nakba day helps me remember my true origins, my actual identity. I am a Palestinian.”
Earlier this month, the Vatican announced it would sign a treaty with the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas which would formally recognize the state of Palestine.
“On a symbolic level, it is a success for the Palestinian people,” Fawzy said, referring to the treaty with the Vatican, “and it reaffirms once again the international community’s position on a Palestinian state.”
The problem is that international support has not led to an end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, Fawzy said.
Congressman Alcee Hastings, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, recently visited Israel for the 16th time and along with colleagues met with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
“If there is to be a resolution, it will be far in the future,” Hastings said in a phone interview.
In Coral Springs, Amireh is currently reading submissions to Al-Awda’s Nakba Day essay contest. He said he has received submissions from all over the world. The goal is for Palestinian young people to talk to elders and explain what the catastrophe and the right of return means to them.
Amireh said Al-Awda’s mission is to keep the children born in the Palestinian Diaspora connected to the cause of their homeland.
“We can’t lose them,” he said.
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