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
MARK MACKINNON The Globe and Mail 20 November 2006
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
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
"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
But now, more than ever before, Palestinians are giving up on their
"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
"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
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
"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."