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Yo Soy Palestino

A Palestinian Orthodox community flourishes in Chile

In 1908, Ilas Issa-Hanne, a young Christian from Beit Jala, Palestine, packed his Turkish passport, a book of prayers and several fistfuls of Palestinian topsoil he kept in a small wooden box. He was embarking on a journey across the world toward an uncertain future in Chile. But he could always transport himself to his ancestral homeland by sliding his hand into the box and letting the dirt slip through his fingers.

Today, the chocolate-hued loam belongs to Mr. Issa-Hanne’s grandson, Father Francisco Salvador. He keeps the wooden box in his office at St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in the Chilean capital of Santiago.

Though born and reared in Chile, he occasionally sifts his hand through the dirt to remind him of his roots.

Before inheriting the heirloom, his grandfather served as a living link to his Palestinian heritage.

Father Salvador remembers as a boy asking his grandfather why Palestinians lived in Chile. His grandfather described the poverty and oppression in the homeland, and most of all the yearning among Palestinian Christians to live out their faith in freedom.

These days, the tables have turned and the priest now finds himself answering similar questions raised by children in his parish.

“If you are here,” he says, “it’s because your family wanted to preserve their Christian way of life. This is why you are here.”

Chile is home to the world’s largest Palestinian community outside the Middle East. The estimated number ranges from 450,000 to a half million. Most are Christians who either hail from or trace their lineage back to the towns of Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem.

The first wave of Palestinians arrived after the Ottoman Turkish government, which then controlled much of the Middle East, allowed emigration in 1896. These early immigrants held Turkish passports; still today, turcos (Spanish for “Turks”) remains a common derogatory term for Arabs in Chile.

Large numbers also migrated to Chile during World War I and, later, when the 1948 war in Palestine erupted. Mass immigration from Palestine then slowed to a trickle in the second half of the 20th century.

During the same period, however, the Chilean government granted asylum to numerous Palestinian refugees. Most recently, in April 2008, it resettled 117 Palestinians — all Sunni Muslim — from the Al-Waleed refugee camp in Iraq, near the Syrian border.

For the first Palestinians, life in Chile was bittersweet. Acceptance in society did not come easily. At the time, native-born Chileans often discriminated against immigrants, particularly those from areas of the world other than northern and Central Europe.

Nevertheless, they flourished in their adopted country. The new arrivals quickly found their way in the workforce as craftspeople, farmers and merchants. By the early 20th century, dozens of Arabic-language newspapers circulated and numerous Arab social clubs were established.

“Family and faith were central to the identity of the immigrants,” says Professor Eugenio Chahuan, codirector of the University of Chile’s Center for Arabic Studies.

By the same token, Palestinian immigrants have always strived not only to assimilate, but to excel as well. In fact, Palestinian- Chileans often describe this aspect of their identity as a desire to be “more Chilean than the Chileans.”

The mantra has apparently served the community well over the past century. Today, Chileans of Palestinian origin head no fewer than 4 of the 11 largest financial institutions in the country. A disproportionately high number of Palestinian-Chileans also serve in Chile’s congress.

Success, however, has come at a high cost. Early immigrants frequently changed their Arabic names to Spanish ones — Farid became Alfredo, Yamil, Emilio. They also insisted their children speak Spanish, and gradually members of the newer generations lost proficiency in the language. Other important traditions also faded from the community over time.

The greatest sacrifice many Palestinian immigrants had to make to adapt to life in Chile was forgoing their Eastern Christian faith.

“Throughout the assimilation process, there remained a preference for the Orthodox Church,” says Professor Chahuan. “However, that gradually slipped toward the Roman Catholic Church because there wasn’t any place to maintain that [Orthodox] tradition once in Chile.”

Palestinian Orthodox immigrants baptized their children in the Roman (Latin) Catholic Church — by far the largest church in Chile — and sent them to Latin Catholic schools.

A major obstacle for all Orthodox faithful in Chile — not only Palestinians — has been the dearth of churches and parish communities. The country’s first Orthodox church, St. George Cathedral in Santiago, was not even built until 1917. For 60 years, it served as the only house of worship for Orthodox Christians of all backgrounds and denominations in the capital. Still today, there are only ten Orthodox churches across the country.

Orthodox faithful who settled in parts of the country without a parish nearby found it especially difficult to live out their faith. In some areas, priests only visited for a wedding or funeral. Without parishes of their own, many simply joined the local Latin Catholic congregation.

According to the last census, published in 2002, fewer than 11,000 Chileans identified as Orthodox Christian. Seventy percent of all adults identified as Latin Catholic.

St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Santiago seems all the more remarkable in light of such statistics. Founded in 1978 by Father Salvador’s father and uncle, it serves a mostly Palestinian-Chilean congregation.

“They felt if they didn’t open a new parish that could serve the Palestinian descendants, our traditions and faith would be forgotten,” explains the priest.

After graduating from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, he returned to Chile to lead his native parish. As the only Orthodox priest of Palestinian heritage in Chile, he shoulders a unique responsibility.

“They look at me to represent them in front of the other communities,” Father Salvador says about Orthodox Palestinian-Chileans. “In New York, to be Greek was to be Orthodox, and to be Orthodox was to be Greek.”

He wants members of the Orthodox Palestinian diaspora to think of their identity and faith as one and the same — especially younger parishioners. He also makes a point to reconnect his flock to their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

“Sometimes my children look at the faces of the Palestinian people on the internet. For them, it’s: ‘daddy, they look just like me,’ ” he says. “I tell them if our great grandfather hadn’t decided to come to Chile, this may have been you.”

Though most Palestinians in Chile live in greater Santiago, smaller communities span the length of the country. The second-largest community is in La Calera, a town of about 50,000 residents 73 miles north of Santiago. As do most villages and towns in Chile, La Calera’s bustling commercial center transforms into a virtual ghost town during the lunch hour.

“In La Calera,” says Cecilia Chahuan, president of the local Arab club, “we are all there is.”

The Chahuan clan is synonymous with La Calera’s Palestinian community. The town’s soccer stadium, for instance, is named after Cecilia Chahuan’s uncle. And for five decades, Father Nicolas Abusada Chahuan tended to the spiritual needs of the local Orthodox Palestinian community.

La Calera’s Orthodox Palestinians do not have a church of their own. Until retiring in the late 1990’s, Father Chahuan largely filled the gap and held together the community. He regularly visited the homes of faithful to celebrate the sacraments and perform baptisms, weddings and funerals.

For the past decade, Father Jorge Suez Malouf of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in the nearby city of Vina del Mar has been ministering to La Calera’s Orthodox Palestinians.

Father Malouf visits La Calera as often as he can. Travel, it turns out, takes up much of the busy priest’s time.

“I’ve been to Arica in the north and Punta Arenas in the south,” Father Malouf says matter- of-factly. “These are small towns where maybe 10 or 20 people are of the Orthodox faith.”

In 2008, La Calera’s local Arab club welcomed its newest members — seven families from among the 117 Sunni Muslim refugees resettled by the Chilean government. Unable to adjust to life in the town, several families subsequently moved to Santiago.

Among those who stayed are the members of the Halawi family. They opened up a restaurant, serving traditional Middle Eastern fare, such as shawarma — a Middle Eastern variant of the Greek gyro — as well as Chilean staples, such as empanadas — meat-stuffed pastries.

In the early days, wife and mother Muna Halawi felt out of place. She recalls the stares her hijab, or traditional Islamic headscarf, attracted on the streets. Laughing about it now, she says some people wondered if she had cancer and had lost her hair.

Though the restaurant attracts Chileans of all backgrounds, it most frequently serves members of the local Palestinian community.

“They don’t speak Arabic,” Mrs. Halawi says in broken Spanish, when asked about La Calera’s Palestinian community. “They’re Chilean.”

Indeed, most agree Palestinians have assimilated by and large with Chilean society. Not even in Santiago do exclusively Palestinian neighborhoods still exist. All that remains is a smattering of Palestinian-run shops and restaurants.

Still, Palestinian-Chileans take great pride in their heritage and actively preserve their identity and traditions. Many participate in local Arab or Palestinian social clubs around the country. Some enroll their children in one of the handful of Arabic schools that teach Arabic language and culture in addition to the national curriculum.

Certainly the most visible expression of Palestinian-Chilean pride is the popular Santiago-based first division soccer team, Club Deportes Palestino. Palestinian-Chileans have owned and managed the team since its creation in 1920.

Fans often post messages of support on the team’s official web site. The messages frequently blend loyal cheers with politics and national identity. At kick-off during a recent game, one fan posted on the site: “When our people have been occupied, with more strength we rise from the stones.”

The Palestinian Federation of Chile, a national organization representing Chileans of Palestinian ancestry, offers numerous programs and services to help preserve culture and heritage within the community. One program, Yo Soy Palestino (“I am Palestinian” in Spanish), brings together Palestinian- Chilean children, ages 4 to 12, for a crash course in Palestinian culture.

“My mother would always tell me: ‘This is a virtue that you have, because you are going to get the best of both worlds and that will make you a better person,’ ” says Nadia Garib, the federation’s vice president of education and director of Yo Soy Palestino. “That’s what we are trying to teach these kids. Don’t forget your roots.”

In early spring, the youngsters gather at the federation’s office in Santiago to begin the course. They will learn about the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem as well as how to prepare kibbeh — a traditional Middle Eastern dish consisting of fried balls of dough stuffed with minced meat and spices — and the basic steps of dabke — an Arabic folk dance.

The will also hear the tale of Yousef — a fictional story based on a composite of real- life experiences of Palestinian immigrants in Chile. The story begins with Yousef as an old man on his way back to his native Palestine after having spent most of his life in Chile. When he arrives, he finds a place very different from what he knew as a child — one coping with the harsh realties of Israeli occupation.

Outlandish encounters pepper the story to make it more entertaining for the young audience. Some of the adults in attendance, however, do not laugh. One comical episode occurs at the airport, where security officials interrogate Yousef about his underwear.

“That actually happens,” says Mauricio Abu-Ghosh Parham, president of the federation. “They ask the same question for hours.”

In 2009, Mr. Parham and his two brothers accompanied their father on his first trip to the homeland after immigrating to Chile at the age of 10. Security pulled him aside and interrogated him for nine hours. The experience, he says, was jarring.

Tarek Nimer, a Palestinian immigrant and member of St. Mary’s in Santiago, recounts a similar incident. His first experience with airport security, he recalls, nearly drove him to tears.

He sits at a table in Qatir, a popular Palestinian restaurant near the church, and enjoys mezze, a selection of traditional small dishes. Traditional Middle Eastern music fills the air and several patrons dance in an area cleared of tables.

“This food we have eaten every Sunday, from the first through fifth generations,” Mr. Nimar says, pointing to copious portions of falafel, fried pastries and stuffed vegetables.

“In Chile, Palestinian families preserve certain traditions,” he says as he briskly jumps up from the table and joins the other dancers on the floor.

Based in Chile, journalist Aaron Nelsen writes for The New York Times and Time magazine.

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