Based in Chile, journalist Aaron Nelsen writes for the New York Times and Time magazine. While preparing his article for the July 2012 issue of ONE, he documented some thoughts on efforts to instill a sense of heritage among young Palestinian-Chileans through an Arab school.
In 1978, a group of Palestinian immigrants took a collective step back to look at Chilean society and their place in it. They had built a soccer stadium where they could cheer their soccer club, Club Deportivo Palestino, on to victory. They had established a social club (Club Palestino), Orthodox Churches and more, but they had overlooked arguably the most important piece of cultural infrastructure: an Arab school.
“Where do we preserve our traditions, where do ensure that our children don’t lose their roots?” asks Jorge Alamo, rector of the Arab School in Santiago.
The student body is small — around 250 — but around 85 percent are of Palestinian origin, and the remainder includes Syrians and Libyans and even some Chileans with no Arab heritage. The school offers classes from preschool through high school, but what sets the Arab School apart is its language and culture program.
In addition to Arabic language instruction, all students are required to take a class in Arabic culture that is equal parts history, philosophy, geography, art, and religion from Palestine to Egypt, Libya and Syria.
“Our students and our community are different within Chile because they maintain a very strong link to Palestine,” Alamo explains. “For example, most students take a trip through the Middle East after they graduate. They’ve studied the history, they know where they come from, and the trip completes their education.”
The experience is sure to make an impression on these teens, as they witness the conditions under which they themselves might have lived.
“I think we all have this moment where it clicks and we tell ourselves ‘my origins are Palestinian; I’m Chilean. What can I do to help free my people — when it comes down to it, probably my cousins?’ ”
At home, in Chile, transitions are sometimes painful. Many of the school’s first enrollees were the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers who achieved white-collar status. In Chile’s dynamic economy international business is discussed in English. When parents began pushing for English language instruction, however, there was backlash from traditionalists who argued for the founding principles of the school, namely the preservation of Palestinian traditions.
“It was not an easy process,” Alamo says. “But the fact of the matter is the Chilean community of Arab and Palestinian origin, in particular, was demanding this service. It is a process of adapting as the community and its interests change over time.”
To read more about Palestinian-Chileans, read Yo Soy Palestino.