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Yo Soy Palestino

A Palestinian Orthodox community flourishes in Chile

by Aaron Nelsen

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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.

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