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Palestinian professor recounts time as a refugee

A Palestinian refugee spoke on campus Monday, recounting the hardships he and his family faced and discussing what it will take to achieve a peaceful solution on the ground.

Professor Asad Al-Ghalith teaches at the University of Tabuk in Saudi Arabia, but he got his start in academia in the United States, attending both the University of Missouri and West Virginia University. His talk Monday, called “The Land of Sad Oranges: Trials and Tribulations of a Palestinian Refugee,” was hosted by the Binghamton University English department, BU Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the BU sociology department and the Graduate Student Employees Union.

Al-Ghalith discussed life as a refugee for him and his family. His family had to flee Palestine during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and moved between several refugee camps during Al-Ghalith’s childhood. Born in 1956, Al-Ghalith talked about what the land meant to his family and their community of mainly farmers.

“Their relationship to the land was existential,” Al-Ghalith said. “That harmonious relationship with the land was suddenly and severely ruptured … in 1948 and the Palestinians found themselves refugees in many countries.”

Al-Ghalith described his life when his family had to again become refugees, when he was in fifth grade. He recounted running with his family, standing near a bridge on the Jordan River, when violence struck.

“We were about 50 yards, maybe 100 yards away from the river, when the Israeli jets came on the last day of the war and bombed the bridge,” Al-Ghalith said.

The bridge wasn’t totally destroyed, Al-Ghalith said, but the shelling left large holes that rendered it uncrossable.

He described a moment that stuck with him: seeing a pregnant woman who had been shot in the stomach, as her daughter tried to use mud from the river to stop her mother’s bleeding.

“No one dared to stop and help this bleeding woman or her daughter or the people who were dismembered on the bridge,” Al-Ghalith said. “They feared that [they] were coming again to finish the job.”

Al-Ghalith also talked about the living quarters for refugees. For several months, he lived in a classroom with two other families — a total of 21 people.

“Of course there is no privacy, no chance to take a shower, no chance to sleep with all those kids crying and running, no food,” Al-Ghalith said.

He said his family received a loaf of bread each day to eat and, if they were lucky, a piece of moldy cheese.

That summer, Al-Ghalith and his family moved to a refugee camp in the Jordan Valley, where they lived in a tent with a dirt floor. 100,000 refugees were placed on the one-square-kilometer area, he said.

Al-Ghalith also discussed the future for peace in the region. He said an unjust solution will not last in the long run.

“Only just peace has a chance to stick and last for generations to come,” Al-Ghalith said.

Steve Knauss, a fifth-year graudate student studying sociology, said bringing speakers like Al-Ghalith to campus are important in expanding views represented on campus.

“We have a warped reality on this campus, and the experiences of Palestinian refugees have been all but wiped out of it,” Knauss said. “Having a personal firsthand account of the tribulations of a Palestinian refugee really helps drive home just how much the Palestinian people have really sacrificed, in a way that facts and numbers don’t to the average student.”

Tyler Albertario, president of SJP and a senior majoring in political science, said Al-Ghalith “exuded personal strength” and appealed to the audience.

“He provided an inspiring appeal to the better instincts of human beings in the room,” Albertario said. “His main point is that we can have peace, but there has to be justice.”