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Hundreds attended a May rally, the first time many in the community had found one another
Jumana Risheq was grabbing a shawarma at a local shop about two weeks ago. She’d taken with her the book she’s currently reading, ‘The Lemon Tree,’ which had the words ‘An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East’ inscribed on its cover.
Minutes later, a man walked into the store, and she noticed him staring at her book.
“Please feel free to look at it if you’re curious,” she told him.
He picked it up and after leafing through the pages, said, “You’re not another one of those Palestinians, are you?”
“Yes, actually, I am,” she replied.
“Okay,” he said, and proceeded to put the book down and leave the store, slamming the door on his way out.
Risheq is used to hostile interactions like the incident at the shawarma shop. Having lived in Victoria for six years, she has many stories like it but rarely a space to tell them.
Most members of the Palestinian diaspora in Victoria had never met one another until May 20, 2021. Then, after 11 days of violence in Gaza claimed the lives of over 250 Palestinians, community members in Victoria decided to come together.
People from the Muslim and BIPOC community organized a protest at the legislature lawn and invited the city’s Palestinian residents and allies to speak and to stand in solidarity with people in Gaza.
One of the reasons it took so long for the diaspora to find one another is simply a lack of community space for them to congregate, according to Risheq. Another reason is the hatred many experience when they identify themselves as Palestinian while living in Victoria.
“A lot of people with Palestinian heritage may become a little bit shy about being loud and vocal about our identity when we don't have much of a community to support us,” said Risheq.
“For myself personally, I've never shied away from being really straightforward about who I am and where I come from and what my roots are. There are people that don't feel as confident being targets for aggression and violence.”
Risheq—a second-generation Palestinian refugee who was born in Jordan—has worked on the ground in Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps since she was 17 years old, organizing initiatives like waste management programs, art therapy, and children’s therapy. She was supposed to return to Jordan last year to work with Bedouin tribes in the southern parts of the country, but COVID-19 derailed those plans.
Throughout her time in Victoria, Risheq has been open about her identity and has been consistently speaking out about the Palestinian refugee crisis, in attempts to educate Victorians about the history of her people.
“We are raised to understand our history in all of its nuances and complexities from when we are children,” said Risheq. “It is part of the idea of the Palestinian resistance to not allow our story to be forgotten.”
But speaking up has always meant enduring discrimination and hate.
Risheq has been told that Palestinian people are like animals who need to be exterminated; she’s been told that Palestinians never existed and that they are “trying to wipe Jews off the planet” by claiming to be Palestinian; she has been called a terrorist countless times, and more.
While she has never been physically attacked, she knows people who have.
Omar Shihadeh tells a similar tale. As a Palestinian-Canadian musician who has always been vocal about the plight of his people, Shihadeh says he’s had shows cancelled and lost countless sponsorships and brand ambassadors because of it.
“But these are the consequences that I'm okay to live with. If I become a target, if I lose deals, if I lose money from it, that's okay,” said Shihadeh. “Because these are small sacrifices compared to what the people of Palestine are going through.”
Shihadeh has also noticed the presence of strong anti-Palestinian voices in Victoria, especially since he and others began driving around with Palestinian flags on their vehicles this past month.
“We've had a lot of people swear at us and say things like ‘go back home,’” said Shihadeh. “When I was organizing the last rally, there was a Palestinian girl explaining about how she was going around putting posters up and drawing with chalk, and she was saying people were ripping the posters down.”
Nevertheless, Shihadeh says he was happy with how many people showed up. By his count, more than 400 people attended the protest on May 20 and he hopes more will attend future rallies.
Shihadeh was one of the main speakers at that protest, and was called upon to speak and lead several chants on the symbolic stage of the BC legislature steps. He says his ability to rouse an audience comes from years of performing on stage in front of thousands. This time, he also drew from personal anguish.
“During the last bombardment of Gaza, we had three second cousins [who died],” he said. “One of the oldest was 14, the other one was 11, and the last one was six years old.”
They were three out of 66 children and over 200 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military. On the other side, 13 Israelis lost their lives to attacks from Palestinian militants, including two children.
The UN estimates that 5,600 Palestinians in Gaza have died during fighting in the region between 2008 and 2020. Two hundred and fifty Israelis died during that same period.
Palestinian resistance to Israeli attacks is often smeared as anti-Semitic, but Risheq and Shihadeh say the movement has nothing to do with religion.
“The resistance you see coming from the Palestinian side isn't hatred towards Jewish people, it isn't hatred towards the Israeli state,” said Risheq. “It’s resistance towards oppressive regimes that are killing them slowly and choking them out.”
Shihadeh says the movement is not intended to pit Jews against Arabs and call for more violence, but rather raise awareness about human rights violations in the region. Both have observed skewed coverage of this crisis in mainstream media across the world, including in Canada, for decades.
“When it comes to large media sources, like when we're talking [about places like] CBC... their coverage is tricky, because they do talk about it, but the language they use is very covertly changing the narrative,” said Risheq.
“When you have forcible evictions happening for a week, and people are talking about mob violence and lynchings happening on the street...and you don't tell that part of the story, you only tell the story from the point at which they fight back, you are not doing ethical reporting.”
In the wake of the renewed fighting in Gaza last month, thousands of Canadians, including many journalists, signed an open letter to newsrooms calling for “fair and balanced” coverage of the crisis.
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The letter also states that current coverage fails to include proper context and Palestinian perspectives in covering the “ongoing nature of the Israeli occupation.” (The letter was also signed by employees at Capital Daily, including the author of this article.)
Some newsrooms, like the CBC, chose to retaliate by telling reporters who signed the letter that they could no longer cover the issue. In a statement to Capital Daily, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson said the publication endorses the calls for more perspectives in media’s coverage of the Middle East, but says it is not tenable for their journalism to “be rooted in a specific position on this conflict.”
“By adding their names, the CBC journalists who signed the open letter have taken a public stand on this story. That has created the perception of a conflict of interest among some members of our audience,” Thompson said. “We will provide oversight and ensure editorial distance between those who signed the letter and our daily coverage for the near future. This is standard.”
He added that no one has been disciplined for signing the letter and no stories are dropped.
Nevertheless, the letter itself and the large number of protestors in attendance at the legislature on May 20 signals a shift in public opinion.
Risheq and Shihadeh have similar theories for why the Gaza attacks last month drew so much more international scorn than prior, similar skirmishes.
Widespread use of social media by Palestinians on the ground is the number one reason for increased global attention, according to Shihadeh.
“Back then, especially in the pre 2000s there weren’t many places you [could] get your information from besides the TV. The narrative has always been controlled,” he said. “It’s really hard to control the narrative when everyone is their own news reporter, essentially.”
Risheq concurs: “People are looking at CBC and then they're looking at their Instagram feed, and they're thinking, how are you not talking about this? How are you leaving out all of these fundamental details?”
She also believes the pro-Palestinian movement has been aided by similar major anti-colonial, anti-racist movements in the past year and half, which have “opened people’s eyes to systems of oppression.”
“We are so indebted to the people who did the Black Lives Matter movement, because they broke down barriers of people's minds in a way that we've been waiting for for generations and generations.”
While there have long been vigils and protests in solidarity with Palestinians on Vancouver Island, Risheq says they have never attracted much attention until now. Canada has also responded at a federal level, announcing $25 million in funding to support the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinian civillians in Gaza last week.
Risheq and Shihadeh are both now working at a grassroots level to connect members of the diaspora in Victoria and to create spaces and opportunities for people to meet. Risheq hopes to eventually live in a world without Israeli military checkpoints—the ones that keep Palestinian refugees and sometimes even citizens of other countries with Arabic names from entering.
“Israeli checkpoints are very, very contentious places. I have many friends even of non-Arab origin who, just for associating [with] Arabs, get interrogated for sometimes 10 to 15 hours at the borders,” said Risheq. “They use all kinds of psychological and mental warfare techniques.”
With her words, she paints a picture of herself sitting under one of Palestine’s famed olive trees, and evokes a sense of home with talk of olive oil running through her veins.
It’s a picture of a moment Risheq can only dream of, for now—a dream she shares with millions of refugees around the world.
“I'm a Canadian citizen, as well as a Jordanian citizen,” she said. “Even if I were to enter on my Canadian passport, the likelihood of me actually being allowed to get past the checkpoint, even if there’s no reason not to let me in, is very, very, very slim.”