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In the Virtual World, Palestinians in Exile Reunite
November 23, 2011
This week the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies at Birzeit University held a conference entitled “Palestinian Refugees: Different Generations but One Identity?” The aim of the conference was to identify changes in refugee identity over time and across generations. Visited by big-shots such as Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi and keynote speaker Rosemary Sayigh, the well-known anthropologist and oral historian, the conference dealt with many interesting and important issues concerning Palestinian refugee identity.
Especially interesting were the sessions and discussions on the identity of young Palestinian refugees as they represent the future in regards to Palestinian identity across generations. Many young Palestinians living as refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan have never seen their home country and still, their identity as Palestinians is strong. These young refugees represent the 4th and 5th generations living in exile since their families were expelled from Palestine in 1948. Growing up in exile, highly affected by the protracted situation, these young generations of Palestinians face different political and cultural challenges to their identity that they are forced to deal with far from their homeland.
The fragmentation of their community across time and space challenges the young refugees to come up with new methods to keep in touch with other Palestinians to keep their national identity alive. This is especially done through the internet, email groups and social media. In her recent research on young Palestinian refugees, Rosemary Sayigh found that many of them had set up email correspondence with same age Palestinians other places in the world. This way they are able to keep in touch and recreate their Palestinian identity along with other young Palestinians.
The search for a shared identity among young Palestinians was represented at the conference by the Palestinian Youth Movement (previously the Palestinian Youth Network). The PYM is an independent grassroots movement consisting of young Palestinians in Palestine and scattered throughout the world. It functions as a network connecting young people who have a belonging to Palestine and a desire to preserve their Palestinian identity. An important point at the conference, as well as for the PYM is that there is no talk of one stagnant Palestinian identity but rather a large array of different identities and sub-identities.
For example being a young Palestinian in Ramallah is not the same as being a young Palestinian in Bourj Al Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon, which again is very different from being a young Palestinian in the US or in Europe. But through social media and by connecting through networks such as the PYM, young Palestinians everywhere are able to connect with each other and discuss their views on the future of Palestine.
The use of social media in the recent revolts in North Africa and the Middle East have inspired young Palestinians to do the same, using Facebook and Twitter as tools against the Israeli occupation and as a means of connecting as one national group. In doing so, the young Palestinians who may have very different everyday lives come together over a shared cause as their parents and grandparents did before them. The difference is that with these new tools, they are able to get in touch with Palestinians they might not have known otherwise, and share their life experiences. This means that through social media the identities of young Palestinians have been moved to a global level all with roots in Palestine. And even though many of them have never seen their homeland there is still a strong connection being kept alive through the huge virtual network of Palestinian youth.
The Israeli occupation and the fact that Palestinians are scattered throughout the world has often made it impossible for Palestinians to meet in person. This was even the case at the Birzeit conference where several panelists and speakers attended the discussions through Skype. In this way they were able to share their points of view even if they were not able to be there in person. This is just another example of the creativity used to overcome the boundaries of the Israeli occupation and how the internet is such an important weapon in the fight for freedom and recognition.
Julie Holm is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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