By Simon Day
When Palestinian New Zealander Rahaf Gouda came to New Zealand at the age of four, her parents were looking for a country where their children could have a good education and a safe place to grow up.
But they have always held onto the hope that one day they would return to their homeland.
Rahaf - who is now 16 - has not visited Palestine since she was a small child - the process to return is so politically arduous and her family fears for their safety in the ongoing conflict with Israel.
“We don't even have the basic human right of going back and going to our homeland,” Rahaf said.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, which translates to “the catastrophe” in Arabic.
May 15 is a day of commemoration, marking the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their land - more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
“I think all Palestinians around the world, especially ones who have never been able to go and visit, wish to have that day to go back to see their family that's there, to see how their ancestors grew up. I think it's just really sad that we can't do that.”
It is estimated by the UN that more than six million people now make up the Palestinian diaspora around the world.
For Rahaf, who is a student at St Dominic's College in Auckland, the Nakba commemoration is an important day to remember the pain of all the people who first fled the country, and the longing of those who are still displaced, but also the hope that one day they will be able to return to a free Palestine.
“Even at this time right now there is still war going on. We need people to know and to see that and to think wow, 75 years that’s how long they’ve been going through this and nothing has happened.”
A constant reminder to fight for justice
When 19-year-old Layan Khalil’s great-grandparents fled Palestine they hoped they would soon be able to return home.
But three generations since Layan’s family left Palestine, they have never again lived in their homeland.
Layan, who is the co-president of Student Justice for Palestine and studies law at the University of Auckland, said the Nakba is an important moment to remember the stress and trauma that comes with that loss of land and the way that continues now.
“It makes us recognise and remember the suffering and the displacement of the Palestinian people. It's a constant reminder that we need to fight for that justice and find some resolution,” Layan said.
“Part of being Palestinian, part of wanting to be an advocate for Palestine, I really wanted to pursue law so I can hopefully one day free Palestine,” she said.
Calls for NZ Government to recognise state of Palestine
Both young women want the New Zealand Government to formally recognise the state of Palestine.
Being from Palestine is an essential part of their identity, they said, and it feels painful to not have the New Zealand government acknowledge its existence.
Layan said: “It's important because it proves to other countries as well and to our own citizens that look, Palestine does exist, Palestine is essential for the people and we care about our Palestinian New Zealanders here.”
Rahaf’s younger brother who was born in New Zealand has “stateless” as his official nationality on his passport.
It is deeply upsetting for her family to have her new country’s government disregard their country of origin, she said.
“We are proud to be Palestinian. They’re just throwing away my whole identity when they say that. The people with the most power are just saying that as if it is nothing,” Rahaf said.
Layan hopes the Nakba anniversary will inspire other New Zealanders to speak up for Palestine.
“Be vocal about Palestine and increase the awareness and understand the struggles of the people in Palestine. Put in the effort to read, learn and support Palestine and advocate for Palestine,” she said.
“From a data point of view, it is unprecedented. But from a personal point of view, it’s terrifying,”
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“More than any other time of day, our connection with God is a lot higher during that time.”
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“I was brought up on a story about my country that wasn’t true.”