Luke, Grandchild of Palestinian Refugees
Interviewed by Asma Barakat in New York City, NY, 07/19/22
Transcribed by Asma Barakat, 08/01/22
Note: Mentions of Luke’s family names were redacted.
(00:00) Asma Barakat: This is Asma Barakat interviewing Luke [redacted] on July 19, 2022, and this interview is taking place at Central Park in New York City. So Luke, can we start with just where were you born?
(00:15) Luke: I was born in Houston, Texas.
(00:18) Asma Barakat: Tell me a little bit about where you’re from.
(00:21) Luke: Well, like I said, I’m from Texas, but originally my family, my dad’s side of the family comes from Palestine. Which is something I always like to tell people, I’m from Texas, but originally my family’s from Palestine. So yeah, my dad’s side came from, my dad’s dad, my Jiddo came from Ramla, which is in ’48 territories. And then, Taita, kind of complicated, but her family’s from both Yaffa and Akka, which is also in ’48. But their family moved around a lot because her dad worked for the British as a health inspector. And so she was actually born in El Khalil. And some of her sisters were born in Ramallah and in Gaza. So, yeah.
(01:18) Asma Barakat: Interesting. So what year did they come to the states?
(01:24) Luke: Yeah, so we have kind of a complicated history. I don’t know if I should go through the process. Yeah, so, Jiddo’s family fled in 1948 from Ramla. After the Deir Yassin massacre, which happened nearby, they knew people there and were really scared so they fled to Lebanon and were in a refugee camp there. And then my Taita, my dad’s dad, sorry my dad’s mom, Taita, like I said, they moved around a lot. So during ’48, when the Zionist entity, you know, created their state, on top of Palestine, they were living in Gaza, in Gaza city. And they stayed there until 1956. And in 1956, they basically took a boat from Gaza to Lebanon, to Beirut. Because one of my Taita’s sisters had got, she was living in Lebanon at the time with her husband, who was also Palestinian, and they got IDs for everyone. So they all came to Lebanon. And then my grandparents got married there. And my Jiddo was working for the British embassy in Libya so they moved to Libya. And that’s where my dad was born in 1965, and he had two brothers that were also born in Libya, and then they moved. After the Libyan revolution, they moved to Lebanon again and then left in 1973. Because of the Civil War, a lot of violence. They were having family members killed. So they fled to the United States in 1973. And they moved to Dallas, Texas, and yeah, the rest is history.
(03:15) Asma Barakat: Hey, that’s a lot of jumping around.
(03:17) Luke: Yeah.
(03:18) Asma Barakat: Since your dad was born in Libya, did you hear about stories from Palestine from your grandparents or any of your family members who did get to live in Palestine?
(03:32) Luke: Yeah, so, obviously, my dad never has stepped foot in Palestine. But yeah, growing up, you know, we got to hear stories from my grandparents, like Jiddo loved to talk about it. About his ‘sakna’ it’s like a living area, in Ramla. They were kind of on the outskirts of town. And you know the family wasn’t very wealthy or anything like that. But, he just described, I think one cool story is that he had lived in, he had a neighbor that was Muslim and then another neighbor that was Jewish, Palestinian Jewish, and they would have meals together. Which was really cool story that I always liked hearing when I was growing up. Taita’s sister, Yvonne, one of my aunts who I’m really close to, she’s like a second grandma to me. And she would tell me a lot of stories about Palestine, like working in the refugee camp, the UNRWA camp in Gaza, and then she would tell me how they had like an orange grove in Yaffa that they owned and she showed me the deed to that. And they would just tell me about how easy it was to kind of get around not only Palestine. You can take a train from Gaza to, Yaffa to Akka, you could go to Beirut, you could go to Syria. So just stories about that.
(05:12) Asma Barakat: That’s very cool that they, you know, kept up conversations about Palestine. One of the questions that we like to ask people that we interview is, does your family have any conversations about the right of return or what that would ever look like?
(05:36) Luke: Yeah, I feel like my grandparents, well my Jiddo passed away last year. But, we talked about it in a way that I feel it was something, it’s like a right that we have, that Palestinians should be able to return to our land, they had them and their ancestors for who knows how long, further back than records can trace have lived in that land. And it’s something that was taken from us and that, you know. We had family that stayed in Palestine, for example, after the Nakba, and I know some family members, distant, went and checked Jiddo’s house to see what had become of it and a Polish family was living there. And, it was one of those things that’s talked about. It’s crazy that some Polish family thinks they have more of a right to the house that his family built and lived in and that belongs to us. But, I guess going back, I feel like at their old age, the reality set in as they were getting older and things aren’t changing, that they probably weren’t gonna be able to return to their lifetime. But, maybe it’s a hope for our generation that we’re the ones that are going to see a free Palestine and one that we can all return to. But yeah, for them, it kind of seemed like a distant reality.
(07:10) Asma Barakat: Yeah, well, let’s hope that you get to go back and have the right of return and go see your home and your family’s land. Since your grandparents were kind of the ones keeping the memories of Palestine alive. Did they instill any cultural practices? Or do you have memories of any traditions, Palestinian traditions growing up?
(07:41) Luke: Yeah, I feel like the big one is the food. My dad, my mom, obviously my mom is not Palestinian, but she was obviously, the one that cooked for us most of the time, but my mom would also cook us dishes. She likes to make Musakhan. And what we call Taita’s rice, but it’s really Roz wa Lahma, it’s a very popular dish. But, my dad would, you know, he likes to cook for us too. And then every time growing up, we go to Taita and Jiddo’s house. We get there, you know, two or three times a year, maybe more, and it’s just like a huge feast every time, every night, every meal, there’s like a feast, you know, Mana’eesh and that kind of, anyways. And so I feel the food is something that always connected me to the culture. And we didn’t grow up speaking Arabic but, different words, you know, we would use that are common, the Palestinian dialect that my dad would throw around, you know, he calls us habibi and stuff like that. And I feel in general, it was just kind of growing with the kind of values of being not only a family of immigrants and a family of refugees, exiled people, but, also just, specifically Palestinian. The kind of values it’s kind of an aspect of the culture that I was just raised with, knowing where you came from, you’re Palestinian you know, I’m trying to think of anything else. Yeah, I mean, my dad, he loves to read and he loves to learn about kind of the cultural stuff, I feel like a lot of it, we weren’t like necessary raised, but my dad would tell us about it, you know? I think that’s just kinda some of the [INDECIPHERABLE] especially, men people like that. Maybe he’s not as capable of like, carrying the culture in ways that other people do. But it was one of the things were just taught, you know, when we were little we had these little fireside chats, I don’t know what you’d call it, but, we’d all sit around in a circle and my dad would tell us stories and stuff like that. So yeah, so I guess that’s a few examples.
(10:25) Asma Barakat: And your father, he has never visited Palestine and you have or you haven’t?
(10:32) Luke: No, no, my dad’s not been and I haven’t been yet. Yeah, I’m, interestingly, I’m pretty sure the first person in my line of family to return, in the immediate, the [redacted] family from my dad’s side and the [redacted] family. I had like a cousin that just went and that’s the first person I know of, in our direct lineage, whatever. That’s been able to go and it was two weeks ago. But other than that, I don’t think anybody’s been able to return.
(11:10) Asma Barakat: Oh, wow. So we are going to be asking you some questions about religion. So let’s start off with is anyone in your family or are you religious?
(11:24) Luke: I’m not really religious myself. I feel it’s something that I like culturally. I guess it goes into the cultural question, but, my family, historically, all my family are Palestinian Christian. And they’re Greek Orthodox. Which is one of the most, I think, the most common, branch of Christianity in Palestine. And so yeah, something I’m really proud of, you know, and it’s really important, my grandma is almost 90 and still goes to church every week. The Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas. So, but yeah, personally, I’m not super religious. I grew up Catholic. And I went to church every Sunday, until midway through college, and then I kind of stopped. But, lately, I’ve been going to Greek Orthodox Church here in New York.
(12:33) Asma Barakat: Well, that’s interesting that your family kind of kept up that tradition of going to church every week. Do you think that religion played a significant role in your childhood?
(12:44) Luke: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, yeah, both my parents were very, that’s what I’m saying. They kind of pushed that on us. We went through, like all in Catholicism, there’s all the sacraments that you grew up. First Communion and first confession and, what else, confirmation, all that stuff, so I feel it was pretty big growing up, and I, you know, always have a cross necklace. And we have literally 100 crucifixes around our house and icons, which is a big thing in Orthodoxy is having icons of different religious figures. So those are all over our house. Yeah.
(13:33) Asma Barakat: And just going back a bit to how you grew up going to church often and how you recently have made some trips to the Greek Orthodox Churches once you moved to New York. How has your understanding of religion or your faith changed over the years and why?
(13:55) Luke: Yeah, I feel when I was little growing up, I don’t know, I never really liked church. It was kind of boring to me. Something I had to do, I mean, I definitely, was very, I believed in it kind of blindly and whatever. And, I guess, I don’t really know where I stand now, but it kind of changes. But, I think something that has become important to me is the cultural practices of religion. Knowing that for hundreds and hundreds of years my family has been members of this church, they have been going to Orthodox church they’ve been members of this church, this faith and some of the traditions and the language spoken it’s all just very historic and rooted in Palestine too, which is interesting. And especially in Christianity, all the biblical stories in the New Testament with Jesus, those stories took place in Palestine. Where he was born in Bethlehem that’s in Palestine, and the family’s from Nazareth and even some of the older stories took place in Ramla where my Jiddo’s from. I can’t remember the name, but it’s a biblical city. Like everything in Palestine is. Yeah, so you grew up in church hearing the stories and knowing that’s where your family comes from. So I feel that’s the main meaning of it, for me is the kind of traditions and feeling connected to your culture as a Palestinian and as a Christian.
(15:42) Asma Barakat: Yeah, that’s definitely very cool. That’s kind of a good segue into one of our other significant questions. And when you think about your morals and your values, what part of your morals makes you kind of more connected to the Palestinian cause? Or why do you feel like you’re called to the Palestinian cause?
(16:09) Luke: Yeah, I mean, I feel like when I think about it, the main thing that comes up is my own personal connection. And that’s, always been the thing. I support, just my belief in liberation, my belief about the injustice, is there’s that personal thing there. It’s just, my family was there and they were forced out. But then, I tried to, approach it from, the perspective of somebody who’s not Palestinian. Because then it’s a, you have to make a more moral appeal in a way and I think, I feel I grew up with these values of caring about, human rights and injustice and things like that, growing up in a family of immigrants from the Arab part of the world and that kind of thing. It’s just I feel I just grew up, you know, caring about other people and being less individualistic, and I’m just thinking.
(17:39) Asma Barakat: That’s okay, take your time.
(17:46) Luke: And I mean, and I feel some of that goes does come from, my religious upbringing as well. And just, kind of the values I said, but you know, just loving everyone and sorry this is a loaded question.
(18:13) Asma Barakat: Yeah, that’s okay. Do you want me to help pivot? Would it help if I asked how religion informs your perspective of Palestine? Maybe, does it help you understand occupation, or the struggle or liberation?
(18:44) Luke: I feel definitely, just any Christian, you know, what I learned from the faith growing up and the stories in the Bible, and the values that are part of Christianity, it’s you cannot stand with a state that continually dispossesses and commits atrocities against people, steals their homes and just the brutalities that the regime carries out and is based upon, that just is completely counter to the ideas of having love and respect for others. And like I said, just Jesus growing up in that part of the world, I mean, Jesus growing up in Palestine, being Palestinian, I like to call him, he was Palestinian, you know. And even putting it in that perspective of the way, if he was alive today how he would be cast due to status should kind of inform where you stand about occupation and colonization and oppression.
(20:12) Asma Barakat: Yeah, definitely. So if I circle back to something that you mentioned previously, is, your grandparents are the ones who were kind of displaced originally from Palestine. And, you know, you mentioned how they are, you know, getting older your grandmother is 90, and maybe the reality of returning might not happen for her. But you did say that it could happen for the younger generations. So how do you think your relationship with Palestine differs from previous generations?
(20:56) Luke: Yeah, I mean, I feel this is kind of, with any, I feel this could be said, of a lot of different struggles and stuff. But, I think, I guess it’s hard to speak for, what other people, their experiences and stuff. But I think we’ve kind of gone through phases of hope and dismay, just for example, there was a lot of hope before 1967 that the Arab world would unite and defeat the Zionist entity, but after ’67 and there was another huge expulsion of Palestinians. And the Zionist entity expanded further into Palestine there’s kind of this dismay like we’ve failed, and I think that it comes and goes in phases. And for my grandparents generation, even my dad’s generation, you see, thing after thing, try and fail. And it’s, you might think, I feel seeing that cycle could definitely have a negative impact on, you know, make you less optimistic about whether Palestine will be liberated, and especially being in America where, you know, Zionism is so common and mainstream in all of our institutions, political and nonpolitical, it’s just, I think it can be very dismaying, but for me, especially in the last few years, where I’ve kind of got to grow and connect my culture a lot more individually and in different ways, in organizing around Palestine, and really staying in tune with the circumstances. I think that gives me so much hope. Where, maybe before it was like okay, I hope this happens one day to now I can feel that we’re gonna see liberation, within my life, just because, more and more people are waking up to the injustices and you know, I really do think we have setbacsk, but there is a lot of progress in America and abroad, and the Palestinian people haven’t lost their hope in the last, 75-plus years. So, yeah, I definitely can see liberation happening.
(23:47) Asma Barakat: So you brought up, you know, being in the diaspora and how Zionism is very prevalent in the US. How has being in the diaspora affected your relationship with your identity as a Palestinian?
(24:03) Luke: Yeah, that’s a good question. Because I think for one, the fact that one side of my family’s not, my mom’s side of the family is not Palestinian, there’s kind of, I have, different identities that are kind of molding together and growing up. In the United States, which I could say a lot about, like in terms of identity there, but, you kind of at least growing up, I had like an identity affiliated with where I grew up, you know, in a way, maybe at one point I saw myself as American I don’t know where I stand on that now because same thing, in terms of settler colonialism is, you know, been going down here for hundreds of years. But anyways, yeah, I think there’s this separation. Just being that it’s been nearly you know, three-quarters of a century since my family’s been in Palestine. And so then as generations, you know, continue you kind of might see a disconnect. I mean, I feel that’s kind of natural. But, that’s why it’s been really important for me personally to spread this to other people in my family and other Palestinians I know to really hold on to your culture. And we, Palestinians I feel we do a really good job with that. When you’re a people that’s dispossessed and exiled, you’re not gonna let anyone forget who you are. But I feel the actual some of the actual aspects, you kind of lose, you might lose your language, for example. So that’s something, I have been trying to rebuild, to make sure that I know, and if I have children, they know like who they are. Even if they’re growing up outside of, you know, Palestine, where we’re from. But yeah, I definitely say there’s intersecting identities going on, in terms of being growing up outside of where you’re originally from.
(26:31) Asma Barakat: Yeah, that actually makes me curious. It brings up this other question that we have, which I think is very interesting to see the perspective of Palestinians, is, how are you able to cope in the US since, like you mentioned, I mean, you mentioned that it is another settler colony, but the US is an entity that’s responsible for several imperialist projects. What brings you strength and hope and resilience?
(27:03) Luke: Do you mean just growing up in the, what do they call it, the Imperial core?
(27:09) Asma Barakat: Yeah.
(27:10) Luke: I mean, I feel if anything, it gives me more hope. It gives me more perspective and hope because you see, in the context of the United States, the so-called United States, you have so many other movements for liberation you have the liberation for indigenous people and black people and, and queer people and all these different intersecting movements, that not only have had their own history with struggle against imperialism and capitalism and colonialism but, you know, there has also been an alliance between them and Palestinians. So seeing the allyship, and the potential for more allyship, between, all these different liberation movements, and seeing that we all have, a united struggle against these different systems of oppression, I think it’s, in a way is really empowering. And you know, in my own organizing around Palestine I’ve got to, you know, meet a lot of people who come from different, walks of life and different identities and struggles and see how we can kind of connect on that basis.
(28:35) Asma Barakat: Yeah, that’s very beautiful. Definitely, the solidarity is very nice and does bring hope. This is one of my favorite questions, and it may be a loaded question. But what does home mean to you?
(29:13) Luke: I feel like to preface this in a lot of different areas of my life, I kind of feel like I have to fit into some mold of, you know, what I’m expected, you know, if it’s in work or if it’s at school or if it’s with certain friend groups. And home is somewhere where I can be myself, you know, fully and not have to worry about trying to fit in or that kind of thing. And also the idea of freedom. I saw a tweet today actually, that was saying, people think that you need money to be happy. But, really to be happy, you need freedom, and so I feel like, being yourself also, kind of plays into that, but, somewhere without worries and where you can live free and make your own, you choose your own path. And so a home is like an escape from all that. And so, I mean, since we’re talking about Palestine, obviously, just knowing that’s where generations of my family and people have, you know, lived for thousands of years. You know, and we to, have our own self-determination and autonomy. And also, struggle with different empires and stuff. Not only like the Zionist, but the Ottomans, and the British and Romans, but, I feel like you have your, your own individual home, maybe it could be a dwelling where you, you know, it’s an escape, but also, I could see home in terms of like a broader, area, it could be Palestine in a region where my people are around me and, you know, we get to live as we want, in peace and not under occupation and that kind of thing.
(31:37) Asma Barakat: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So if future generations, especially future generations of Palestinians were to listen to this interview, what do you hope that they would take away from this interview?
(31:57) Luke: Well, Inshallah, the future generations, like myself will get to live in a liberated Palestine. But, if that is the case, or if it’s not, you know, I feel like I really hope that they take away, the importance of culture and, your identity as a Palestinian because, at the end of the day, they can take our homes, they can take our land, they can oppress our people, but they can’t take our identities away. And they know, that’s the biggest, it’s the biggest fear they have, no matter what they’ve done over 75 years, the atrocities committed, and the horrors they’ve imposed upon our people, but they thought they could, kill our spirit and our identity and they haven’t. In fact, if anything, they’ve made our identities, so much stronger and our culture, so much more beautiful, because we’ve, you know, we’re resilient, and we’re fighters. And we are, I forgot the word. But we’re, determined to fight for liberation, and it’s gonna happen. So, ensuring that you and your Palestinian friends, and maybe your own children, don’t forget who they are. And I think there’s a lot of different ways to be a Palestinian and identify culturally, but in knowing that, knowing who you are, and where you came from, and, of course, maybe a little bit about, more in-depth about where you came from, like what city you’re from, and that kind of thing, and maybe learning the language and some of the cultures and traditions so that we don’t forget, because it is hard, being in exile and living outside of where you’re from to know, everything, and I think, sadly, there are certain things that have maybe been lost over the years, certain practices and traditions, and most of them aren’t, but I think, you know, it can happen so holding on to it, and your memories and oral traditions, that kind of thing is the way.
(34:36) Asma Barakat: Is there anything else you wish I asked you or anything you’d like to add before we close out the interview?
(34:45) Luke: Yeah, so, I was thinking about this today because I posted about it on social media. But, last week, I was at my family reunion. And it was really important. It was a family reunion for my dad’s mom’s side of the family, the [redacted]. And we’re like a huge family in Palestine. And we had, Taita had seven siblings, and they had kids of their own and grandkids. So it was a big, big reunion. We’ve been waiting to have it for like, two, three years in Dallas. And it was not just any family reunion, I think lots of families have family reunions, but this was, really important because, this is our family that started in Palestine and they left Palestine. My Taita and her generation was the last generation of our family to be in Palestine. And I think when you’re dispossessed and displaced, you can kind of separate. You know, I think people get separated and like lose things but the family reunions prove we’re still united and we’re still together and so it was really important. Well, anyways, at the reunion Yvonne, my aunt, my Taita’s sister, Yvonne, she organized a lot of our family members helped organize. but she was like the center of it, she’s really been the glue that’s held our family together for, seriously 75 years plus, just, you know, making sure to connect with everybody and in finding different family members and, really keeping the culture but I was helping her on the day of the big event, and she told me, we were going around doing errands and she told me that there’s a big surprise the end of the night. And so what the surprise turned out to be was this little packet with sand, she had put a little bit of sand in all these little tiny jars. And then packaged them with a little Palestine flag, Tatreez. And then she like narrated the story about what this is, because we didn’t really know. Well, what it was, was when Salwa, her mom, and the rest of the kids left Gaza in 1956, I told you they took a boat to Beirut, well, before they got on that boat Salwa got a big jar and filled it with sand from the beach in Gaza. To have like a piece of Palestine that she could pass down to the, you know, the future generations so that we have a piece of our land to remember, where we came from and, you know, have that physical piece of Palestine with us always, even if we’re not there. So I think that’s something I wanted to mention because I think it’s just so really cool and powerful. And it’s in my room right now. And I’m gonna find a really special place to put it so that, you know, I don’t forget it. And maybe one day I’ll give it to my children or something like that. But yeah.
(38:02) Asma Barakat: Thank you for sharing that story with me. That is very beautiful. And I’m glad that, you know, you had a family member do that for you and your entire family. And that is a lovely tradition that your family keeps up with the reunions. If that’s everything that you have to say today, then we can go ahead and close this interview out.
(38:30) Luke: Cool. Well, I really enjoyed doing this, getting to speak.
(38:35) Asma Barakat: Thank you so much, Luke.
(38:36) Luke: Yeah, of course.