Sharifa’s Nakba: Retracing my family’s escape from Haifa

+972 editor Vera Sajrawi sets out to uncover the hidden story of her grandparents' expulsion in 1948, walking the streets on which they used to live before being made refugees in their own homeland.

This is the first in a two-part series by +972 editor Vera Sajrawi retracing her family’s Nakba stories.

Invisibility is a painful human experience. My family is living proof. When Zionist militias captured 78 percent of historic Palestine in 1948, expelling about 750,000 Palestinians from what became the State of Israel, my maternal and paternal grandparents briefly fled to Lebanon for refuge. They eventually snuck back in, living the rest of their lives as “present absentees” — Israel’s term for internally displaced persons (IDPs) — in their own homeland. They became unseen by the state, its laws, and its new settler society.

This kind of invisibility casts a heavy shadow that follows Palestinians wherever they go. It is, as the scholar Brené Brown describes, a “function of disconnection and dehumanization where an individual or a group’s humanity and relevance are unacknowledged, ignored, and/or diminished in value or importance.” As a third-generation displaced Palestinian, living in a state established by the enemy who expelled us in the first place, I experience this process both at home and abroad — the stereotyping, the dehumanization, the condescension.

That invisibility is even heavier for Palestinians who could not and still cannot come back to their homeland, especially those in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding Arab countries. Always yearning to return, wondering what happened to their houses and belongings, aching at the thought of foreign settlers taking their place. Many of my extended family and close friends are in the diaspora, mainly in Jordan and the United States. For them, it never gets easier: the heartache, the longing, the curiosity to see, feel, smell, and touch the land from which their ancestors were expelled. But Israel makes it impossible for Palestinians to even visit. Whoever thought that the grandchildren of exiled refugees would forget the Nakba is a fool who doesn’t understand the human psyche, least of all that of Palestinians.

For as long as I can remember, I have aspired to right the wrong that was done to my beautiful family, on both of my parents’ sides, and to do so through writing. Maybe it started with my fascination with the books in my father’s library, or the fact that my maternal grandfather was a published writer. But as I grew older, witnessing the Second Intifada as a high schooler, the urge to tell the world the truth about what is happening in Palestine overcame me — especially after discovering, during a short trip to the United States, how little most Americans knew about us. Naively, I thought the world would be horrified to see the crimes Israel committed during the uprising; this time, I thought, unlike during the Nakba, the world would stand up and realize that their prolonged silence is killing us.

Now, 75 years after the Nakba began, I am writing these lines to do my part in making the Palestinian people, our stories, and our history visible to the world.

I recently discovered that Brown — who is one of my favorite writers — is, like me, a cartophile. In her stunning book “Atlas of the Heart,” she writes: “Maps are the most important documents in human history. They give us tools to store and exchange knowledge about space and place.” She also wrote that we humans are “meaning-makers,” but that this presupposes a “sense of place.” She explains: “We need landmarks to orient us, we need language to label what we are experiencing, and, just like a map, the interaction between the layers of our emotions and experiences tells our stories.”

Palestinian buildings in Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)
Palestinian buildings in Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)

I took her advice to heart. In late 2022, Zochrot — an NGO that raises awareness about the Nakba among Israeli society and advocates for Palestinian refugees’ right of return — launched its new app “iReturn,” an upgraded version of its earlier trilingual “iNakba” app first launched in 2014. The organization’s website states: “With the iReturn app, Zochrot aims to use technology to re-tell a suppressed history and reveal Israel’s hidden landscape of ethnic cleansing and forced expulsions. It gives users and beneficiaries a tool through which they could learn that history but also envision a just, viable, and peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis facing Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons.”

I decided to use the app to trace my family’s uprooted history: from Haifa, where my maternal grandparents were expelled by boat along the Mediterranean Sea and where I live today, to the depopulated northern village of Al-Sajara, from which my paternal grandparents were chased and shot at by Zionist militias, via the dozens of depopulated villages along the way. With this journey, we bear witness to tens of thousands of heartbreaking stories — all so different but so similar in essence — to continue stripping away the invisibility of our Nakba.

An anxious heart

On the morning of the trip, a sunny but chilly Valentine’s Day, I woke up in my house in the beautiful seaside neighborhood of Wadi al-Jamal in Haifa, overlooking the Mediterranean. I checked the iReturn app to see what it showed in the area: it didn’t have anything on specific neighborhoods like Wadi al-Jamal or the nearby Tal al-Samak, which I can see from my bedroom window, but it did have entries on the cities and villages as a whole, including for Haifa and Tirat Haifa.

In total, some 95 percent of the city’s pre-Nakba Palestinian population of over 70,000 were displaced and prevented from returning. The new Israeli state expropriated the refugees’ property via the Absentees’ Property Law and settled Jewish immigrants in their place, ghettoizing the few Palestinians who remained in the Wadi al-Nisnas neighborhood. To this day, very few of Haifa’s Palestinians (who make up about 10 percent of its population) own their homes, leaving them exposed to the forces of racialized gentrification which threaten to further erase the city’s Palestinian identity.

Today, Wadi al-Jamal is home to around 3,000 people, 65 percent of them Palestinians. I have heard fragments of its history from Palestinian elders whom I met while walking around the area. It used to be a rest stop for camel convoys traveling from Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon on their way to Egypt through Palestine, which also often stopped along the coast in Akka (Acre), Jaffa, and Gaza City. The word “wadi” in Arabic means valley, and depending on the pronunciation, the name could mean camels (ja-mal) or beauty (jmal).

Palestinian buildings in Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)
Palestinian buildings in Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)

Over Christmas in 2021, just a few months after I moved to the neighborhood from downtown Haifa, I noticed banners printed in Arabic, Hebrew, and English with the name “Wadi al-Jamal” hanging from the windows and balconies of several buildings. I later learned from Palestinian news sites that the Haifa Municipality had decided to delete the Arabic name of the neighborhood in favor of the Hebrew one, “Ein Hayam” (“the eye of the sea”), which was given by the Israeli authorities after 1948. The signs were a form of protest against the erasure of the neighborhood’s past — a small illustration of the daily struggle required of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to protect their identity, history, food, and heritage from their colonizer.

Outside my window, Tal al-Samak was shining under the early spring sun. It saddened me to see how neglected and abandoned it was. Tal al-Samak was a centuries-old fishermen’s village that now falls within a nature reserve to protect its ancient monuments, including Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic remains and mosaics. It made me think of all the civilizations that lived on this land, now divided by the borders of nations obsessed with promoting singular identities.

I drove out of Wadi al-Jamal with an anxious heart, unsure of what to expect from the day. On the one hand, I wanted to perform my journalistic duties to this story; on the other, I couldn’t predict what emotions might arise from what I discovered throughout the day. I drove to Abbas Street — named in 1940 after Abbas Effendi bin Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, which established its religious and administrative headquarters in Haifa and adorned Mount Carmel with a beautiful shrine and terraced garden — to pick up Palestinian photographer Maria Zreiq.

Was she watering her flowers when the invasion arrived?

Our first stop was in Wadi al-Saleeb on the lower slope of Mount Carmel, a neighborhood that remains witness to ethnic cleansing to this day. The abandoned stone houses, with their high ceilings and wide windows — whose entrances have been sealed off by the Israeli authorities — are the only physical evidence of Palestinian life here before 1948, besides the lemon, almond, and cherry trees that surround the houses.

It pains me to see the names of the neighborhood’s streets changed to names like Shivat Tzion — “the return of Zion.” It also pains me to see the wild gentrification ravaging the area. Real-estate tycoons are taking over more and more of the old Palestinian buildings and turning them into a modern, artsy, hipster, orientalist haven for rich Israelis to live and work in. Thousands of Palestinian refugees who should be here, meanwhile, are still forced to live in refugee camps under the direst conditions.

Al-Wad (“the Wadi”), as Palestinians call it, was once the largest residential and institutional hub in the city, a workers’ neighborhood, and the closest residential area to the port, containing most of the city’s 50 Palestinian cafes at the time. Its strategic location, connecting Haifa’s eastern entrance to the city center, makes it the first point for arrivals from the north. It also made it the first neighborhood occupied by the Haganah (the Zionist paramilitary organization that was the precursor to the Israeli army), when the residents numbered 15,000.

Pension card of Suleiman, grandfather of +972 editor Vera Sajrawi. (Courtesy)
Pension card of Suleiman, grandfather of +972 editor Vera Sajrawi. (Courtesy)

My maternal grandparents were living in Wadi al-Saleeb when the Haganah arrived. My grandmother, Sharifa Bin Younis, was born in Haifa in 1920 and raised there by her uncles, after her father disappeared in unclear circumstances and her mother remarried and moved to Gaza. She grew up and met my grandfather, Suleiman Adawi, who was born in 1916 in the northern village of Tur’an, and worked in Haifa as a police officer in the Palestine Task Force under the British Mandate.

They moved to Wadi al-Saleeb after marrying, and by 1948 they had two boys: Salah, born in 1945, and Anwar, born in 1948. My grandfather loved reading, writing, and listening to music. My grandmother was a herbalist, treating people with plants she grew in her magnificent garden. She used to heal infected tonsils with warm oil and give special massages on the neck; I remember her treating me to it as a child.

Zionist forces invaded the city in April 1948. Palestinians say the Haganah fired thousands of missiles on Wadi al-Saleeb in just two days, and rolled explosive barrels from the top of Mount Carmel to the bottom where Palestinians lived. According to Palestinian historian and Haifa expert Johnny Mansour, the Haganah also used the balconies of houses overlooking the valley to shoot at the Palestinian houses below, while shelling the lower city.

An elderly Palestinian man I met in the United States — who was born in Haifa before becoming a refugee in Egypt, Jordan, then the U.S. — was in the city during the invasion. He remembered the attack vividly, describing to me in great detail how he was 5 years old, playing in his family’s yard with his brother, when the bombs started falling around them from the skies. Death and destruction were visible for all to see. All of the city’s exits were closed, and the bodies of slain Palestinians were piling up in the streets. It seems that targeting unarmed civilians in their homes — just as Israeli fighter jets did in Gaza last week — is business as usual for Zionist forces.

My grandparents and their two children were in the line of fire. They had to make the split-second decision to drop everything and leave behind their home, carrying only their two tiny babies as they ran, panic-stricken, to the port, because they had nowhere else to go. I sometimes imagine, with horror, the image of them running under the shelling while carrying their babies, trying to stay alive.

In his book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes that when Zionist leader Golda Meir came to Haifa after its occupation, she was shocked to find that cooked food was still on the tables in Palestinian houses, children’s toys were on the floor, and books were left open on desks. Some Palestinians who remained claimed that members of the Zionist militias ate the abandoned food while it was still hot; that is how fast the expulsion happened.

Zionist forces walk the streets during the Battle of Haifa, April 22,1948. (The Archive of the IDF and the Defense Establishment)
Zionist forces walk the streets during the Battle of Haifa, April 22,1948. (The Archive of the IDF and the Defense Establishment)

What was my grandmother doing when the zero hour of the invasion arrived? Was she watering flowers? Was she preparing a delicious meal? We do not know what time they dropped everything in their lives to escape to safety. What was my grandfather doing? Was he listening to the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, or Mohammed Abdel Wahab? Was he writing one of his remarkable short stories or poems?

What did my two uncles, then a toddler and a baby, feel in those moments? Maybe they were playing or napping. They must have been scared by the sound of the bombs, clueless to what was happening. What made-up story did my grandparents tell them to calm them down? Maybe they said people were playing thief and police, or another of the innocent lies parents tell their children to protect them from shock and trauma. But the events were too catastrophic to conceal, and trauma was inevitable.

And who on earth stepped into their house after they left? How could those invaders walk into someone else’s home, full of intimate memories, and feel fine with violating it and taking it over? Israel eventually settled mostly Arab Jews from North Africa in Wadi al-Saleeb. Were the Jews who took over my grandparents’ home from Morocco or Tunisia? Did they read my grandpa’s creative writings in Arabic? His journals were the dearest to his heart. Did they eat my grandmother’s stored food? Did they mess with her flowers and herbs? She loved her plants as much as she loved her kids.

The stranger’s baby

During the attack on Haifa, my grandparents tried to escape to the village of Tur’an, where my grandfather’s family lived. But the Zionist militias closed off all of Haifa’s entrances, so Palestinians were forced to board ships to escape the bombarded city. Johnny Mansour, the historian, says the ships were rented by the Haganah and waiting at the port to transfer the Palestinians to other countries, “in a clear ethnic cleansing.”

Sharifa and Suleiman got on a ship with their children, alongside hundreds if not thousands of other terrified Palestinians; I cannot imagine how they went on such a journey with kids. Some ships went to Egypt, others to Syria and Lebanon. My grandparents ended up in Sidon, Lebanon’s third-largest city. From there, they went southward to Bint Jbeil, where many Palestinians ended up in dire conditions. My grandfather had to sell his British rifle to buy food and milk for the two children.

Historians, including Benny Morris in his book “Israel’s Borders Wars,” have shown that Israel intentionally did not completely seal its borders between 1948 and 1956 in order to encourage more Palestinians to leave their lands and move to neighboring Arab countries. The flip side of that, of course, is that many also tried to come back in — though not all were successful.

After a short while, a man from Tur’an went to Bint Jbeil to bring back his brother. My grandparents decided to join their return, and smuggled themselves back into what became Israel; their conditions in Lebanon were very bad, and it was not home. They snuck back at night, knowing it was too risky to try in the daytime. On the long road to Tur’an, Israeli border police opened fire at the family, but they managed to escape. My uncles do not remember this, because they were too young. But I keep imagining the terror my grandmother must have felt with her sons under a hail of bullets, risking death.

View of the Haifa port from Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)
View of the Haifa port from Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)

The family walked during the night and rested under olive trees during the day. They did not take the main roads and instead braved the wilderness, despite the roughness of the paths. They ate whatever they could find in the fields and drank from the many springs in the north. It was raining, so they were covered in mud. My grandfather was always a well-dressed man with good taste — he must have been miserable being covered in mud. They found Palestinians along the way willing to provide them with food and shelter, but many others were scared of the consequences of being caught by the Israeli military.

They finally reached Tur’an and settled in a room near the mosque, which people called the “refugees’ room.” The village’s mukhtar asked them to keep a low profile because the Israeli authorities were looking for unregistered Palestinians to deport.

One day, the Israeli police came looking for them. My family hid inside the local church, along with the man who had returned with them from Lebanon. When the police came to arrest them, the church’s priest, Father Kamil, stood up to the officers. The policemen told him to keep the Christians and hand over the Muslims, but he refused and insisted that no one was leaving the church. He even challenged them to take the Christians and leave the Muslims, in a brave gesture showing that he cared for all Palestinians regardless of their religion.

Not long afterward, in July 1948, Zionist militias carried out Operation Dekel, in which most of the Lower Galilee was occupied. Fearing death amid the assault, around 1,300 residents of Tur’an escaped to the mountain slope, including my grandparents carrying their two kids. While leaving the house, Sharifa heard a baby crying. She stopped and looked around, confused, before noticing an infant girl wrapped in white cloth left on the side of the road. Despite my grandfather’s protests, my grandmother insisted on taking the child. Still holding her own child, she tied the ends of her dress to her belt, put the abandoned baby in it, and kept running toward the mountain slope. My grandmother even breastfed the baby to soothe her.

When she arrived at the spot where people were sheltering, my grandmother asked around to see who had left their baby behind. Suddenly, a woman started wailing and kissing Sharifa’s hands and feet; her husband had forced her to leave the baby girl behind, because they had seven other kids to haul down the mountain and feared they would not be able to escape the explosions in time. The mother would become a close friend of my grandmother, and remained grateful to her for the rest of her life. The child became like a daughter to Sharifa. The family bond remains unbreakable to this day.

My grandparents remained in Tur’an without Israeli ID cards because they were not in the country when Israel began recording its population registry. When Palestinian politician Emile Habibi visited Tur’an during his campaign for the Knesset, people encouraged my grandfather to ask him for help in attaining IDs. Habibi himself went with Suleiman to convince the Israelis to give my grandparents citizenship. The authorities gave the family ID cards but not passports, making them residents but not citizens.

Israeli ID card of Sharifa, maternal grandmother of +972 editor Vera Sajrawi. (Courtesy)
Israeli ID card of Sharifa, maternal grandmother of +972 editor Vera Sajrawi. (Courtesy)

The Israeli authorities later investigated my grandfather about his British rifle. He told the truth: “I sold it in Lebanon to feed my family.” “Go get it,” they told him, in an attempt to send him back to Lebanon. My grandfather ignored them and remained without a passport.

One day you are native to the land, and in the blink of an eye, a colonizer categorizes you as a stranger. But you know the land, and the land knows you.

Love and fear of the sea

My grandparents dealt with the painful aftermath of the Nakba by pushing the memory away and living in denial. They did not discuss it with their children or grandchildren — but we all overheard them talking about it with others of their generation. I still remember myself as a kid, playing around my grandmother and her friends, as they told each other stories and cried together. I couldn’t understand what was happening, but the energy of their sadness made me terrified of this monstrous event of which they spoke.

Sharifa — like many who experienced massacres, displacement, and dehumanization in 1948 — did not bring up much about her past, and when she did, she only mentioned good memories. She rarely spoke of the Nakba, and never to me. Initially, I thought that avoidance was because I was young and she wanted to protect me. This was the case with my parents, who chose to shelter me from the horrific details of the Nakba so as not to traumatize me as a child. But the legacy of those events traumatizes me and my generation every day — even when we don’t speak of it.

I was 15 years old when my grandmother died. She made sure in her lifetime to talk to me about how incredible it was to fall in love, but not to allow any man to disrespect me, and the importance of women being educated in order to gain independence. She was a natural feminist without knowing what feminism was. But the Nakba remained a permanent absence in our many conversations. When I interviewed my mother and uncle for this story, they, too, said that my grandparents rarely spoke of the details of what happened to them in 1948. It was only later that I understood this silence to be a classic response to trauma — shutting down and shoving dark memories away because it is too painful to mention. 

As I grew older, and my consciousness as a Palestinian developed further, I began to painstakingly piece together whatever fragments of stories I could find about my grandparents. My main sources were Sharifa’s sons and daughters, eight in total, all of whom overheard her tell her Nakba stories to other women when they visited her. It was only in my 20s that I learned that my grandparents lived in Haifa, and even more recently that I learned they were in Wadi al-Saleeb.

Then, most startlingly of all, I found out that my grandparents did not escape Palestine on foot, but were expelled from Haifa through the Mediterranean Sea by ship. That discovery felt like an epiphany, a moment of clarity about my own personal identity. It was as if it explained my love-hate relationship with the sea; why I was passionate about working with Syrian refugees who escaped to Greece by sea; the subtle terror I feel whenever I step onto a ship; and my inability to swim, despite taking numerous courses from childhood till now. I know now that I adore the sea because it saved my grandparents from death, but I also despise it for being the medium that sent them away from their home and beloved city.

View of the Haifa port from Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)
View of the Haifa port from Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)

Along with speaking to my family members, I had to do extensive research to figure out which street my grandparents lived on in Wadi al-Saleeb before the Nakba, and which house my grandmother grew up in before she got married. To my surprise, I discovered they resided right on the street — today called Shivat Tzion, once called Stanton Street under the British Mandate — where there still stands a beautiful house that I had always fantasized about my grandmother living in.

I was not able to go inside because it was sealed off, but one can see that it has high ceilings, long arched windows, and decorative marble columns. I often imagine Sharifa sitting by the window, looking at the sea, listening to classical Arabic music. I told Maria, in a sarcastic and sad tone, that in my head I chose one of the fanciest houses in Haifa to be my grandmother’s home. “Well, they took everything from us,” Maria replied nonchalantly, “but we are still allowed to dream.”

Today, I regularly spend time on the street my grandparents lived on together, taking pottery classes at Rania’s Studio, the only Palestinian pottery spot in town, and attending plays, films, musicals, and art shows at Khashabi Theater, the only independent Palestinian theater in the city today. But between the joy of remaining on this land, and the pride of a newly thriving Palestinian community in Haifa with all our diversity and beauty, my heart still aches every time I remember that my grandparents were forced to flee this neighborhood under fire, along with thousands of other Palestinians scrambling onto ships, with Zionist forces killing people as they tried to escape. The moment they were taken to sea, their identities changed forever from Palestinians with secure lives in their home, to refugees who lost everything.

No more tapping out

My grandparents’ return to their homeland after their escape from Haifa was not a “happily ever after.” Yes, they were happy to be alive, but staying alive stripped of your identity and dignity is not enough to thrive. It brought with it lifelong heartache, PTSD, and heavy silences despite the warm smiles on my grandparents’ faces, and passed down generational trauma to all their descendants.

Nearly 20 years after the Nakba, my grandparents finally became citizens in the country that had usurped their homeland. They continued their lives in this new reality, and refrained from talking much about what came before. My grandfather became a manager at the YMCA in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, where I spent almost every weekend of my childhood. My grandmother, once a city girl, learned and mastered how to live in the agricultural village of Tur’an. She farmed the land, stored produce, baked bread, cooked, and carried out endless chores single-handedly. She raised eight kids and helped my grandfather at work. Both became almost fluent in Hebrew and English and managed to communicate well in other languages they picked up from interacting with foreign guests at the YMCA.

My grandmother had the most beautiful garden, with unique flowers, vegetables, and fruits; brides and grooms would often visit it on their wedding day for a photoshoot. She was a self-taught herbalist who treated people using traditional Arabic medicine, becoming as respected as the village doctors. She was also a tailor, the best in the village, even tailoring wedding dresses. She was a phenomenal cook who introduced the village to the cuisines of Haifa and Gaza. I still imagine her running around trying to feed her kids and grandkids, as they mocked her city accent compared to their local village accent.

+972 editor Vera Sajrawi in Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)
+972 editor Vera Sajrawi in Wadi al-Saleeb, Haifa, February 14, 2023. (Maria Zreiq)

Sharifa was a magical creature: ever pleasant, life-smart, so compassionate and caring. She became a central parenting figure after my biological mother, her daughter Moneera, was severely injured in a car accident that left her bedridden when I was only 40 days old. I consider myself lucky and forever grateful that I was cared for by a powerhouse like her. I was fascinated by the uniqueness of her life, and her personality blew me away even before I could understand why. When I grew older and understood the complexities of human life, as well as the atrocities she faced since 1948, I was even more mesmerized by the way she chose to persevere in this world.

I kept visiting my grandmother daily until she started dying. I couldn’t see her bedridden — that was not the last image I wanted of her. She was the soul of the house, buzzing like a bee, cooking several meals at once, and that is how I wanted to remember her.

I was 15 the last time I saw her, with her dead body laid on a table while other women in the family washed her in preparation for burial. I remember my mother braiding her hair as she lay motionless. I became very depressed after she died; I felt like a part of me had died, too. The same was clearly felt by my grandfather, who died a month later.

Brené Brown writes that “tapping out” of telling our own stories — which can give us a sense of betraying ourselves — stems from a belief that our stories don’t matter, or a lack of confidence and self-belief as to if, when, and where to share them. “The only way to the other side of the struggle is through it,” she writes.

I’m done tapping out, and with that decision came these words that you are reading. I will not allow the Israeli narrative to erase our history. We will not heal from what happened to our ancestors during the Nakba, nor reach the other side of the struggle, unless we go through it by retelling it, remembering it, and — most importantly — redressing it.