Olfat Mahmoud: 'I always knew I wanted to help my people'

Olfat Mahmoud.

Today, Tarshiha is promoted on AirBnB as Ma’alot-Tarshiha in the Galilee region of Israel and, depending on your budget, you can book somewhere chic and stylish to take in the stunning views or a more humble, village style experience. Seventy years ago though, Tarshiha was a village in Palestine.

On November 1, 1948, the Israeli army’s Sheva brigade carried out Operation Dekel. Tarshiha was all but emptied of its Palestinian residents so it could become an Israeli town. I recently spoke to a refugee from Tarshiha, whose book about her life, work and the ongoing impact of being a stateless refugee is a must read.

Olfat Mahmoud’s family were among those who had to flee for their lives in 1948. They are among the millions of Palestinian refugees who are unable to return home.

Mahmoud’s family are among the many Palestinians who settled in Burj Al Barajneh camp in Beirut, Lebanon. She has just toured Australia to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinian refugees and to talk about her book Tears For Tarshiha, published last month.

Nursing in a war zone

Mahmoud trained as a nurse and spent decades treating the victims of war. As civil war raged in Lebanon and Israeli invasions threatened Palestinian lives in the refugee camps, she had to make do with few resources to treat injuries.

As a triage nurse, she was responsible for rationing what little care and equipment was available. She tells me that in 1985, with her colleagues, she had to scrounge for salt and water to boil so that at least they had saline with which to clean wounds.

It is confronting to hear her speak about her grief and frustration at having to leave people that she knew would die in a bare “dead room”. But out of her work as a nurse grew her determination to help her people. And while Mahmoud has genuinely enjoyed a career as a nurse, she is also frustrated at what working in war zones means for nurses.

The safety Mahmoud and her family enjoy in Burj Al Barajneh has always been relative. It is contingent on factors they have no control over.

The Mahmouds have been witnesses to permanent war — first as refugees from their homeland as Israeli soldiers carried out violent evictions of Palestinian residents in village after village, and later as conflict broke out in Lebanon. As a child, Mahmoud witnessed the deaths of two school friends. She says this was a major influence on her decisions to do what she could for people and to work in the health sector.

Mahmoud has been visiting Australia since the 1980s. She first came to do further study in community health at the urging of Helen McCue, who helped health care projects in the Burj Al Barajneh camp run by Union Aid Abroad/APHEDA. One of APHEDA’s very first projects was a women’s health and childcare initiative in Burj Al Barajneh.

It has been in Australia that Mahmoud has honed her formidable skills as an advocate for Palestinian refugees. Her very first press conference was in Australia and she recalls a journalist asked if she would accept blood donations from Israel.

In her book, Mahmoud explains: “I said, ‘if they offered us blood I would ask them to stop the bombing so that we wouldn’t need to spill so much blood in the first place’. The other journalists clapped at my response and a surge of pride pulsed through me like a shot of adrenalin.

“This was my first press conference and I felt I’d represented my people well.”

Peace needs justice

Mahmoud signs copies of her book with the words “peace and justice”. When I spoke with her, she emphasised that you can’t have one without the other.

The phrase is significant for Mahmoud, whose family are among the Palestinians referred to as “1948 refugees” — those directly affected by the mass expulsions that accompanied Israel’s founding — as distinct from “1967 refugees”, who were uprooted when Israel occupied the remaining Palestinian territories.

When I asked her about the impact of the much-criticised Oslo Accords of the 1990s, she said that it aimed at “peace without justice”, which “is not peace … The Oslo Accords is only a sort of peace agreement but no justice. We (the 1948 refugees) are the majority. The Oslo Accords deal with only ’67 refugees. We are ignored, forgotten completely. We are victims of war and victims of peace at the same time.”

On the right of return, Mahmoud is steadfast in her belief that Palestinians will one day be able to go home, but also — like many Palestinians — is wary of United Nations resolutions that Israel continues to ignore.

She says: “We still have the documents that show we own lands there. They can’t say you can’t go back. We have the right to return. It's a right that was guaranteed by UN Resolution 194 and it should be implemented.

“We don’t trust UN resolutions because since 1949, it is not implemented. We believe that we have the right. We believe in that. And we have the stories of our grandparents, we live with them. No one can say we have no right.”

Palestinian refugees understand what it is like to have to be grateful for any assistance received — however inadequate. The pressure to be a “good” refugee is something that Mahmoud feels very keenly, and while she speaks with grace and tact about UN Relief Works Agency and NGO visits to the camp, her resentment is as clear as it is understandable.

Palestinian families are hurt by visitors’ surprise that camp residents are so clean and children so well cared for. They are also hurt by the twin assumptions that if you present well, you can’t really be suffering as a refugee (or are perhaps not really a refugee at all) but also that if you are grubby and subsisting in a hovel, you are a bad person and a worse parent.

Recommended

Tears For Tarshiha is highly recommended for anyone concerned about what war does to people, especially for anyone wanting to learn more about what it means to be Palestinian. This is not plucky-survivor-against-the-odds “inspiration porn”. It documents the harsh realities of life as a Palestinian refugee.

Mahmoud documents what a heavy toll refugees living and working in war zones and make shift camps pay. It is a mistake to criticise refugees, particularly Palestinians, for getting “political”, as it is the political actions that create refugees.

Mahmoud emphasises that simply being born Palestinian is political.

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