Palestinians in Central America: From Temporary Emigrants to a Permanent Diaspora

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VOL. 40

2010/11

No. 3
P. 6
Articles
Palestinians in Central America: From Temporary Emigrants to a Permanent Diaspora
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Palestinians in Central America   From Temporary Emigrants to a Permanent Diaspora

 

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By Manzar Foroohar
This survey of the understudied topic of the Palestinian diaspora in Central America, based on existing documentation and interviews, focuses mainly on Honduras and El Salvador, the areas of greatest Palestinian concentration. Two waves of immigration are studied: the first and largest, in the early decades of the 20th century, was mainly Christian from the Bethlehem area in search of economic opportunities and intending to return; the second, especially after 1967, came as a permanent diaspora. The article describes the arrival from Palestine, the factors behind their considerable success, the backlash of discrimination, and finally assimilation. Palestinian involvement in Central American politics ( Right and the Left) is also addressed. The article ends with a discussion of identity issues and renewal of ties with Palestine.

SINCE THE EARLY YEARS of the twentieth century, Palestinian immigrants to Central America have played a major role in the social, cultural, and economic development of their host countries. In some places, such as Honduras, they have been at the very forefront of commercial and industrial development. But while the history of Palestinian immigration to the United States, Mexico, and South America has been the subject of major scholarly investigations, Palestinians remain almost invisible in Central American historiography. Indeed, this is a research field that is just opening.

This article is an attempt to compile existing documentation on the Palestinian international diaspora in Central America. The material is supplemented by nearly two dozen interviews, in Central America and in Palestine, with immigrants or their descendants, or with persons “back home” familiar with the emigration. It focuses on the history of the formation of Palestinian communities in Central America and their social, economic, and political contributions to their adopted countries. While Palestinian communities throughout Central America will be discussed, particular attention will be paid to Honduras and El Salvador, the countries with the largest concentrations of Palestinians in the region. The research and the interviews together shed light on the degree to which Palestinian diaspora communities have been assimilated into their host countries, and the degree to which they have simultaneously retained their identity and ties to their Palestinian origins.


THE EARLY IMMIGRANTS

Palestinian immigration to Central America began at the end of the nineteenth century. Because Palestine, like most of the Arab Middle East, was under Ottoman rule until 1918, it is difficult before that date to document their numbers accurately, since the immigrants carried Ottoman (Turkish) passports and therefore were categorized in the Central American registries as Turks (turcos). Though some documentation of the Palestinian component of Arab immigration exists for Honduras, where Palestinians are shown to constitute the overwhelming majority, no such information is available for the other states of the region.

Palestinian immigration in the early period swelled as of the second decade of the twentieth century and peaked in the 1920s. It is not difficult to understand why. Most historians of the Middle East point to the general economic decline of the Ottoman Empire and the ongoing wars as the main reasons for emigration during the early period. The new Ottoman conscription law of 1908 intensified emigration among young male citizens of the Empire, and indeed the early immigrants to Central America were generally young males, 15 to 30 years old. Moreover, the Ottoman lands, including Palestine, suffered excruciating hardship and even starvation during World War I. Thus, in interviews with descendants of early immigrants, the two factors repeatedly highlighted as the causes of emigration from Palestine were miserable economic conditions in wartime and the military draft obligations.

Most of the emigrants initially intended to return home after accumulating savings and for that reason did not invest in real estate in their host countries. After the end of the war and the restoration of stability following Palestine’s occupation by Britain (and the establishment of the Mandate), economic and educational opportunities in the homeland increased. According to some scholars, between a third and a half of the early emigrants did return home and invested their savings in land and homes. Meanwhile, the returning emigrants served as sources of information about economic opportunities in the Americas, and their wealth and prosperity spurred others, especially young men, to try their luck in foreign adventures.

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MANZAR FOROOHAR is a professor of history at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.