The Palestinian Diaspora: Navigating Survivor’s Guilt

Personal Essay

The Palestinian Diaspora: Navigating Survivor’s Guilt

Having spent a significant part of my youth in the West, far from my family’s roots in Yaffa and Nablus, has profoundly shaped my perspective as a Palestinian in diaspora. From the lively streets of Beirut to the buzzing urban landscape of New York City, my experiences echo the tale of displacement that resonates through generations, as my grandparents were expelled from their homes, scattering family members across the world – from Lebanon to Jordan to Kuwait to Canada to the US. 

The threads of our family story crisscross continents. Their stories, etched with pain and loss, became the backdrop of my upbringing.

Living in a world where I never felt quite at home, I always sensed a longing for a place that was intangible, one I couldn’t quite touch or even see. Growing up as a third culture kid, straddling the line between East and West, finding belonging became a daily challenge.

In the diaspora, the struggle is deeply personal — from learning Arabic to the sense of isolation upon my return to the Middle East – Jordan for the first time as a teen, each day felt like a battle. While living abroad, persistent scrutiny and unwarranted questions are constant; assumptions that I should be covered just because I’m Arab, that I’m not allowed to have male friends, or that I rode a camel back home add an almost comical complexity to my journey that is all too familiar to other people like me. This is only compounded by the common misconception that going back to my home country is a simple choice, adding to the frustration of dealing with this whole experience. 

 

The threads of our family story crisscross continents. Their stories, etched with pain and loss, became the backdrop of my upbringing.

Meanwhile, in the region, judgments are formed before truly getting to know me. I faced criticism simply because I couldn’t speak Arabic, had male friends, dated, and sported green and blue hair, all of which clashed with conservative norms and traditional gender roles that did not match with my upbringing – let alone that I was facing a society that is way less private than what I’m used to. This is the story of a Palestinian navigating the delicate balance, too Eastern for the West and too Western for the East, battling every day to find somewhere to belong.

These are challenges that many of us share growing up away from our homeland. But for Palestinians, these hurdles take on countless extra layers, especially when our homes are being bombarded—a stark reminder of the human impact in the middle of our personal journeys.

It’s funny how we have access to anything with a screen, and yet when it comes to our homeland, it feels like there’s an endless amount of space separating us from it. As I sit on my couch watching all the atrocities from far away, I feel helpless and consumed by guilt. The distance magnifies the sense of powerlessness, creating a unique kind of isolation that only a diaspora experience can truly capture.

In the last two months, the weight of our responsibility has grown even heavier. It feels like an uphill battle most days, carrying the duty to educate the world and remind them that we, too, are human beings. The burden of our narrative takes on greater significance in the current context, where the struggle for peace and basic human rights remains an urgent and timely endeavor. It goes beyond just the fight of the Palestinians; it’s a shared responsibility to bring awareness to our collective pursuit of a just and equitable world.

And within this story is a recurring theme: the relentless struggle against survivor’s guilt. Over the past months, it’s been tough. It’s like this heavy feeling in my chest and a knot in my stomach, making me doubt and fear things — a constant companion that whispers doubts and fears into the recesses of my mind. The persistent questioning around the things I have, the opportunities I’ve been given, and the safety I currently enjoy, while knowing that others, due to circumstances beyond their control, may not share in these privileges.

To cope, I’ve tried taking moments to meditate to find some peace, taking breaks for my mental health, and talking with friends is like a lifeline. Plus, supporting Palestinian businesses and joining peaceful protests — it’s not just about actions, they’re like anchors keeping me steady in the storm of this continual struggle of survivor’s guilt. We’re all feeling it, each in our own way, and these things help me not just on the outside but inside.

We have access to anything with a screen, and yet when it comes to our homeland, it feels like there's an endless amount of space separating us from it.

We must constantly remind ourselves that we have a role to play. We have to be strong, not just for our own wellbeing but for those who continue to suffer back in our own land. Our ancestors, who clung to the dream of returning home to a free land, inspire us. Their hope lives on in our hearts, a reminder that we must be more than just carriers of guilt. This is the story of a Palestinian in diaspora, coming to terms with the idea that they can’t let this burden swallow them.

But then there’s hope. Activism does bring results. It’s a powerful feeling to witness solidarity with Palestine swell around the world. The realization that the world isn’t indifferent to our struggle is deeply moving. People from all around, some not even Palestinians themselves, stand up for justice and equality, and it’s a source of inspiration that fuels my determination to keep advocating for a better future.

Survivor’s guilt is difficult to cope with, but we shouldn’t forget the importance of maintaining our mental health: A strong mind is important to keep pushing forward and to be there for our people and our country.

At the end of the day, this is actually a shared story. This is the story of a Palestinian in diaspora named Afrah who knows we are not alone. It’s a collective narrative of pain, growth, and empowerment. Our journey might have begun with individual experiences but has become a shared struggle. It’s a story that should make you feel the pain and the tears, but it should also empower you to face your own survivor’s guilt and transform it into strength and hope for a more just future.

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