By Martin Love

Ali Salameh: His life changing opportunity 46 years ago

December 25, 2017

He came from a most depressed place at age 18 and made a good life for himself in the U.S. and has been able to help his family in Gaza enormously for decades as a result. He is among the fortunate few Palestinians.

‘Ali Salameh, is now 65, and one of several children of Miryam and Yusuf, Palestinians made refugees in 1948 during the Nakba by Zionist terrorists when they were driven from their village, Iraq es-Suweidan, in Palestine, to Gaza. His parents wound up at Jebalya Refugee Camp, the largest refugee camp in Gaza, where ‘Ali was born.

It all happened for ‘Ali because a journalist in North Carolina happened to write an article about the Middle East in a newspaper in 1970 after a summer with visits to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. An elderly man of 80, one Emmett White, who once had headed the International Red Cross and was well traveled and based in Baltimore, Maryland, was visiting his sister in North Carolina and happened to read the newspaper article and wanted to meet the young reporter over lunch. He imagined they had something in common, as both were disturbed about the ongoing treatment of Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian.

White had a book with him: “The Unholy Land” written by a Canadian Christian minister named A.C. Forrest. In this book in the preface, Forrest wrote about an unnamed teenager who “had no future” and worked with his father, the manager, in a citrus grove in Gaza, a walled grove (“bayyara” in Arabic) owned then by the Near East Council of Churches. So this young journalist and Emmett White, over lunch, hatched a plan. Why not find out who this unnamed youth was and sponsor him to come to the U.S. and attend college and live? It was a fine idea and a year later, in 1971, ‘Ali appeared at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. He had never been outside the Gaza Strip before.

It was a sudden, dramatic change of venue for a teenager like few others ever will or can experience, especially coming from Gaza.

‘Ali soon was in Greensboro, North Carolina, a modest city at the time of some 150,000 people, and not long after that he was studying at a local community college and had a job, too, for a construction company. He was assisted by the young journalist’s family in Greensboro, and though he lived alone initially, he adapted quickly and he was often at the journalist’s mother’s home for a meal or just company. A few years later, he married a pretty American girl and they settled down to raise a family. They now have two adult sons, both in their 30s. ‘Ali owns a few convenience/grocery stores now and has been a modestly successful businessman. His wife also ran a restaurant for many years, but of late she has been working as a wildly popular and beloved, elected public servant in Greensboro.

‘Ali has developed over the years many American friends, of all races. As a Palestinian Arab and Muslim, he straddles the social worlds of African Americans and whites, and is a beloved friend to both races. He helped found a mosque with other Arab and Muslim friends in Greensboro, too, and attends Friday prayers there regularly. Muslims in Greensboro, and there are a few hundred from various countries in the Middle East, are a tight knit community.

For the American journalist who helped him come to the U.S., there has long been the pleasure of a deep and abiding friendship. But more importantly, ‘Ali and spouse and their two children have visited Gaza and ‘Ali’s parents and siblings from time to time. And ‘Ali has contributed to his family’s welfare with moral and financial support. He built his family members in Gaza a home near the center of Jabalya Refugee Camp where his mother still lives at age 96. Yusuf, his father, passed away a decade ago.

The young journalist, now a much older man, also made two trips to Gaza because of his friendship with ‘Ali. The first in 1975 and the last in 1994. (Back then one could take a taxi to al-Quds from Gaza on occasion for Friday prayers at the Haram esh-Sherif, but no longer and not for many years.)

He will never forget walking to the “bayyara” as a young man in 1975 with Yusuf and there sitting, as if in the Islamic “janna”, in winter sunshine and sampling all sorts of citrus until the sweet juices ran down his neck under his shirt. It was a taste of heaven, the best citrus, and the hospitality and warmth of the poor refugees in Gaza remain one of his fondest memories.

‘Ali today does not know what’s going to happen in and to Gaza, but he is fearful for the safety of all the people imprisoned there by the Israeli military, and under frequent bombardment by Israeli warplanes and the IDF. It is a bizarre situation for a Palestinian to be living in relative safety and comfort in a country, the U.S., whose economic and military support underwrites crimes against Palestinians.

Perhaps the sole relief, so far, is that Palestinians know that a great majority of the world’s people empathize with their plight and condemn Israeli actions and postures. (Just this month a huge majority of United Nations member countries condemned the U.S. president, Trump, and his plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to al-Quds, even as Trump and his Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, threatened to withdraw financial aid to countries opposed to the plan.)

‘Ali understands that violent opposition to Israel occupation by Palestinians, as in the past, could be met by even greater violence by the fourth most powerful military power on earth. “Every time that occurs,” ‘Ali says, “observers around the world wake up more to what we as a people are dealing with.”

He is hopeful, and believes that the non-violent “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) program under the leadership of Palestinian Omar Barghouthi and others, including even some notably courageous Jewish intellectuals, writers, and academics who live outside Occupied Palestine or Israel, by choice, is currently the best tool to force change and further discredit the Zionist regime. (This kind of action eventually led to the end of Apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s freedom from decades of imprisonment there, and interestingly, it was the U.S. that long supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa and even claimed that Mandela was a “terrorist” until he was freed.)

In general, most Palestinians and also Muslims in the U.S. like ‘Ali know that they may suffer if they speak out in support of Palestinian rights, or against the Zionist regime, even if they are fairly well integrated in to U.S. society. It isn’t that Americans don’t empathize with the Palestinians under occupation, if they know anything about conditions in places like Gaza and the West Bank.

One serious problem is that too many Americans don’t know anything much about the Middle East, and part of the reason for this is that the mainstream U.S. media parrots misconceptions and propaganda pushed by the government inasmuch as it support the Zionists and disallows full reporting about the Palestinian suffering.

America may be a “powerful” country, but relative to most citizens of other countries, U.S. citizens still are not well educated about other cultures and countries, especially in the Middle East. Geography plays a role in this lack of knowledge, too.

But “nothing lasts forever,” ‘Ali correctly says, especially when it involves gross injustice.

As the famous Black leader Dr. Martin Luther King said decades ago before he was gunned down in 1968 in his long battle against racial segregation in the U.S.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

One must not forget that the struggle for justice in history in many countries and societies has often taken far longer and been frustrated far longer than ever desirable. Racial equality in the U.S. remains quite incomplete, despite the changes leaders like Martin Luther King advocated and at least partially succeeded in gaining.

The main character’s name ‘Ali Salameh has been changed in the story to protect his identity.