What My Refugee Grandmother Left Behind
November 15, 2022
In my mind, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, is like summer—confident, strong, determined, and calm. Her name was Najibeh, a name that suited her perfectly as she truly embodied generosity, nobility, and integrity.
My grandma was born in a village in the Upper Galilee region in Palestine in the early 1920s. During that time, Palestine had a population of around one million, half of whom were male and female farmers. Najibeh was one of those farmers, living in a village and sustaining herself from the land. She got married at 19, which was considered quite late for women at the time, as they would typically marry at the age of 14. She believed that this slight delay allowed her to become more deeply rooted in her identity as a woman—confident, strong, determined, and calm.
In 1948, when Israeli occupation forces forcibly displaced Palestinian men and women from their homes, my grandmother and her three children embarked on a three-day-long journey to seek refuge in the south of Lebanon. They spent two years living in tents until they were eventually relocated to the Gouraud barracks in Bekaa, eastern Lebanon. Did my grandmother know who Henri Joseph Eugène Gouraud was—the French general after whom the barracks were named—who had imposed the French partition plan on the Levant?
She resided there until the early 1960s when she moved into a small room that she and my grandfather had built within the barracks. She was luckier than most of her fellow countrymen and women, who lived in hangars within the barracks, with only blankets and sheets hanging from ceilings, separating one family from another. It was in those barracks that my mother was born.
She used to tell me that the most challenging aspect of those times was waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. The shared bathrooms were a kilometer away from her room, which was quite inconvenient. My grandparents were not happy about that, so my grandmother set aside a bucket in the room for their nightly use.
In the early 1960s, the family relocated to the Rashidieh refugee camp on the Mediterranean coast, around five kilometers south of Tyre. The camp was divided into two sections; the old part, constructed by the French government in 1936 to accommodate Armenian refugees in Lebanon, and the new part, built by UNRWA in 1963 to house the newly arrived Palestinian refugees. In the new section, my grandmother got an 80 m2 of space that became her home for the remainder of her life.
Najibeh gave birth to nine children but tragically lost two of them. The first to pass away was my mother’s twin brother, Ali. I once asked my grandmother about the circumstances surrounding his death, and she told me he had choked on her breastmilk when he was a year old. Despite rushing him to the clinic, she knew in her heart that she was carrying her lifeless child. This occurred in 1955.
Ten years later, she experienced heartbreak once again when she lost her five-year-old daughter, Inayah. Inayah had accidentally fallen into a large pot of boiling water that Grandma had been preparing to wash the laundry. Grandma stayed by Inayah’s side at the hospital for several days until the little girl took her final breath, one early morning when the Muslim call to prayer, the Adhan, echoed in the background. Grandma wrapped up her daughter’s small body in a blanket and hastily left the hospital, desperately searching for a taxi.
She wanted to bury her daughter in the small garden within her 80 m2 space, which she had meticulously cared for. Despite her efforts, Inayah ended up being laid to rest in the camp cemetery.
Grandma shared stories with me about the time the camp was besieged in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. The camp was completely cut off, and no one was allowed to enter or leave for six months. Within a short span, the camp ran out of food supplies, and hunger became widespread. Radish soup became a staple dish, and lemon peels became a meal in and of themselves. Grandma told me that had it not been for the gardens surrounding the camp, they would have starved to death.
However, venturing out to pick some oranges or lemons from these gardens was an extremely risky decision as snipers often targeted those making such trips. Many lost their lives in these attempts. The hunger experienced by her grandchildren, specifically my uncle’s daughters, was the most difficult for my grandmother to bear. Every night, she would watch them cry from hunger while their mother stirred a boiling pot filled with rocks, trying to convince them to wait until the “potatoes” were ready, until exhaustion finally led them to sleep.
Najibeh’s other son, who lived in Beirut and worked as an ambulance paramedic, was not spared from the consequences of the civil war. One day, he was captured by the Syrian forces and imprisoned in Syria. At the time, he was married and had three children. For five agonizing months, Najibeh searched for him, unaware of his whereabouts and unsure if he was alive or dead. She went from door to door in her quest to find him, and fortunately, she succeeded. Every couple of months, she would apply for a permit to go visit him and embark on a grueling journey into Syria.
At the end of this arduous journey, she would have to brave a five-kilometer walk on foot to reach him. She would carry with her food, clothes, pictures, and letters for him, as well as bribes for every person she encountered along the way in order to get to see him. For four years, Najibeh made these difficult trips until her son was finally released.
Over time, Grandma’s garden became a haven for the men and women in the camp, a place where you would always find someone having a cup of coffee. They used to say that she had a “green thumb” because her garden was consistently lush and vibrant. She would grow all kinds of plants, and even trees, such as sugar apples, figs, and pine trees. Within her personal 80 m2 space, her garden resembled a piece of heaven, with its bountiful harvest and flowers that resembled precious jewels. Najibeh passed away in January 2012.
This is my grandmother, this is Grandma. I sense her presence in my memories and feel her living on within me. As I recount her story in my own voice, I imagine what she would say. I believe she would offer words of wisdom like this, “Tragedy befalls those with big hearts, for they are the only ones capable of overcoming it. Love with all your heart and let that love shine through even the tiniest and grandest details. A big heart requires strong arms and strong legs to carry it forward, so take each step with intention and determination. Life will test you often, and you will need to teach your big heart and strong legs and arms to surrender to the flow of life at times and let it lead you.
If you lose your way, make the earth and trees your home, and remember that every paradise you create becomes a haven for others as well. But you have to start building it yourself first.” She would have also said, “The only thing we take from this life is our big hearts, so make sure to hold within them only what is most precious and keep your burden light.”
Najibeh is like summer—a gentle breeze that caresses my sun-kissed skin and the warm sun rays that fill my heart. May your soul rest in peace, Grandma.