Updated May 15, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Palestinian Americans saving "keys" as Nakba symbols of loss

A framed picture of a woman holding a key, symbolizing the houses which Palestinians left as part of the Nakba, is displayed at the Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington, D.C. on June 27, 2019.

A framed picture of a woman holding a key, symbolizing the houses which Palestinians left as part of the Nakba, is displayed at the Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington, D.C. in June 2019. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Keys to homes connected to the mass displacement of Palestinians known as the Nakba, or "catastrophe," during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war are gaining more awareness as the war in Gaza and ongoing college protests continue.

The big picture: Palestinian Americans passed down the keys to their descendants in hopes of one day returning, and the last generation of Palestinians linked to the event is aging.

Why it matters: Wednesday is the 76th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, and it's being recognized more in recent years after Palestinian Americans for decades honored it in silence.

State of play: Signs with pictures of keys have been seen at recent college demonstrations, and stories about the keys have been shared at teach-ins.

The intrigue: The UN held its first-ever ceremony commemorating the Nakba last year despite objections from the Israeli government.

  • The Israeli government launched a weeks-long international diplomatic campaign to try and convince countries not to attend the event at a UN headquarters conference room.
  • The U.S. and around three dozen other countries did not attend the ceremony.

Zoom in: Leila Girles, 84, who's based outside of Los Angeles, tells Axios that for years, she and her family quietly acknowledged the Nakba every May 15. But now, more non-Palestinians ask her about it.

  • "It warms my heart because no matter how much I used to talk about it, nobody would believe me."
  • Girles was eight years old when her family was forced from Ayn Karim, a Palestinian village outside of Jerusalem. She now lives outside of Los Angeles and has the key to her family's former home framed on her wall.
  • Dawud Assad, 92, based in New Jersey, is another survivor who often shares his story and is being sought out for interviews. His grandniece Jenan Matari is a social media influencer who helps talk about the family.

Yes, but: Girles and Assad are part of the last generation of Nakba survivors who were children at the time.

  • Farah Al-Masri, 22, lost her grandmother, a Nakba survivor, eight years ago and remembers seeing a replica key on her grandmother's wall.
  • "She said it represents home. I know we will return in my lifetime," the Sacramento, California, college student tells Axios.

Zoom out: Christina Zafira, 36, tells Axios that she, like many other Palestinian Americans, didn't even know they were Palestinians until they started asking questions and went to college.

  • Later in life, Zafira, who's based in southern California, discovered that her grandmother's sister had a key to a family home lost in the Nakba.
  • "I feel like a lot of times, for Palestinians in the diaspora, we really romanticize the key. We held on to our keys because we were thinking we were going to go back soon...not passing this onto the next generation."

Between the lines: The Nakba was one of many events that led to Israel's founding in 1948.

  • The forced displacement and the refugee crisis it created continue to be one of the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
  • The "Right of Return" has stalled many potential peace deals over the decades.

Further reading: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra debuts "hope" video with global contributions

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect Jenan Matari is Dawud Assad's grandniece, not granddaughter.

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