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Stories of housing rights activism unite struggles in Palestine and Chicago

Stories of housing rights activism unite struggles in Palestine and Chicago

Published: January 25, 2013

In Chicago as in Palestine, people are forced from their homes. Foreclosures, borders, and bureaucracies enforce their displacement, leaving their families homeless or kicked out of their homeland.

The effects of displacement go beyond the physical realities, affecting people’s sense of security and belonging. It’s a deep feeling of isolation.

Perhaps that’s why resistance movements are so strong in both Chicago and Palestine, which both have active struggles for housing rights.

In the sub-zero-degree temperatures of a bleak Chicago winter, dozens came out to hear the powerful stories of people who have personally experienced displacement and responded by occupying vacant homes and rebuilding after demolition.

“A Home Denied: Struggling against Displacement from Chicago to Palestine” was held by the Chicago Movement for Palestinian Rights and Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction as part of their efforts to learn from each other’s movements and gain strength in their common struggles for justice and liberation. The event drew 17 co-sponsoring groups, including the American Friends Service Committee.

That evening, Maria Dolores described her Chicago family’s experience of foreclosure after refinancing their mortgage, including the trials of navigating the U.S. court system. She shared her struggle to maintain a sense of security for her grandchildren who continually express their fears of being kicked out of their home.

“I teach my kids to be honest, study hard, and respect people,” Maria said. “But it is hard for me and for them to live with the threat of losing our home.” 

Jenine Mustafa,* born a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, related to Maria’s experience of uncertainty about where she and her family would live, and said that often, as a Palestinian, she feels unsure about what is considered “home.”

While millions of Palestinian refugees often still possess the keys and deeds to their original homes, Jenine said for her, “I always have a feeling of not belonging.”

Her 2011 trip to Palestine made her the first person in her family to return to Palestine in the 64 years since their original displacement. She had to travel on a tourist visa.

“Upon my arrival I was interrogated by Israeli authorities for eight hours and asked silly questions about whether I knew Rachel Corrie [an American activist killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003].”

Jenine’s experience echoed that of Yousef Mohammed,* a Palestinian-American. Yousef’s father came to the U.S. from Palestine to study pharmacology, but lost his Palestinian residency rights and identity card because he could not afford airfare to fly back to Jerusalem every year to renew his permit, as required by the Israeli authorities.

When he was 16 years old, Yousef saved all his money from working in a Chicago sub shop to pay for a ticket to visit his homeland, but he was denied entry at the Tel Aviv airport and returned directly to the U.S.

He suffered further humiliation when the U.S. police detained him in Chicago; they were suspicious about why he left the country with one suitcase and returned with 20 boxes.  “Apparently the Israeli authorities took everything out of my suitcase and put it into individual boxes for the return flight,” Yousef said.

Visa hassles and entry experiences like his, Yousef said, are attempts to dissuade Palestinians from returning to their homes, even to visit family and friends who live there.

Sabrina Morey told about standing up to unfair housing regulations and eviction notices in her Chicago neighborhood, testifying to her belief that housing is a human right. She became a housing activist after experiencing eviction and homelessness herself. She currently lives with her children in a foreclosed house and said, “I will continue to occupy that house because I cannot afford not to.”

Jenine and Yousef echoed this steadfast sentiment expressed by the housing rights activists.

“For us too, existence is resistance,” said Jenine. “People deny my existence as a Palestinian, but we know where we come from.” Jenine encouraged people to “see for yourself, visit Palestine, and then you will know our struggle.”

In response to the panelists’ stories and photos exhibited (visualizing the connections between people struggling against home displacement in Chicago and Palestine) audience members left encouraging words on post-it notes and social media.

“We need to do a whole lot more drawing connections between struggles across the globe,” said one. “Thanks for putting this together.”

*Names were changed at their request