Living in Australia since 1958, Samira (ST) was born 1942, in Haifa, Palestine to Sadika and Hanna Taweel. From a large family of seven children (four boys, three girls), she grew up with very over protective siblings. Her father Hanna, was a businessman and her mother Sadika, a loving homemaker. The surname Taweel means ‘tall’ and it is thought that its origin derived from a family member long ago who was very tall and used to pick figs off the trees in the ancestral village. Now a grandmother, Samira reminiscences about her bittersweet past filled of her beloved homeland, Palestine.
A Tete – a – Tete with Samira
MOR : What are your memories of Palestine before 1948?
ST : We were a big family and all lived in a cozy apartment in Haifa. In fact, the entire building belonged to the Taweel family, which also housed others including Jewish immigrants. It never bothered us and we lived together as neighbours do. Across from us was the German Colony School, which we attended and down the road was a toy store, that my siblings and I loved to walk over and look at the toys through the window,
It was a happy time, but everything changed for my family in 1947, when my father had a serious accident. One day he went diving in the warm Mediterranean Sea looking for sea urchins (tutia) and severely bumped his head. He suffered internal bleeding becoming very ill. Sadly he died soon after and my mother was left to care for seven children alone. It was very difficult and she cried all the time, things were never the same.
MOR : The Battle of Haifa…
ST : Haifa was a mixed city with a population of 135,000, split between Palestinian Jews (70,000) and Palestinian Arabs (65,000) and in 1948 tensions arose. This bloodshed occurred during the ‘Battle of Haifa’, known by the Jewish forces as Operation Bi’ur Hametz.
The objective of the operation was the capture of the Arab neighborhoods of Haifa and to annex this beautiful sea-facing city, which was strategically vital for the new Jewish state-in-the-making.
MOR : When did your family make the decision to leave?
ST : It was becoming distressing. There were bombing raids and I remember being frightened, hiding under my bed and praying that the bombs wouldn’t land on our building. We were concerned, and my mother was alone.
One day my Uncle came to the house and told my mother that we needed to leave. He planned the exit for us, hiring a car to take us all out of Palestine to safety and renting a house for the whole family in Tyre, Lebanon. We didn’t have much time to organise ourselves, but I remember my mother packing clothes, some jewelry and specifically her sewing machine. She hoped we would return once things settled, but like many Palestinians, we never did. Despite the hardship , the Taweel family helped house and feed many under privileged people only to have lost everything to Israel with no compensation for their property as it was forcibly taken.
MOR : What were you feeling when this was happening?
ST : I didn’t fully understand, I didn’t realize I would never return to my home, my school, nor ever see my friends again. We settled in Tyre for a short time before moving to Damour in the North.
MOR : How did your mother survive as widow and mother of 7 children?
ST : My mother struggled financially; she put us in a boarding school, which was predominately for Palestinian refugee children in Rayfoun. I was about 10 years old at the time and I hated it. My mother began to work as a dressmaker for the United Nations, making overalls, and my brothers also began working at very young ages. Unfortunately, only one of my siblings received a proper education.
MOR : Did you ever feel discriminated against while in Lebanon?
ST : I was never discriminated against, but I remember hearing unpleasant stories from other family member and friends. We were lucky that we never lived in a camp and we adjusted well to Lebanese society.
MOR : What brought you to Australia?
ST : I got married at age 16 to Charlie Shouki. I didn’t want to get married, it was arranged and he was 15 years older than me, but financially it was best for my mother. She wanted me to have a better life and also take the financial pressures off my brothers who were supporting the family.
Charlie had travelled by a boat to Australia way before we married in 1950, arriving in Fermantle on a boat full of immigrants. It wasn’t any easy journey, the boat he took was not even sea worthy and was later decommissioned. Once he established himself, he used to send money home to help family members who were displaced, and he later sponsored a large majority of them to move to Australia.
I moved with Charlie to Melbourne, Australia in 1958 and had three wonderful children; Henry, Edward and Anies, whom were all raised in Australia and I now have three beautiful grandchildren.
Sadly, Charlie past away from a stroke in 1998. I live in Perth now with my children and I am very grateful for everything in my life today.
MOR : How do you preserve Palestinian heritage with your children in Australia?
ST : Language is an important way to preserve identity, and my husband would always speak to our children in Arabic. They picked up a little but struggle to converse. My department was food. I believe food is also a vital medium through which heritage is preserved. It also brings people together. Because I moved to Australia so young, I taught myself how to cook all the traditional dishes for my family.
MOR : What are your signature dishes?
MOR : Have your children ever visited the Middle East?
ST : In 1969 we took the children to Lebanon for the first time, but we never went to Palestine. They loved it but my children relate more to Australia and that’s understandable. My daughter married a Kiwi, my son married an Italian whilst my youngest married a Lebanese.
I am proud to be Australian, I have spent the majority of my life here but my bittersweet memories of my homeland, Palestine, will never leave me.
MOR : Have you ever returned to Haifa?
ST : I went for the first time in 2013 through Jordan and took a taxi. I didn’t have a problem entering as an Australian. When I went to Haifa, I saw my childhood home. I was disappointed to see that it wasn’t well maintained.
I saw the school I went to which had been renovated into a hostel now. I felt very disconnected.
MOR : Do you ever see peace and justice for the Palestinians and Israelis?
ST : When the Israelis give the Palestinians rights, there will be peace. We have to accept each other in order for there to be peace. We are all humans. We deserve to be treated as such.
MOR : What are your regrets?
ST : I wish I was able to finish my education but financially it wasn’t possible. When I got married I was hoping I could have a better life when I moved to Australia and in a way, I ran away from my family. I was young and didn’t realize the consequences. I sacrificed my happiness for my family and helped my family move to Australia for a better life.
A Lifetime of Struggle
Despite the uniqueness of Samira’s story, her experience is unfortunately one that countless Palestinian Arabs have undergone for decades. It is through bittersweet stories like hers that we see how cruelly involuntary mass dispersions of indigenous populations take shape and foster generations of trauma. Undeterred by her lifetime of hardship, Samira still manages to evoke hope, through her belief in the power of mutual acceptance in order to achieve peace.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya knew that Palestine was her symbolic homeland. Always curious about her identity and connecting with her roots, she was eager to strengthen her ties to the Levant and traveled the region, desperate to learn more. It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine that she became spiritually and emotionally connected.
She studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She then moved to the UAE, supporting numerous NGOs related to children’s welfare in the region. When she had her own family, she created the My Olive Roots platform in the hopes that her children and the Arabs diaspora would have a place to connect, learn and preserve their roots. Tanya enjoys discovering humanist stories and exploring the connection of food and art with culture.