On World Refugee Day, Let’s Not Forget the Palestinians’ Right of Return

Before jumping on the Metro back home at the end of a hot day, I stopped by a small cleaning supplies shop in downtown Cairo to pick up a few mundane items. After collecting a few items for me off the shelves, the shop owner, noticing my foreign appearance and unusual-sounding Arabic, enquired curiously as to where I’m from. Responding that I was from Great Britain, he proudly announced that he was Palestinian. Explaining that his family was originally from Jerusalem, he lent over and retrieved from a draw with all his valuables a set of heavy iron keys. Placing these enormous keys in my hand, he described how these century-old keys are for his family home in the centre of Jerusalem, a home he and his family have been unable to return to for well over half a century. The shop keeper, Salahaldin, is but one of many Palestinians spread across the globe who are unable to return to Palestine.

Palestinian shop owner holding the keys to his family home in Jerusalem. Photograph by Thomas Pinn.

He responded positively and eagerly to my wish to photograph his set of keys, but with a sense of sad contemplation noted that I was the only person to have ever asked to take a picture of them. This quickly made sense as he contemplated on how while Britain’s treacherous actions helped lead to the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their hometowns in 1948, now almost all countries across the globe have given up on the Palestinian people and their right to a homeland, and their cause is at risk of being forgotten.

House keys of the shop owner’s family home in Jerusalem not used since the family were forced out of Palestine. Photograph by Thomas Pinn.

Dwelling on how his homeland is so near and yet seems so far due to discriminatory Israeli border controls that prevents him as a Palestinian from entering, he stated on how prior to 1948 one could simply take a train from Egypt to his hometown of Jerusalem with just a ticket and passport in hand. However, despite Israel’s continued breaking of international law by denying Palestinian refugees the right of return, this set of keys he proudly clenched in his hands and stores in his draw of valued possessions, like for many other Palestinians, represents to him his inalienable right to his homeland and his unshakable belief that his family will return once again.

Palestinian shop owner attending to his cleaning supplies shop in downtown Cairo. Photograph by Thomas Pinn.

A total of 5.6 million Palestinians are officially recognised by the United Nations as refugees, of which some 1.5 million Palestinian refugees live in 58 UN-run refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and for those internally displaced in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, such dauntingly high figures do not even account for refugees unaccounted for by the United Nations or the Palestinian diaspora numbering 13.6 million, who too are denied the right of return to their homeland.

Salahaldin’s story is but one of many, so on June 20 for World Refugee Day, let’s not forget about the Palestinians.

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