Palestine Solidarity. Art By: Gwyn Whalen.
Palestine Solidarity. Art By: Gwyn Whalen.

A Legacy of Palestinian Solidarity in Chicago

Hatem Abudayyeh’s family has organized Palestinian solidarity in Chicago for generations

In May, thousands of protesters marched in downtown Chicago, joining cities around the world in decrying the latest Israeli attacks against Palestinians. The attacks began when Israeli security forces stormed Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque on May 7 and fired on worshippers with tear gas and rubber bullets in response to demonstrations against the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. Hamas, the militant political party that controls a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council and is the administrative government of Gaza, demanded the Israeli security leave the mosque by May 10. 

When the deadline passed, Hamas militants fired rockets into Israeli territory, and Israel began bombing Gaza. Between May 10 and 21, Israeli airstrikes and artillery killed 256 Palestinians in Gaza, including sixty-six children. Rockets fired by Hamas killed thirteen people in Israel, including two children. Hamas first called for a ceasefire on May 13; after international protest, Israel agreed to one on May 21. 

The evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, and the violence they precipitated, are only the latest expulsions of Palestinians from their ancestral homes to make way for settlements—evictions that began decades ago during the creation of Israel, according to Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) and national chair of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) in Chicago. And May’s protests in Chicago are the latest in a long tradition of organizing for Palestinian solidarity here.

Abudayyeh said the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah are a continuation of the Nakba, or “the catastrophe, which is what we call the founding of the state of Israel.” During the 1947-49 war that established the state of Israel, more than 750,000 Palestinians—about eighty percent—fled or were forced from their ancestral homes by Israeli forces, who also killed 13,000, according to figures from American Muslims for Palestine. “That’s what has led to us becoming a refugee population,” Abudayyeh said. “It is what led to the colonization of Palestine, and, ultimately, what led to the occupation of the rest of it. It’s not a brand-new conflict.”

Since then, Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem, as well as refugees in Chicago, have organized resistances to their displacement. In 1987, the First Intifada began as a series of protests against Israel’s then-twenty-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. During the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005, Palestinians rose up in response to the Israeli occupation and policies that violated international law and deprived Palestinians of their basic human rights. In 2014, the Israel Defense Forces invaded Gaza, sparking protests in Chicago and around the world, and in 2018 and 2019, solidarity marches were held in support of the Gaza Border Protests. 

Chicago and the Southwest suburbs have an extensive immigrant and refugee Palestinian community that has been active in organizing in solidarity with Palestine for decades. According to Dr. Louise Cainkar, Professor of Sociology & Social Welfare and Justice at Marquette University and author of a number of books on Arabs in the U.S., Palestinians have been living in Chicago for the last hundred years. The Chicago metropolitan area has the largest concentration of Palestinians in the United States, according to Cainkar. 

The Census does not include information on how many residents come from the Middle East and North Africa, because the federal government labels them as white. Cainkar’s research shows that about 200,000 Palestinians Americans and their descendants live in the Chicago metropolitan area today. 

Early Palestinian immigration, according to Cainkar, consisted mainly of young men living on the South Loop. “You’re hypervisible when it comes to surveillance and hate crimes and discrimination and bullying, but you’re totally invisible when it comes to getting any kind of statistical information,” says Cainkar. “That’s a problem.” 

Abudayyeh’s father, Khairy, immigrated to Chicago at the age of twenty in 1960 from Al Jib—a village near Jerusalem in the West Bank. He became a student organizer at Roosevelt University, having been an activist back home. “He had lived the Nakba,” Abudayyeh said. 

Khairy was eight years old during the Nakba. For many Palestinians who emigrated at that time, “it was very difficult economically to live in a situation in which you see the colonization happening next to you,” he said.

In the 1980s, Palestinian families moved to Chicago’s Southwest suburbs such as Burbank, Oak Lawn, Hickory Hills, Bridgeview, Alsip, and Palos Hills. Palestinians contributed to the formation of the Mosque Foundation, a large mosque that opened in 1981 in Bridgeview, according to Cainkar.

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Abudayyeh’s father was in Chicago during the 1967 Six-Day War. Approximately two years later, Khairy went back to Palestine, married Abudayyeh’s mother, Khairyeh, and they both returned to Chicago to raise a family. Khairy co-founded the Arab Community Center in 1975. The Center, which first opened in the Northwest Side and later moved to 63rd and Kedzie, focused on foreign policy and education about Palestine and the Arab homeland in North Africa and the Middle East, and is the city’s “hub for the Arab progressives and the Arab left,” Abudayyeh said. The American Community Center became a springboard for what is now the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), which combines political organizing and helping Arab immigrants and refugees in Chicago access social services.

While raising her five children and holding a part-time job, Abudayyeh’s mother also became an activist. She joined the Arab Community Center and served for some time as the president of the local chapter of the Palestinian Women’s Association, a national organization. “My siblings and I learned about Palestine, about struggle, about the fight for national liberation by osmosis,” Abudayyeh said. 

When Abudayyeh was a child, his parents’ Northwest Side living room was often filled with friends and colleagues who would discuss the many issues close to Palestinian self-determination over the years: from the Lebanon War in 1982 and the Intifada of 1987 to the U.S. War in Iraq in 1991, the Oslo Accords in 1993, and more. 

“They spoke in an ideological language that I did not learn until much later in life, and they were so impressive,” Abudayyeh said. “I saw my mother and her colleagues as the organizers I wanted to emulate, those who dedicated their entire lives to their communities, those who brought the issue of Palestine to the forefront of U.S. discourse from the mid-seventies to the early nineties.” By the time Abudayyeh was a teenager, he already had a political education.

After attending University of California, Los Angeles, Abudayyeh returned to his community in Chicago and began working as a youth program director at the Arab American Center started by his father. Three years later, he was appointed executive director before his father passed away. 

Abudayyeh is also the national chair of the United States Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), formed in 2006. “USPCN is kind of like the legacy of the Arab Community Center. It’s [run by] the children of the leaders.” With its largest membership in Chicago, USPCN was born to revilitize grassroots organizing in the Palestinian Community and work on campaigns and projects around Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS), defense against repression, political prisoners, and more. “Our strategy for organizing is really consciousness-raising,” said Abudayyeh.

And because of this consciousness-raising, according to Abudayyeh, he and many Palestinian activists and supporters have come under attack by federal law enforcement. In 2010, the FBI raided Abudayyeh’s North Side home and thirteen others under the pretense that they were supporting Palestinians back home. At the time, he was at Advocate Lutheran Hospital in Des Plaines visiting his sick mother. His five-year-old daughter and then-wife were home. The FBI agents took possession of his laptop, paper records and anything with the word “Palestine.”  

As the agents ransacked his house, Abudayyeh’s daughter Maisa Assata—who was just five years old at the time—asked in Arabic, “‘Why are they looking at our Arabic language books? They don’t seem like they would read Arabic,’” he said. “It was the cutest thing.”  

Abudayyeh said the raids and subpoenas were harassment, and an attempt by the federal government to repress activists’ rights to free speech and assembly, something often done to other immigrants and Black people in the U.S. The feds eventually subpoenaed a total of twenty-three Palestinian activists, including Abudayyeh, and ultimately did not arrest, charge, or indict anyone after the raids. “They didn’t realize that all twenty-three of us would be so unified and would have such massive support, and they came to the realization that they wouldn’t be able to force any of us to testify.”

Abudayyeh said the twenty-three activists immediately spoke out against the raids. “There’s nothing that we’re doing that is illegal. Support for national liberation movements is our right. Solidarity is not a crime.” Abudayyeh said the FBI dropped the case since there is an eight-year statute of limitations. “They’ve become experts at criminalizing us, whether it’s Black communities, immigrant communities, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities,” he said. “And they do it for political purposes. You criminalize Mexicans and Central Americans, so that you make it so that you can make the political argument as to why you want to militarize and shut down borders; you criminalize Palestinians so that you make the political argument as to why you have to support the settler-colonial, apartheid, racist state of Israel.”

In 2013, agents from the Department of Homeland Security arrested Rasmea Odeh, a leader in the Chicago Palestinian and Arab communities and an alleged member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Odeh spent the 1970s in an Israeli prison based on a confession she says she was raped and tortured into falsely giving to Israeli security forces. In a federal court in Chicago in 2013, she was indicted for Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization based on the government’s claim that she did not disclose the imprisonment on an immigration form twenty years prior. Rasmea, supporters, and her lawyers say that the immigration charge is a justification to attack her for her support of the Palestine liberation movement. After many years in legal proceedings, Odeh was stripped of her US citizenship in a federal court and was deported to Jordan in 2017.

Recently, the USPCN, the organization chaired by Abudayyeh, started a national campaign to free Ata Khattab, who was arrested by the Israeli military from in the occupied West Bank in February. Abudayyeh says Khattab has not been charged and has been in jail ever since. Khattab is a member of a dance troupe performing traditional Palestinian dances. “Because of his cultural work, and being a leader in the cultural work, being an educator around these same things we do here…he was arrested,” said Abudayyeh.

That Palestinians, Black Lives Matter, and immigrants in Chicago demonstrated together last month is not a coincidence, and there is hope, he said. “That was a part of my upbringing. So the idea that I’m anti-racist today or that I’m unequivocally in support of the Movement for Black Lives and in last year’s uprising for George Floyd, that’s not a surprise to anyone who would have known my parents, colleagues, comrades, and friends.” 

Abudayyeh says that under international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Palestinian refugees have the right to return to the homes from which they were exiled, but Israel has not allowed them back. “To me, the liberation of Palestine is from the river to the sea,” he says, referring to the combined areas of the West Bank Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the territory now controlled by Israel. He said thinks relationships with other oppressed groups such as those fighting for immigrants’ and workers’ rights, the Black Liberation Movement, and women are essential and all share the same enemy: The U.S. government, which supports Israel politically, militarily, economically and diplomatically. “Last year’s George Floyd uprisings and this year’s Palestinian resistance and worldwide support is proof” that such intersectional relationships can and will happen, he said.

Abudayyeh’s mother passed away some time ago, and he said he has been thinking of her. “My daughter, Maisa Assata, called me excitedly to say that a butterfly landed on her arm,” he said. “‘I looked up,’ Maisa Assata told me, and she realized today is May 31, exactly ten years since her Sitto [grandmother] passed away. ‘Sitto loved butterflies, and she must have sent this one,’ she said. 

“Ya Ummi [Oh, mother], you were always right,” Abudayyeh said. “Palestine will win.” 

Correction 6/9/21: An earlier version of the story was updated with the correct organization that Abudayyeh chairs. The Weekly regrets this error. 

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Alma Campos is the Weekly’s immigration editor. She last wrote about  COVID-19 vaccination access in Latinx communities.

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