|Our Palestinian/Jordanian guide on the right who carried a key to|
his home in Israel around his neck
The Greek word, diaspora, means a scattering and is used to describe the movement of a population from its original homeland. Today, the word implies an added layer of meaning of a people being expelled or forced out involuntarily from their native country with a hope or desire to return someday. Truthfully, I had always associated the word with the Jewish people but in my travels and research, I have encountered it in other countries including Cuba, Ethiopia and with the Palestinians.
Hundreds of years ago, the Jewish tribes experienced just such a dispersion beginning with the Assyrian exile from the Kingdom of Israel in 733 BCE. The Romans had no tolerance for their insurrection and expelled them in 70 AD and again in 135 AD. By 500 AD, there were Jewish settlements as far north as Cologne, Germany and across to Babylon (modern day Iraq). Only after World War II did this expansion of settlements contract with the establishment of Israel in 1949. Today, all members of the Jewish Diaspora (spelled with a capital D) have the right to return to Israel and be a citizen. Millions have claimed this right. Their history is so important to Israel that the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv is known as the Diaspora Museum and details this story.
As the Jewish community returned to Israel, Palestinians suffered their own diaspora during and after the 1948 War of Independence for Israel. 800,000 Palestinians left in fear of the fighting but with the hope of returning. Jordan took in the greatest number and today has over 3 million Palestinians living in its border. Our driver in Jordan was Palestinian. Around his neck, he carried the key to his family home in Israel. When his family fled to escape the fighting, they were not allowed to return. He became very animated when we touched on the subject of the partition of Israel, wondering why some land couldn’t be set aside for the Palestinian people. Some Palestinians still live in refugee camps in Lebanon and millions more are scattered throughout the world including a quarter million in the United States and 500,000 in Chile.
The word for diaspora in Spanish is spelled the same as English with only an accent added over the first letter a. I didn’t expect to encounter it when we traveled to Cuba but I heard it several times. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, over a million Cubans left, most with the thought this government wouldn’t last long. The great majority fled to South Florida and remain today, making up one-third of the population of Miami. The night before we left for Cuba, we ate dinner in “Little Havana” in Miami, getting a taste of the great food we were to have on the island.
From our various taxi drivers in Cuba, to the five doormen at our hotel, our guides, and communicants of the small Episcopal Church in Santa Cruz del Norte, we heard story after story of family members who lived in Miami – those who had escaped in time. One man described the departure of all of his siblings but he remained to care for their elderly mother. Another was forced into the military and couldn’t leave although his brother did. With the opening of Cuba to its diasporan members, it will be interesting to see if that initial desire to return remains.
In 1974, Haile Selassie was forced out of power by the military. As the new government consolidated control, many Ethiopians were forced to leave. Two of those were Tewabech and Mac MeKonnen who lived in Paris for 20 years. When we recently had dinner with them, they used the word “diaspora” to describe all the Ethiopians who left at that time. There are 50,000 Ethiopians living in Dallas alone. And, when I learned my taxi driver in Atlanta, Georgia was from Ethiopia, I told her I was going there soon. She and her husband had also escaped Ethiopia and made a home in Atlanta but wanted to return. Her husband was making plans to start a business there and they hoped to emigrate back soon.
Anytime a government changes violently, the ensuing chaos assures an exodus of citizens fearing for their lives. The story of the Syrian diaspora is, sadly, about to begin. With widespread transportation, the scattering will extend around the world as more countries take in the dispossessed. If other modern day diasporas are examples, it may be a while before they return.