The power of listening to each other’s stories

Why we set up solidarity circles to talk about the shared struggle of Palestinians and Indigenous peoples

Written by
Bayan Alabda
Published on
Mar 11, 2024

As a Palestinian living in Canada, I initially felt helpless watching from afar when the genocide in Gaza started. I felt there was nothing I could do, and I felt isolated.

The turning point came during a November work trip with SeeChange, the organization I work for,  to Nunavut.  The Inuit community members we met understood the Palestinian struggle on a deep level and showed great solidarity. I will never forget how we were holding hands in the remote hamlet of Qikiqtarjuaq, surrounded by snow and ice, while Louasie, an Inuk pastor, said a prayer in Inuktitut for the people in Gaza. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I felt the power and hope of his words.

Community members in Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut

After I returned to Montreal, I talked about Palestine to students at McGill University, where SeeChange executive director Rachel Kiddell-Monroe teaches a class on decolonizing humanitarian aid. I was moved by how engaged the students were, and how many questions they had. They thanked me for telling my community’s story and told me they needed more of these opportunities. It was a revelation for me, as my community had tried to get people to listen to us for years.

We saw that there was a need for people to have a space to come together, learn from one another, and tell stories. In February, we launched a series of three ‘PaliSphere’ solidarity circles in Montreal, where we talked about the history of Palestine, and shared Palestinian culture – including, music, poems, and books. We shared home-cooked Palestinian food and discussed the shared struggle of Palestinians and First Nations people in Canada and how we can decolonize our minds and create solutions together. The events happened in collaboration with Olive Branch, a Canadian think tank dedicated to research and advocacy on Palestine.

Every evening started with the burning of Bukhoor incense that we use to welcome guests and clear the air. The gatherings were a safe space, where the participants – coming from a wide range of age groups and backgrounds – could ask any question, without judgment. One participant wanted to know what ‘Palestine’ actually is. It was a reminder that we cannot take anything for granted and how important these kinds of dialogues are.

People can read books and watch media reports – but it’s not the same as listening to people’s stories, to their lived experiences in person. At demonstrations, people shout, but at the PaliSphere events, people came to listen, learn, and connect. They were able to see us Palestinians as humans with a history and rich culture – not as aliens being killed in a faraway land. As Palestinians, we often feel dehumanized, especially in media reports.

The gatherings were also healing for the Palestinians who had come. One participant, who had lived in Jerusalem as a child, told us that he always wondered what Palestinians had done wrong to deserve the harsh treatment they received and are still receiving.

Kamel Alagha is presenting a Palestinian dish called Maqlouba, which translates to “flipped upside down".

We discovered many similarities between Palestinians and First Nations people in Canada, about our shared experience of colonialism, and our love for the land.  Katsi'tsakwas Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk visual artist and documentarian, talked about how she is often seen as ‘this annoying loud woman’. This reminded me of a poem by Rafeef Ziadah about ‘Arab women of colour who come in all shades of anger’. Similar to First Nations people, some see Palestinians as people who are always protesting, without knowing about the background of our struggles.

We learned about the power of being united, of working together – Palestinians, Indigenous people, and everyone else supporting us in our struggles.

Participants shared how meaningful the solidarity circles were for them.

“I was brought to new levels of understanding about the interconnectedness of struggles around the world concerning colonization: The parallels and shared experience of the First Nations struggle here in Canada, alongside the Palestinian struggle in Gaza, echoing the injustice of historical colonization up until today. What touched me deeply was the shared love for the land, the common struggle to protect it,” one participant wrote after the event.

Everyone agreed that we need more of these safe spaces where people can meet, learn from one another, ask questions without being censored or judged, discuss solutions, and show solidarity.

On the day of the last PaliSphere event, I felt very low: the news about Gaza had been devastating. I went home full of hope, my heart filled with the solidarity I experienced, and the many ideas for activism people shared.

We concluded the final PaliSphere circle with a powerful poem by Rafeef Ziadah, serving as a reminder to continue "teaching life" amidst the injustices we face.

We teach life, sir

We Palestinians teach life after they have occupied the last sky.

We teach life after they have built their settlements and apartheid walls, after the last skies.

We teach life, sir.

But today, my body was a TV’d massacre made to fit into sound-bites and word limits.

Is anyone out there?

Will anyone listen?

I wish I could wail over their bodies.

I wish I could just run barefoot in every refugee camp and hold every child, cover their ears so they wouldn’t have to hear the sound of bombing for the rest of their life the way I do.

Today, my body was a TV’d massacre

And let me just tell you, there’s nothing your UN resolutions have ever done about this.

And no sound-bite, no sound-bite I come up with, no matter how good my English gets, no sound-bite, no sound-bite, no sound-bite, no sound-bite will bring them back to life.

No sound-bite will fix this.

We teach life, sir.

We teach life, sir.

We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, sir."

By Rafeef Ziadah

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