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December, 2018
Volume 44, Number 4
28 August 2012
Aaron Nelsen

Father Francisco Salvador, a descendant of Palestine immigrants, performs a wedding between a Catholic bride and an Orthodox groom at St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Santiago, Chile. (photo: Tomas Munita)

Upon leaving their homes and families, there was a common sentiment among Palestinian immigrants that they would one day return. Considering the tumultuous circumstances at home that never seemed to abate, it’s understandable that few ever did.

Interestingly, Chile was not as foreign as they might have imagined. To be sure, there were pronounced differences in language, food and religion. However, there were more than a few similarities.

The equatorial climate was ideal for growing many of the same fruits and vegetables common to the Middle East. Although the most famous story to make its way back to Palestine during the late 1800s was the myth of three men named Jorge who made a fortune as merchants, many other Palestinian immigrants in Chile settled in as farmers.

Before Palestinians crossed the Andes Mountains into Chile, 800 years of Arab influence in Spain had already made its way to Chile with the arrival of Andalucían immigrants. Literally dozens of Arab words were tweaked to fit the Spanish language, such as ojalá, which translates as “God willing.” Even the traditional Chilean folk dance, called the Cueca, is of Andalucían-Arab origin.

When it came to the church, however, that is where similarities to home ended. Chile’s constitution officially recognized only the Roman Catholic Church and until a new constitution was written in 1925 separating church and state, any religion other than Roman Catholic had to practice its faith behind closed doors, or at least out of plain sight.

In the capitol of Santiago, Patronato was the commercial hub and neighborhood of the country’s largest Palestinian community. Naturally, Patronato was pegged as the site for the first Orthodox cathedral.

Saint George’s Cathedral was inaugurated in 1917, six years before the 1925 constitution was passed into law, and so the church had to be concealed. To solve this problem the cathedral was built off the street, tucked in by buildings on both sides, a condition in which Chile’s longest-standing and most famous Orthodox Church can still be found today.

Tags: Orthodox Farming/Agriculture Palestinians Church Arabs

16 August 2012
Aaron Nelsen

Father Francisco Salvador displays his grandfather’s wooden box of Palestinian soil.
(photo: Tomas Munita)

Based in Chile, journalist Aaron Nelsen writes for the New York Times and Time magazine. While preparing his article for the July 2012 issue of ONE, he documented some thoughts on efforts to instill a sense of heritage among young Palestinian-Chileans through an Arab school.

In 1978, a group of Palestinian immigrants took a collective step back to look at Chilean society and their place in it. They had built a soccer stadium where they could cheer their soccer club, Club Deportivo Palestino, on to victory. They had established a social club (Club Palestino), Orthodox Churches and more, but they had overlooked arguably the most important piece of cultural infrastructure: an Arab school.

“Where do we preserve our traditions, where do ensure that our children don’t lose their roots?” asks Jorge Alamo, rector of the Arab School in Santiago.

The student body is small — around 250 — but around 85 percent are of Palestinian origin, and the remainder includes Syrians and Libyans and even some Chileans with no Arab heritage. The school offers classes from preschool through high school, but what sets the Arab School apart is its language and culture program.

In addition to Arabic language instruction, all students are required to take a class in Arabic culture that is equal parts history, philosophy, geography, art, and religion from Palestine to Egypt, Libya and Syria.

“Our students and our community are different within Chile because they maintain a very strong link to Palestine,” Alamo explains. “For example, most students take a trip through the Middle East after they graduate. They’ve studied the history, they know where they come from, and the trip completes their education.”

The experience is sure to make an impression on these teens, as they witness the conditions under which they themselves might have lived.

“I think we all have this moment where it clicks and we tell ourselves ‘my origins are Palestinian; I’m Chilean. What can I do to help free my people — when it comes down to it, probably my cousins?’ ”

At home, in Chile, transitions are sometimes painful. Many of the school’s first enrollees were the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers who achieved white-collar status. In Chile’s dynamic economy international business is discussed in English. When parents began pushing for English language instruction, however, there was backlash from traditionalists who argued for the founding principles of the school, namely the preservation of Palestinian traditions.

“It was not an easy process,” Alamo says. “But the fact of the matter is the Chilean community of Arab and Palestinian origin, in particular, was demanding this service. It is a process of adapting as the community and its interests change over time.”

To read more about Palestinian-Chileans, read Yo Soy Palestino.

Tags: Education Orthodox Church Palestinians Arabs