AFP – In just over a century, Chile’s Palestinian community has achieved things still not possible at home: a widespread rise to prosperity, elite status and even their own football team.
The summit between South America and Arab nations that starts Monday in Lima will honor the swift, surprising development of the community a long way from its homeland, on South America’s Pacific coast.
Early on, mostly humble Palestinians in Chile were nicknamed “Turks” because of their Ottoman empire passports in the early 20th century. Now, very prosperous Palestinian immigrants and their descendants number 350,000 people, and enjoy influence in all parts of Chilean society.
“There are Palestinians all over the place here,” businessman Nassim Alamo told AFP. A second generation Palestinian-Chilean, he runs a clothing business with his brother Chafik in the capital’s Patronato district.
Once upon a time the neighborhood was the heart of the local Palestinian community. Now, their businesses largely have been bought up by Koreans and Chinese.
Small businesses indeed were the cornerstone of many Palestinians’ success stories here. “They started out selling just anything. They would go out in the fields, where there were no businesses nearby. Since they did not know the language, they would just hold things up to show what they had to sell,” said Nassim.
“It must have been a really hard life. They would walk hundreds of kilometers, all on foot,” said the businessman who at 70 still does his books like his ancestors — with pencil and paper.
The first Arabs came to Chile in the mid-19th century. But the biggest influx started in the early 1900s as many fled domination by the Turks. Most were from the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur, and were Christian — both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
What’s not so clear at all is why they chose Chile in the first place.
The most widely accepted theory is that after the arrival in Chile of the first few immigrants — mostly farmers and artisans — word simply started getting out at home.
Palestinian “people arriving in Chile seems to have been basically by chance. You have waves of immigration of people who come because another family member has come. That’s quite common in patriarchal societies with very close families,” Eugenio Chahuan, who heads the Arab Studies Center at the University of Chile, told AFP.
While most were involved in small businesses in the early years, today Palestinian-Chileans are everywhere — including everywhere powerful.
Two of the country’s wealthiest families are the Yarur and Said clans.
And 10% of the Chilean senate is of Palestinian descent.
The country’s top prosecutor, Sabas Chahuan, and the head of the National Football Association, Sergio Jadue, are of Palestinian descent, as is the mayor of the capital, Santiago: Pablo Zalaquett.
“They are immigrants who had a greater cultural educational level, not formal education, but with a lot of historical tradition. They get here and in a very short time they become a social, cultural and economic elite,” said Chahuan.
Having shared ties as immigrants and often as businesspeople also has helped Palestinian-Chileans develop a cordial relationship with Jews.
“The conflict is not with Jews but with the forming of the state of Israel. And they share the experience of being new immigrants. Theor jobs, mostly in trade, also connects them economically,” said Chahuan.
But arguably the most striking sign of the local Palestinian-Chilean community’s influence is its first football team. Called Club Deportivo Palestino S.A, it says it is the only professional team flying the Palestinian territories’ green, white, black and red flag.
“We are the only team in FIFA competitions that flies the Palestinian flag,” said Jorge Correa, the general manager of the squad which went pro way back in 1952.
“At first the team was for people with links to the Arab world, but competition forced some exceptions until we got to the point where it is no longer necessary for players to have a blood relationship with Palestine in order to play,” he explained.
In fact, the team has only one player today who is of Palestinian descent, Roberto Bishara. But it still is seen by many Palestinians as the team that represents them on the international front.